This is a hard time of year for those who grieve.
It matters not the source of the grief: unemployment, ill health, death of a loved one, the passing of a pet, miscarriage, dementia, estrangement, divorce, addiction, our collective grief over recent mass shootings, or even grief over “good” things like adult children who grow up and move away.
No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” about it, the holidays/new year are hard for those who grieve.
So, how can we meet these who suffer in their darkness? How can we partner with God who pronounces:
The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light (Matthew 4:16).
We may find clues when we look at moments of darkness in Scripture. Interestingly, all the major moments of our faith happened in the dark:
- The Exodus
Each moment reflects a unique shape of darkness. Each time, God was present offering light and life. So, could it be that by observing God’s movement in these differently shaped experiences of darkness, we can learn how to be more present to those who dwell in darkness during the holidays/new year?
The darkness of creation: formless and void
God comes: speaking, seeing, separating, gathering, making, placing, and naming
I have seen this shape of darkness in the free-fall of a new cancer diagnosis, the “lost-ness” of the first holiday after a death, or the disorientation of holidays without children. Helping those we love might look like assistance in naming the loss, making order of the chaos of gift buying, or simply sorting what must be done from things more optional.
The darkness of the Exodus: trapped and pursued
God comes: inviting us to hope as we step into the water, making a new way as yet unseen
This is a deep darkness where options seem few and narrow and pain intense: perhaps an unemployed dad with no money for Christmas or an aging grandparent with severe physical limitations. Desperation and loss produce narrow, rigid thinking, attempts to maintain control in the midst of the loss of control. Sadly, this kind of thinking keeps us from seeing or receiving even miraculous provision. Help can look like the gift of imagination that opens doors of creative thought and new possibilities. It might also look like praying for a miracle or two!
The darkness of the Incarnation: without belonging
God comes: speaking in strange ways, through strangers to strangers, enlarging our world
Interestingly, the Christmas story is more a story of strangers than belonging: no room in the inn, unfamiliar shepherds, Magi from distant lands, and angels from on high. We live in a world full of those who walk in this kind of darkness: undocumented immigrants, foreign exchange students, the homeless, new church members, or neighbors secluded in their houses. Bringing light into their darkness may ask us to leave the comfort of our own homes, habits, or traditions as we offer a stranger the light and warmth of belonging.
The darkness of crucifixion: betrayal and abandonment
God comes: as witness and suffering servant
We are accustomed to thinking of the cross as evidence of God as our advocate. We sometimes fail to see God as the lover of our souls. The cross can be viewed as God the Father witnessing His Son’s suffering that He might be with us forever; or, as God the Son choosing to suffer with us rather than choosing to leave us. Those in the darkness of abandonment and betrayal are not easy to be with; intensely suffering people rarely are. In the midst of raw pain, they struggle to trust and so hesitate to admit their angst or receive help. Sometimes, all we can do is refuse to abandon them, sustaining relationship as a willing witness to their pain.
The darkness of resurrection: dead dreams and new life
God comes: in surprising, beyond- our- imagination ways bringing transformation rather than reformation
We often under-estimate the counter-intuitive grief of change, especially positive, healthy change. As Brian Taylor notes in Becoming Human, we want reformation (God tweaking the “me” I know and love) rather than transformation (change beyond our imagination, caterpillars to butterflies). After his resurrection, Jesus was continually re-introducing himself to his disciples, proving himself to them. In the wake of their lost dreams, they could not see the new life before them.
Being with those in this kind of darkness can mean validating their confusion and pain while helping them to see the new life before them, offering courage as they try to let go of old visions and open to new ones.
So, this holiday season/new year, may we who study and serve have eyes to see God’s creative work in darkness and may we become wise and effective purveyors of His light.
The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light.
May it be so. Amen.
who works as a spiritual director, writer, and speaker after many years in hospital chaplaincy. Janet has a MA Spiritual Nurture, Western Seminary- Seattle, 1998. www.janetdavisonline.com