Sadly the loss of loved ones happens every single day. But it is especially difficult to cope with this at a time like Christmas. For those involved, every Christmas following the tragic event will be tarnished by so many painful and unbearable memories.
We think for example about the five children who lost their lives in Tasmania just recently when a jumping castle ripped loose in a gust of wind. Imagine the grief of the loved ones left behind today as the celebration of Christmas is attempted.
And this hit home to me just a few hours ago. As we were walking the dogs this morning we were told by a neighbour a few houses down that her husband had suddenly passed away a few weeks ago. She had some close relatives fly in from Canada to be with her for a while, but they were returning home later today.
And one friend of mine has a daughter with two young children who is in hospital and is in a bad way. I have not heard the latest on that situation as yet, but he continues to be in my prayers. Cases like this are to be found all over the place. Every Christmas we always find such sad stories in the media. And it will be the same next year as well.
This is not a piece to once again discuss the problem of evil and suffering. I and so many others have discussed this matter over and over again. And a whole book in the Bible from thousands of years ago deals with this topic: the book of Job.
But the Christian knows that death is not the end, and those who have found new life in Christ do indeed go to a much better place, as all Christians who are still alive today eventually will. That is why the Christmas story is so important, and why it is most certainly worth celebrating. In order to conquer death and bring about resurrection power, God sent his only Son to live and die on our behalf, so that we might be reconciled to him.
His resurrection from the dead is the guarantee of our resurrection. That is great news indeed, and why all Christians must keep sharing this good news with others. Dying with Christ or dying without Christ makes all the difference in the world – and in the next one.
Let me share from a new article I just came upon that deals with this called “Christmas with an Empty Chair: When the Holiday Just Isn’t the Same” by Greg Morse. He speaks movingly about the passing of his own grandfather, and then he says that we must avoid two temptations:
The first temptation is to the variety of grief that kidnaps us from life today. This bottomless ache comes when we begin to stare and stare at the empty chair. The grief overwhelms all gladness; the past swallows the present. The good that arrives is not the good that once was, so all current cause for happiness becomes spoiled or forgotten.
This is to step beyond the healthy grief and remembrance of our losses. It poisons the heart by entertaining the question the wise man bids us not to: “Say not,” he warns, “‘Why were the former days better than these?” For, he continues, “it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). This grief poisons the what is with the what used to be. It hinders the ability to go on.
Grief threatens to lock us in dark cellars of the past, keeping us from enjoying the child playing on the floor or the new faces around the table.
Second is the temptation to bow to the over-the-shoulder guilt bearing down on us. Lewis captures this in A Grief Observed: “There’s no denying that in some sense I ‘feel better,’ and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness.”
This temptation sees the empty chair frowning at us. “Why aren’t you sadder? How can Christmas still be merry? Didn’t you love him?” The memory, not remaining in its proper place, looms over our shoulder, patrolling our happiness in the present. This shame is a sickness that tempts us to hate wellness.
So, the empty chair can threaten to overwhelm all joy in this Christmas or shame us for feeling any joy this Christmas — both must be resisted.
I know that if I could speak to him now, he wishes me there. The empty chair heaven longs to see filled is not around our Christmas dinner, but the empty chairs still surrounding Christ. Our places are set already. Better life, real life, true life, lasting life lies in that world. That empty chair of our loved ones departed is not merely a reminder of loss, but a pointer to coming gain.
This place of shadows and darkness, sin and Satan, grief and death, is no place yet for that Happy Reunion. The dull Christmas stab reminds me that life is not what it should be, but it can also remind me life is not what it will soon be for all who believe.
Jesus will come in a Second Advent. He will make all things new. Christmases with empty chairs are numbered; these too shall soon pass. And the greatest chair that shall be occupied, the one that shall restore all things, and bring real joy to the world, is Jesus Christ, the baby once born in Bethlehem, now King that rules the universe. He shall sit and eat with us at his eternal supper of the Lamb.
And until then, while we travel through Christmases present and future, I pray for myself and for you,
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!
A personal note
Those who read my piece on Christmas that I posted yesterday will know that I am home alone today. I mentioned that this is happening to many folks this Christmas for two main reasons: stupid and harmful political decisions wherein borders are slammed shut on the spur of the moment, leaving people stranded and families split apart.
But also some families are split up because some members are jabbed and some are not, and those not yet jabbed have been told they cannot join in with the others. I am aware of so many families in this situation. As I say, I am included in this lot.
But as I said, I am coping quite alright. Hey, I am a bit of a misanthrope and a loner anyway, so I can cope. And there is a bright side to all this, as one social media meme informs us: “If anyone you know is alone with no one to spend Christmas with, please let me know. I need to borrow some chairs”!!
And on a more serious note, this article would not have been written had I joined with all the others today. So God has his purposes, and he gives grace. And it just might be that this article is what some people need right now. So I am grateful for my situation this Christmas day.
My wife is actually the one who has been torn the most: she wants to be with me for Christmas as well as with her sister. So being the champion that she is, she made a way for both of us to enjoy Christmas. She did a terrific Christmas dinner last night for some of our family.
And this morning, after we walked the dogs, she went off with the others to do another Christmas meal with her sis. But I am not alone of course: as I told my wife, I have three hot females with me: Daisy, Jillie and Possum – our two dogs and our cat! So I have some good company here. And tomorrow when I will still be home alone a good friend will come around for dinner with his wife and daughter. And better yet, he says he will bring the food!
So please enjoy your Christmas wherever you are. For those who can be with their entire family, please shoot up a prayer for those who cannot be. And especially pray for anyone who has lost a loved one recently. They certainly need our prayers – and lots of hugs.
Bill Muehlenberg, an American-born and Australian-based commentator, is the author of a number of books and thousands of articles. You can follow him on his website CultureWatch, on YouTube and on Twitter.