Christmas in a Heartfelt, Invisible Way
By K. Brewster Hastings
Grief is a strange state of being as one approaches Christmas.
This is my first major holiday since my mother died in June. My father died in 1996 so I am now without parents. A friend tells me, “Now, you’re an orphan in the world.” Also, a few weeks ago, my oldest brother Clark died alone at age 65, in a remote town of the Dominican Republic.
Now, I am assured my father, my mother, my brother died in the peace and mercy of the Lord. So, I have no “salvation anxiety.” Their departure is total gain! Today, this is a matter of the heart. Death is the final seriousness. It sheds a twilight over one’s place in the world. This is not altogether a bad thing. Twilight carries a certain, passing beauty. Birds sing the last songs of the hour. The city begins to settle down and sparkle. Home is appreciated as refuge. We eat and rest. Twilight also signifies a truth about mortality we avoid. We are, indeed, passing through this world and at the end of the day, and life, only love endures…yes, only love endures. (This is one reason why acts of terrorism are so confounding, devoid of meaning, damnable. Explosive fear and hatred are unsubstantial in present and future realm of love.)
With twilight our vision diminishes yet it can also encourage another kind of seeing. Perhaps it is like savoring the after taste of a swallow of wine or the last chew of a chocolate chip cookie; we appreciate the gift especially as it disappears. In twilight, we look more carefully to find the shape of meaning, not with an investigative scrutiny but with a curious receptivity to discern what will last the night.
Two words that likely come with this kind of seeing in a season of grief are regret and hope. It is good to hold these two words together as the Psalms frequently do. “This is my comfort in my trouble; your promise gives me life (Ps 119:50).” Regret and hope do not cancel each other out; they are like the two different keys of a piano, the white (natural notes) and black (sharps, flats). You decide which signifies which.
I can reflect on the complexity of the life and love I shared with my mother. I can consider the tenuous communication due to age and distance between Clark and me. For sure, each contains a very different texture and intensity of regret and hope. My aim is not to get too personal. I just want to say what is sober: recognition of the impossible, unrealistic task of separating regret and hope. Regret being the experience related to disappointment, remorse, and sorrow. Hope being the attitude of trusting God to sift our lives such he subsumes by mercy all that is bound for eternity.
How does this concern Christmas? Have you ever noticed in artistic representations of Mary and Joseph with the Christ Child? You never see them with wide, toothy smiles? I am not saying they were not happy, joyful or relieved parents in profound ways. This is part of the birth of every son or daughter. Hallelujah! What I am noting is the pervasive sense Mary and Joseph know Jesus is the Savior, long-awaited and finally arrived. And, one recognizes the Savior if one knows to the core, yes indeed, the entire world, everyone needs the Savior. The havoc of sin tasted in our regrets pleads for the extravagant means longed for by hope. Imagine the reverence, the delight, the weight, the awe of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. These are extraordinary categories.
Perhaps, our own experience of regret and hope, participates in the mystery of Christmas in a heartfelt, invisible way. Dare we consider a way as singular as a chime of a tiny bell in the midst of a grand and spectacular symphony enthralled with the glory of God.
Rev. K. Brewster Hastings is rector of Saint Anne’s Church, Abington, Pa. He is a distinguished writer and speaker. His writings and blog are found at www.stannesabington.org.