I love Christmas. I love the lights. I love the carols. I love the fact that billions of people the world over…have to say the name of Jesus in the kindest of terms. I love the feeling of chill and still and calm…that covers the whole earth. Even if for just a moment. Yep, I’m one of those. I. Love. Christmas.
Well, at least I used to.
Christmas snuck up on me last year. Not the holiday itself per se. I had no problem buying presents, baking cookies, and making advent calendar magic for my kids. But the meaning of Christmas…the real meaning of Christmas…crept up on my heart last year and hit me like a ton of bricks.
Actually, it knocked me completely unconscious.
The most defining and painful moment of my existence happened on January 28th, 2013…which meant I had eleven whole months to live in the shock and sorrow of baby Charlie’s death…before I finally got to my first Christmas without him. And after eleven straight months of doing everything possible to try to survive life with a gaping, bleeding wound for a heart…eleven longs months of avoiding being around babies, and especially baby boys, because it hurt so very much…
I was totally unprepared for the birth of the holy Son.
Jesus Christ…the real Jesus, who is alive and well right now at this very moment, that Jesus…is in heaven. Seated at the right hand of the Father. Waiting for His glorious Kingdom to come in full. And in the deepest throes of grief…I needed that Jesus. I needed to know that He was still seated on the throne. Still sovereign and powerful and kind. All. At. Once.
Still sovereign…over every single jot and tittle of the story He was writing through our lives. A story I did not like. And because I did not like it…I needed to know that these things were still true about the One who wrote it. Still strong enough…to fight against the roaring lion ever seeking to devour us. Still gentle enough…to weep beside me as my tears hit grave, after grave, after grave.
Three baby graves. That’s pretty much all I remember of 2013.
And He was there. With me. In me. Beside me. And reigning powerfully over my life, as I wept beside each one. That Jesus…well, I could handle that Jesus. Because I desperately needed that Jesus.
But the Christ of Christmas…the one we remember and celebrate every single December until Kingdom come…well that Jesus…left me laying on the ground, completely undone. Because that Jesus, was and always will be…remembered as a cooing baby boy, tucked cozy beside his mama.
And I was a mama… missing a son.
I would find myself Christmas shopping at Target…trying desperately to make it past the suffocating smell of the baby diaper aisle (which I once loved). Trying to avoid the endless stream of bored pregnant ladies and frazzled mothers of newborns for whom Target basically exists (and of whom I myself once was.) Trying to not think about all of the beautiful things I had bought for little Charlie and his first Christmas…that would never, ever be touched by his perfect little hands. Trying basically to entirely avoid Target, while actually still shopping there.
When really what I should have been avoiding, if I had wanted to truly protect my heart…was Christmas. Because for all I was doing to try to avoid every incapacitating reminder that my baby boy was dead…I was totally forgetting that Christmas is entirely about one thing and one thing alone…
Christmas…is about a baby boy who isn’t.
I’d be in Target, doing my Christmas thing, and all of a sudden…BAM!…some jazzy version of “Away in the Manger” would come on. And I would be undone.
I’d be looking at Christmas ornaments and suddenly there he was…a pudgy baby boy, laying in a manger with his bright eyes alive and open. And my baby boy’s…were not. And I would be undone.
I’d glance at Christmas cards and see a very pregnant Mary toiling along that winding road to Bethlehem…and I’d remember last Christmas when I too was great with child…waiting for him to come home to live with us. But our baby boy would never, ever come. And I would be undone.
And as wildly irrational as this may sound…I actually found myself getting really jealous of Mary. Jealous that she was spared the agonizing pain of giving birth to a child who had already died. Jealous she actually got to see His eyes. Jealous of their first Christmas together. Jealous of all thirty-three of them. When you are given only eight short months…thirty-three years together feels like an incredibly long and wonderful gift.
Basically, I was more envious of sweet Mary Mother of God…than any of my friends whose babies had lived the year that our baby didn’t. And why? Well, because Mary’s baby…could not be avoided. Or ignored. I could not close my eyes, and hope that he would grow up real quick.
Jesus was ALWAYS going to be a baby boy. Every. Single. December.
That…was last Christmas. I would see the little stocking we had bought for Charlie…and weep. I would cry as I watched my kids standing in front of our Christmas tree, reenacting the Christmas story…reminded of how if he had lived Charlie would have been their “baby Jesus.” And most of all…I would hear Christmas carols filled with all of the hope and promise that Christmas brings…and I would wonder if those songs were truly for all of us…or if they were only really for people whose lives were merry and bright.
