Around for many years, but increasingly popular, are services in December called “Blue Christmas,” “The Longest Night,” or “When Christmas Hurts.” Their purpose is to give people for whom Christmas is difficult, to have a moment for grief, reflection, and to receive a word of hope. I’ve been to them. They can be beautiful, pastoral and, indeed, hopeful.
But I think it is a tragedy that the church feels it should have them.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it is a tragedy because people should not have to grieve this time of year (or any time, for that matter). I think that it is a tragedy that the church is so co-opted by the uber-happiness culture of this time of year that they cannot integrate grief or lament into its regular worship. Should we really need worship that is especially tailored for people who are having mental health issues so that they feel “safe” coming to church this time of year (or again, any time of year)?
The answer is no, not if we are celebrating the liturgy that is given to us (I speak as an Episcopalian), and no, not if we are telling the biblical stories that are given us to be told this time of year.
Let’s start with the biblical story. Of course, the birth of the Savior of the world, the Prince of peace, and God-with-us is over-the-top good news. We are rightly led to sing “glory to God in the highest” along with the angels who greet the shepherds. It is right to say that the door to joy, what Jesus called “complete joy” and “abundant life,” has been opened. Heaven has leaked onto the earth. There really is not any better news available. As John says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”
Wait. Full stop. John did not say that the light has overcome the darkness so that it is no more. When we tell these stories we rip them out of context, and it is no wonder a lot of people who use to be “Christmas and Easter” Christians just aren’t showing up any more. By leaving out the darkness that exists, by only allowing light at our Christmas celebrations, we are telling a massive number of people that their experience of reality should not exist, not if their true belief in this story creates such light that their darkness should flee away.
But that is not the story, it is an aberration of the story. There is a darkness to the Christmas stories. Jesus is born in a barn. The angels proclaim an ambiguous peace, “to those whom God favors,” or something like that, but not simply peace to all on earth. Later on in the story the aged Simeon will say that this child will be the cause of the rise and fall of many, and that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart. And don’t even try to wring only joy out of Matthew’s version of events, with Herod waiting in the wings to let loose his deadly paranoia and the holy family becoming refugees while a whole generation of Bethlehem boys is slaughtered.
I don’t want Christmas to be a downer, I only want it to be real. I want it to acknowledge the darkness into which the light has come to shine, and the struggle we are all asked to join to keep it shining enough that the darkness does not overcome it. Any true news source will tell you about the aching reality for most of the world that this struggle is.
I have often thought it was something akin to a miracle that we still celebrate the Eucharist at Christmas (at least some of our traditions do). It should not be lost on us that on the night and day we celebrate when the light of light came into the world that we feel compelled to tell the rest of the story: in Paul’s words, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” There is room for lament and grief in every Eucharist because of that very fact. Paul does not say that we proclaim the Lord’s resurrection until he comes again. We may very well believe in that resurrection, but Paul knows that we live between Good Friday and Easter Day, that “alleluia” is a shout in the darkness. It is even the word spoken at our grave. There is room for grief in that exquisite moment we almost always just let slide by, when we say something like “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven…” I wish we could pause just for a moment there and let our grief (which, contrary to popular belief, we never gain closure over, nor should we) spill out and give our imaginations time to summon our beloved dead, who sing with us “Holy, holy, holy.”
I’m not asking for much, really. Just do not tell me that everything is all right, even if for one night. Everything is not all right, and some of that not-all-right-ness lives in me (and most of the people in the world). Engage me in the struggle for hope in this not-all-right world, don’t try to smother me with cheap joy.
It is quite possible that Blue Christmas services are good things for some people, and I won’t think any less of you if you have one or go to one. But please, I am really begging you, make room for me and my grief and lament and struggle with depression and all the *%$# of the world in a real Christmas.