When Christmas Is Grief and Glory

I felt her crawling into my bed that morning before my eyes were open. Blankets rustling as she shimmied her way 2 inches from my face, she didn’t even have time for a hello or good morning. “Mama what day is it?” she whispered at me, willing me to open my eyes. Good question. I had to think for a second on account of not being awake, before I replied that today is Wednesday. “How many days before Christmas?” she asked. Awake-enough now, I told her that we’ve got 4 more days til Christmas. She jumped off the bed and ran out of the room yelling that she had to go tell the boys how many days before Christmas. I rolled back over, smiling. Rosalie will be 5 in the New Year. She is at the most magical age for Christmas time. The wait is just about too much for her to bear.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”
-Luke 1:13-14

I imagine Zacharias and Elizabeth when they were younger. Filled with a kind of hope and joy unique to newlyweds, anticipating a life together and growing their family. When did days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years, and years and years and years? How long did they hope and pray and plead with the Lord for a child, a family? What did people say? Why was she barren? What sin had they committed for the Lord to deny them? How long did Zacharias petition the Lord on behalf of his wife? How broken was his heart as he watched her keep track of the days, a wait every month just about too much to bear?

“What day is it,” he might ask her, gently, holding her hand in his.
“Never mind love. Maybe next time,” she might respond, quietly.
And he would petition the Lord again.

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Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
-Proverbs 13:12

In the waiting, they did what people do and continued to live their lives. He a priest, and she his wife. Luke’s Gospel says that “they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” (1:6) Why was she barren? They would never know. As they grew old together and her time of being able to conceive and carry a child had gone, perhaps they made peace with their heartsickness over this tremendous loss of something they would never have. Hope deferred, then eventually abandoned. At some point, their prayers and petitions to the Lord had ceased.

“And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
-The angel Gabriel to Mary, in Luke 1:36-37

She who was called barren. Elizabeth, a woman known for perceived emptiness; grief compounding grief. When glory replaced her grief, nobody knew for six months that forgotten longings had been fulfilled in her. She hid herself away, almost a prophetic foreshadowing of the kind of life her son would come to live later in the wilderness. Who can really blame her for choosing seclusion. A seclusion interrupted by Mary, given the news by the same angel who had come to announce Christ in her, too. Young virgin and old woman, each filled with new life. It is no wonder Mary stayed with Elizabeth until John was born. Women? We know we need each other to see life into this world. These women knew it too, because giving birth to a miracle is still giving birth, with the pain and joy and grief and glory all interwoven together.

Zacharias though, from the moment the angel told him what was to come, couldn’t believe it. How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years. (Luke 1:18) He had stopped pleading with the Lord a long time ago. And now this angel announces that the Lord has heard his petition? Now? But how? If prayers were letters handwritten to Heaven, this one had gone lost in delivery over and over again. The Lord had heard it too late. Hope had been deferred too long for Zacharias to believe in the impossible.

I have to confess that sometimes it feels like hope has been deferred too long for me too. There are prayers that have ceased for me over time. For you too I am willing to bet. Petitions for things whose time has come and gone, and so we all learn to make peace with the heartsickness over that which will never be. We think we know better. We’ve grown up, wised up, given up. We aren’t four or five years old anymore, counting down the days until Christmas with our mamas.

But maybe we should be. Maybe our letters handwritten to Heaven in heaving sobs or quiet desperation, are the ones He’s holding closest to His own heart. Awaiting the right time to breathe life into them, even long after we’re sure it’s too late. Maybe with God it’s only 4 days to Christmas and the waiting which feels too heavy and impossible for us, is wrapped up in a gift hidden away until the right time. A gift which may look nothing like what we prayed for in the beginning, but with a fullness, purpose, and beauty of its own.

There is no making light of grief here. There were lost years for Zacharias and Elizabeth before that baby rocked their world, and given their age it can only be assumed that they also lost years with their son that they would have had if he’d only come sooner. But oh the man he became, this son of humble parents who were righteous and obeyed God. His life ordained to call the attention of the Jewish people to the coming of Jesus.

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Isaiah 40:3

What if the things which are hardest to believe for, take the most time, and hurt profoundly in the waiting are the very same things which arrive all out of place but just in time to call our attention to the coming of Jesus in our lives too? The grief, barrenness, unanswered prayers, waiting, seclusion, and even the desert. Yes, especially the desert. Unlikely places as a barn in Bethlehem for the Savior of the world, God with us, to arrive. Yet there He is.

Are we finding ourselves in a wilderness this Christmas? This year? Prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus is coming. We are reminded at Christmas that God became flesh, born to suffer and die, and that He has promised to return. That God has heard our petitions, too late and just in time, and even as all creation groans for a Savior, the weary world is set to rejoice. And we fall on our knees. Angels sing. His Kingdom is coming.

Yes, Christmas is more than counting down to presents.

It is the anticipation of the fullness of joy in His presence. It is the something inside of us that leaps like a prophet in his mother’s womb when we know that Jesus is but a heartbeat away. Christmas may or may not be merry. God never promised anyone a merry Christmas but in this world we do have troubles don’t we? There is so much grief in the here and now that the world can hardly contain its own suffering. We become acutely aware of everything wrong when the season is supposed to be filled with everything right – but that might be point. There is right and there is wrong, and it will all be set right one day. Christmas reminds us that we are called to carry on and keep the faith until it is, heartsick and out of prayers to pray and all.

In Christmas is grief and glory, bringing life where none should even be able to grow, miracles manifested in the absolutely impossible. We live in this tension of now and not yet, all because God is both with us and coming back. And with the earnest faith of a little girl who believes in good things coming soon and counting down every day, may we make every single day count. Even when hope deferred is about too much to bear. Because good things are coming. Jesus is coming. Prepare the way. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 Jenna Pelias // all rights reserved

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