Because ours…most certainly was not.
How in the world are you supposed to “do” Christmas…when all is not calm, and nothing is bright? Is Christmas only for people whose lives still look like a warm and cozy Pottery Barn catalogue? Are you truly invited to Christmas…when your heart is broken, your faith is shattered, and you don’t feel like you qualify for the “All-Ye-Faithful-Joyful-and-Triumphant” club? That…was last Christmas.
As for this Christmas…well, we don’t even own Charlie’s little Christmas stocking anymore. In fact, none of us have a Christmas stocking now. This year…we put our dirty Ugg boots under the tree and called it good.
This Christmas…our kids reenacted the Christmas story in front of our bare Christmas tree, which is outside on our porch, because Mommy is too sick to have it indoors. The other day I caught Emma sitting in front of our “tree” staring at it sadly. I said, “Ems, what’s wrong?” She sighed deeply and then said to me, “I wish we had a big tree. With real ornaments. Indoors.”
Yeah. Me too kid.
Last Christmas, as we celebrated our first Christmas without baby Charlie…I couldn’t breathe. The pain was excruciating. I also couldn’t imagine it could possibly get any worse than what we were in. How could it get worse than the pain of being here…without him. Of him being There…without us. I couldn’t imagine it getting worse than not only being without him…but having two more whole losses after him. How can life get worse than loss?
And it is worse. Our life hurts even more than 365 days ago.
Because he still isn’t here. The little person who looks exactly like the other three I love so very much…isn’t with them. 365 days have gone by since we spent our first Christmas after so much loss. And our life is no easier. We still have all of the pain of three precious lost lives. And new sorrows on top of that.
Our stuff is gone. All of it. This sparse Christmas season has certainly been a brutal reminder of that.
My health is gone. I’ve been to more doctors appointments and blood draws than I can even comprehend, and I am still so sick. If you got points for trying…I would be the healthiest person I know. But I’m not.
And now…our community is gone. Just when I thought we could not possibly have anything more to lose…we did. A few weeks ago we found out that our kid’s school- a place which had been a loving community and the one constant for them in our life of suffering and endless loss…is no longer safe for them. After finding toxic mold there in October, we had no choice but to pull them out of the only place they had left from our “old life.”
This loss has struck my heart with a pain I did not think possible. I have hurt more about our kids losing their school than I had ever thought I would or could after even greater losses. But I’m hurting because it all feels like too much. I see them in pain, missing their school and their teachers and their friends, and I feel hopeless and clueless as to how to help them navigate this journey of sorrow upon sorrow. Honestly, when I see their tears, the absolute last thing in all the world that I want to do…is bust out into “Joy to the World.”
I don’t want to prepare Him room.
Where in the world would I put Him…in such a deeply shattered heart?
But tonight, as I sat on a couch that we did not own a Christmas ago, in a body that certainly worked better a year ago, and watched my kids reenact the Christmas story in front of our bare “outdoor tree”…I was struck cold by what Christmas is really, truly about.
I looked at my precious kids, more broken and beaten down than I ever would have fathomed…and I saw in them the weariness of the real Mary and Joseph of long ago.
I’ll bet they were tired too.
Tired of the long journey of getting to where they had to go. Tired of crowds of people who filled the road…who really had absolutely no idea what they were going through. The frazzled innkeeper. The rude centurion at the gate. The greedy tax-collector.
Tired of loss. Tired of being full of fear. Tired of being on the run.
Tired…of all the things I too am tired of.
I truly believe that the God who could have provided the Taj Mahal of delivery rooms, but who instead chose a dumpy, moldy stable for them…has chosen each step of this journey for us. But I am weary of our life on this long road. I am tired of being alone in things that people absolutely cannot understand. Tired of trying to live with a complex environmental illness. Tired of the aching pain of losing my children. Tired of trying to shop for new school supplies in December…because our kids can suddenly no longer go to the school they loved. I am tired of our life, and of how lonely and misunderstood it inevitably is.
And I am tired of being on the run. Of running from things that could hurt us, or have hurt us. Tired of running from the very air we breathe…when you really NEED to breathe air. I am tired of the fear of our lives. Fear of more loss. Fear of more exposure to mold. Fear of having to leave more people and more places that we knew and loved. Fear of what all of this loss is going to do to the broken, wore down, already eighty-year-old soul’s of our kids. Fear of the cancer scans I will have to get every six months for the rest of my life on this long road to Bethlehem.
