She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. . . . and they will call him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.” – Matthew 1:21, 23 (NIV)
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given . . . And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:6 (NIV)
It wasn’t a good Christmas for Henry. His oldest son had been badly wounded in the war. And it was another Christmas without his beloved wife Fanny, who died three and a half years earlier as a result of burns suffered in a fire that Henry himself tried to extinguish. The scars from the burns he received while trying to save her made shaving too painful, so he grew a beard—a constant reminder of his tragic loss.
Henry was all too familiar with grief. His first wife died at the age of 22, days after a miscarriage while they were traveling abroad. He’d buried a year-old daughter and a 20-year-old sister. His grief that Christmas after his son was wounded drove him to pen the following words: “And in despair I bowed my head, ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’”
The year was 1864. The war was the Civil War. The poet was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Times haven’t changed much, have they? The country is still at war. Our young men and women are still being wounded. And people still carry burdens of unbearable grief, especially at Christmastime. A season that should be joyful is, for many folks, a reminder of what they have lost.
I didn’t set out to write a column that would depress you, especially on Christmas Eve. But I know many of you are coping with grief. Perhaps this is the first year without your husband or wife or son or daughter or mother or father. Perhaps you lost your job this year. Or you’ve received a diagnosis that has left you staggering. Perhaps in your pain you’re wondering where God is. Peace is absent from your life.
Oh, how we’d love to capture the wonder and joy and magic of that first Christmas and carry it around with us all the time! But the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds went back to work, the wise men returned to their country, the blazing star disappeared, and a jealous, insane king ordered the slaughter of all male children two and under.
In 1872 Longfellow’s poem was set to music. Today we know it as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The last stanza reads: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.’”
What a message of hope! Even in our deepest pain and grief and despair, the last candle burns: Immanuel. God is with us. Yesterday, today, and always.
As I light the center candle on my Advent wreath—the white candle—I am reminded that it symbolizes Jesus, your Son, who came to give us hope, love, joy, and peace. Thank you, God, for the best Christmas present of all. Amen.
Read and reflect on: Luke 2:1–20.
From God, Me, & a Cup of Tea for the Seasons © 2018 Michele Huey. All rights reserved. Used with permission.