Blue Christmas

[Sunday Advent 3 December 13, 2020, Church of St. Mark & St. Peter]

Wellit’s the season of Christmas songs. Every year there’s a discussion of when it is officially permissible to start playing Christmas songs on the radio. For many, it can’t come soon enough. For others, the sound of Mariah Carey’s, “All I want for Christmas,” signals stress and anxiety.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas. And it seems particularly poignant this year as we are without one another. Normally the run up to Christmas (Advent) is about anticipating. Hope, peace, joy, and love. This year, we’re all carrying a tremendous amount of grief.

We grieve for those impacted by Covid-19, for the significant needs in our world right now, and for our own struggle with isolation and stress. But did you know there is another Blue Christmas? In some Christian traditions there is actually a service called Blue Christmas. It marks “The longest night,” the winter solstice, which is December 21 this year. 

This service offers comfort to the hurting. It honours people that have lost love ones, and all those who are experiencing grief. So today I’d like to focus our time towards naming this grief and paying attention to our own state of the soul.

Good Grief

I grew up watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special each year for Christmas. It opens with Charlie Brown admitting to Linus that Christmastime makes him feel depressed and out of place because he doesn’t seem to share the holiday spirit everyone else is experiencing.

Charlie Brown says, “I think there must be something wrong with me Linus, Christmas has come, but I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel… I just don’t understand Christmas I guess…I always end up feeling depressed.”

Linus, responds, “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem… Of all the Charlie Brown’s in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest!”

Well I’m going to be the Charlie Browniest today! Grief, surprisingly, is essential to Christmas. Grief, actually helps us see clearly. A friend once told me, “tears are the windshield wipers of the soul.” They clean off the muck and allow us to see the world. Another person said, “no one can see the world clearly, and not greive.”

Think how much grief there is in the Christmas story. An unwanted pregnancy; a ruthless king; an oppressed Jewish people; imperial occupation of their land—There is no hope without this grief.

Christmas is meaningfully set in the darkest nights of the year, because Christ comes in our deepest, darkest nights. The grief of 2020 has allowed us to see more clearly humanities’ great needs. To avoid the grief, is to miss the point of Christmas.

Good News to the grieving

Let’s consider todays readings, Isaiah 61 says, “He has sent me to bring good news…”

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
  and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

Isaiah’s grief was the exile, a nation lost, and their deportation into a foreign land. This is the very passage Jesus stood up and read in the synagogue of his home town. And the people ran him out of town in a fit of furry.

It was not because he quoted Isaiah, but because he applied this passage to all people and not just the Jewish people. Our Psalm today, Psalm 126, describes hope for the Lord’s restoration,

5[May] Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

The people’s grief is connected with hope and restoration. Our Gospel reading in John 1, tells of John the Baptist, the forerunner, announcing the Messiah. The “Voice crying out in the wilderness… Make a straight path for the Lord.”

I don’t know about you, but my path isn’t straight and ready. I’ve noticed that I’m carrying a lot of junk, and ugliness, and I’m sad, frustrated, and angry. Advent is the path to Noël, to the coming Christ. So, how can I make my path straight… how can I deal with the grief I’m carrying, that we’re all carrying? I’d like to offer us today a Spiritual exercise, that I hope will help.

A Spiritual Exercise

I will only give a few minutes for each question, but you can continue the process on your own. And, I would encourage you to choose a Christian friend you can share your responses with.

What are the given facts about you? Who are you, where are you, what is your situation. e.g. I’m a husband, father, director of a small non-profit, our family just bought a house.

What are you thinking? What thoughts are crossing your mind in this season? Where do your thoughts go when you stop, or when you go to bed?

What are you feeling? What are the prevailing emotions that you are feeling? What are the movements of your heart?

What is the condition of your body? Do you have prevailing health concerns? How are you sleeping at night? Do you exercise? Are you getting out of the house at all? 

What kind of questions would you ask God? God loves you, what would you ask God if you could ask God anything? What are the unknowns facing you? What do you feel you don’t know but need to know?

What are your bedrock desires’ or longings? Are there reoccurring themes that indicate deeper longings? Where are you experiencing satisfaction, contentment? Or an absence of these?

Reflecting on this entire process, what do you notice came to the surface? What do you recognize that you were not fully aware of before answering these questions.

Healing Grief

Naming our grief is important, and it can help us move towards healing. I have a friend Kenny, who is indigenous and also black. I’ve learned a lot about grief and healing from him.

One day I complimented a type of shawl he was wearing. It was multicouloured and beautiful. He said, thanks, and told me that he made this from material he ripped into shreds. He explained that he would rip material as a spiritual practice of lament. Later, he would reuse these torn pieces and transform them into something useful like this shawl.

We too need to permit ourselves to grieve, to lament, and when the time is right, we might ask God to take that fabric of our grief and weave something beautiful, redemptive, and healing. At the least, dealing with our grief can help us embrace the trauma of others and exercise empathy and compassion.

Ultimate Hope

A few weeks ago, one of our other preachers shared how Advent and the second coming of Christ are like the vaccine to Covid-19. We’re all “waiting” on the vaccine, but what does a vaccine do? A vaccine protects us from disease and death. Ultimately, a vaccine offers a hope of communion, of being together again with others. 

Jesus is humanity’s true vaccine, our ultimate hope. He heals us from disease and dying, offering us ultimate communion with God and with one another. But I thought of another dimension to this analogy this week… I wear my mask, not just for me, but for you. I will get vaccinated, not just for me, but for you and others. You need protected from me!

Isn’t this how redemption and reconciliation to God works? It is not just for me… you need me to be right with God also. Society depends on me, and you, to be right with God and with one another.

The English poet George Herbert poetically described it as an “Elixir of Life.” He lived in the age of alchemy and Herbert wrote that “nothing could be so mean, that it wouldn’t, with one drop of this elixir, grow bright and clean.”

If humanity all gets vaccinated with Jesus, this elixir of life, we would then see the embodiment of what Isaiah and Jesus shout together:

“Good news for the poor,
Release for the incarcerated,
Sight to the blind,
Liberation for the oppressed,
A year of God’s favour,
A day of real justice,
Comfort for all those who mourn!”

Blessed Jesus, we wait through these dark nights,
We see clearly our human need for you,
As we grieve, ready us to embody your love and compassion for others,
We will clean up and prepare the way for you
There is nothing we hope for more than you.

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