Fear that we are never, ever going to get there.
And I am sure….beyond a shadow of a doubt…that those young and scared teenagers carrying the hope of the world…felt all of this too.
Mary and Joe.
That little family…wildly misunderstood by their friends and family, who probably included a few skeptics regarding the whole “angels visiting in the night, immaculate conception, soon to be the-Savior-of-the-world’s-parental unit” bit. I know that some people try really hard to understand our complicated situation. And I am so grateful for them. To you, the choir I’m now preaching to…thank you. But there will always be people in our life who can’t. Or won’t. And I am quite certain after our journey, that it was probably a very lonely and painful one for those weary travelers to Bethlehem.
That little family….who had to leave behind most of their worldly possessions. Who were actually given gifts of gold and precious spices from total strangers…which most likely paid for their life on the run and their long and expensive journey to Egypt. I remember what it felt like this February to get precious gifts from total strangers. To be in great need because of our life on the run…and to see God provide when we too desperately needed gifts for our flight from one dangerous place to a new, safer one.
That little family…who had to flee a scary and complicated enemy…an evil King of this world whose power lurked everywhere, and who hunted them down with every intention to steal and kill and destroy them. We know all about that. We have one of those in our lives too. And I don’t mean the mold.
That little family…who too, had so much to fear. Who were warned that the most powerful man in their world was about to search for and destroy their child. Who were promised by people they trusted…that a sword would pierce their very souls. Try putting that on a Christmas card.
All of this and more flashed through my mind as I watched our kids pretend to be that special little family tonight. And though I still can’t breathe when I see little Sophie sitting in the “manger” where Charlie would have been…I now see more when I look at them.
More than just the loss of our baby boy whom God chose to grow up in Heaven.
I see the HOPE that was given to this whole broken, bleeding world…in the gain of a baby boy whom God chose to grow up on earth.
I see the weariness in Mary and Joseph’s eyes…every time I look in the mirror at my own. And I am comforted by their exhaustion. And their fear. And their loss. By their whole messy, weary, extremely un-Pottery Barn lives.
Comforted that Christmas…was for them.
They understood that the road to Bethlehem…the road to having and knowing and bearing Jesus…was filled with a whole lot of loneliness. And weariness. And fear. And loss.
And when I see Mary and Joseph for who they really were…I can see myself and my story for what it really is. At it’s core.
A Christmas story
A very long and painful, lonely and most-days impossible...journey to meet Jesus. To know Him. To bear Him. Until I finally see Him. In all His glory. And we can finally put behind us all this excruciatingly painful baby in the manger business.
Until then, I am thankful that He came into this big fat mess, and survived that cold, moldy manger, and the loss of all of his parent’s stuff and friends and hope and direction…so that he could rescue us back from all of this.
I don’t know where you are at today. Maybe your life does look an awful lot like a Pottery Barn catalogue. If it does, well, just enjoy it. It will not last. You, and every single person you know and love, stand to lose absolutely everything…including one another. I’m not trying to be a Debbie-downer. But I’ve read the whole Book. And it is unavoidable…we are all putting up Christmas lights on a sinking ship.
But what I have learned as thousands of total strangers have written us letters postmarked, “The Road to Bethlehem”…is that many of those same people are writing us from their own winding road to that far away place where Love came down.
Most of life, for most of us…is full of what we seem to be permanently stuck in…Loss. Fear. Loneliness. Death.
And lots and lots of being on the run. Running from our sin. Running from our selves. Running from others. Running from the damaging pain that our sin and other’s sin does to our self and others.
Where we find Him.
Just like they once did.
Weary shepherds. Exhausted wise men. And his simple, clueless parents.
And when I think of that Jesus…the One they found on that holy night, the One we need desperately for each long and weary day…it brings new meaning to the one Christmas song that just gets richer and sweeter the worse this journey gets…
Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining. Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Dear Weary World…
Rejoice! Christmas is for you too.
I write to you from the depths of our weariness, as we continue to deal with loss upon loss…and pray that you too will find comfort in this one unfailing promise of Christmas…
He has appeared.
As a squalling baby.
To die as a broken man.
So He can reign as a sovereign King.
Who could have skipped all of it.
Precious Souls, May you feel your worth.
And skip the whole merry, little Christmas. And have yourselves a big, holy one.