In the cold of winter, Christmas draws us to gather together in the warmth of family and friends. There’s a surplus of goodwill and cheer, enough it seems to make every bowl brim over.
But the absence of a single loved one can leave the season feeling empty and cold despite all the comfort and efforts of those surrounding us.
My husband’s maternal grandfather passed away this week. He lived a good life, a long life, and had a good death by almost any measure. “I’m not sad for him,” my husband told me this morning. “But I’m sad for the world that doesn’t have this good man in it.”
I could have said that there are other good men in the world, or reminded my husband that he can honor his grandfather by emulating his virtues. I’ve seen people respond to similar sentiments in that manner. But I think that would miss the point—not merely of my husband’s grief, but of Christmas itself.
The Church calls this “The Feast of the Incarnation.” God became flesh. We celebrate Christ’s birth because he became, not just “man,” but a man, one with particular parents, born in a particular time, in a particular place, known and recognized by particular people.
The Gospels themselves pull us towards this mystery of particularity by placing Jesus’s birth in the context of the family and world he was born into—the Christ came into this lineage, in this land, under this rule.
C.S. Lewis wrote:
After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.
This “scandal of particularity” has a particular significance for the Christian personalist. Could personalism have come to be without the development of the idea of “persons” caused by the early Church’s attempts to understand the Incarnation?
Christ became man, and man was raised with Him. The person of Christ assumed human nature as this particular man who was born, lived, and died in this particular way—and subsequently each and every human life assumes a remarkable significance.
If God chooses to work through the choices and and consent of individual persons, forming covenants and building bonds with individuals in the scriptures right down to the fiat of Mary that opened the door to Christ, then no person can be considered irrelevant or replaceable. It truly is something to grieve that the world no longer has the opportunity to know my grandfather-in-law, or my own Oma and Opa, or my sister-in-law’s mother, or a friend’s miscarried children.
Each person who passes, even those who are never named, leave an empty space in the world that belongs to them only, that cannot be simply filled by the next child. Do not doubt it is so, in this season when we celebrate the God who became a man like us so that we could know Him, however imperfectly, person to person.
I don’t think there are easy words of comfort for the grieving at Christmas. “Rachel is weeping for her children, and there is no consoling her.” At most, there is perhaps this: that loss coexists with gain, wheat and tares grow together.
When the magi came to the child Jesus, after their long journey to find him, they brought gifts—gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity…and myrrh for his death. There is Good Friday in Epiphany, and Easter in Christmas. Grief doesn’t contradict the “Christmas spirit.” The child born in Bethlehem was carried into Egypt to escape a massacre; he lived and knew loss and suffered and died.
He is God-With-Us, whether we weep or rejoice.
Come, Lord Jesus!
I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them;he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:1-5)