Today I was looking for a photo from the end of last year and inadvertently stumbled on one of my uncle from then. My Uncle Jay went on hospice a few weeks ago amid a sharp decline. The difference of a year was shouted from that picture.
He wasn’t well last Christmastime. He has not been for five years. A man who had held down the same manufacturing job for more than two decades, faithfully arriving hours early lest he ever be late to the job he never missed a day of, suddenly forgot how to do it at all. Right as the mystical start of retirement eligibility appeared, the gears of his rigidly clockwork-like life flew off. At 62, he didn’t take an early retirement, but disability.
A slow, non-specific form of dementia robbed him of the ability to live independently in short order. But, he stabilized at an assisted living and had several good years. What was lost in ability was replaced with genuine enjoyment of activities and foods he’d never have dared partake in before. Caring staff at the facility delighted to encourage him in those pursuits and he was, near as any of my family could tell, happy.
But, that passed. Though he was not good last year at this time, the difference in that picture cut like a knife to my heart. He looked like Uncle Jay then, not the man unable to focus his eyes while reaching for things that weren’t there that I saw yesterday.
There is an almost impossible incongruity for any of us when we come to the holiday season in the midst of grief. Approaching Thanksgiving and Christmas with that image of my uncle — and not sugar plums — leaves it hard to even interact with the gaiety of everyone celebrating.
Incongruity with society’s celebrations, but not with God’s actions.
A couple of weeks ahead of Christmas years ago, I found myself driving out in the flatlands near the Missouri River. With all the crops harvested, the land looked desolate and dark. That is not the picture of the horn of plenty of a Thanksgiving celebration or the glitzy lights of a modern Christmas. Yet the image stuck with me over the years, because it fit why there’s a celebration at all.
Christmas is preceded by the season of Advent, which starts this Sunday. Those weeks leading up to December 25 are alternately known as “the Little Lent.” After God promised the Messiah would come and right the world, He went silent. Silent for hundreds of years. Silent for times when conquerors would rise and fall, conqueror and be conquered.
And the people of God waited.
Today, we wait, too. Advent speaks to that wait. That time to wonder why God is waiting to act. And a time to examine ourselves and draw closer to Him as we wait.
Christmas declares that God’s favor is here with us, yet neither two millennia ago nor now does that mean every dark field is flooded with light and cultivated immediately with new plants. Sometimes there are the slow, slouching steps of a loved one on hospice, where death’s sting appears as potent as ever.
The point of Christmas is this: that which rends our hearts will be made right, not that everything is right in this moment. The Christmas story itself is filled with enough heartache and tragedy to disabuse us of any notion that saccharine smiles are the order of the season.
When weeping feels more in season than glee, that speaks to the anchor point of the incarnation. Jesus didn’t come because we could throw great parties; He came because things were profoundly broken beyond our ability to fix. The fields are desolate and cold. We give thanks to God, not because everything is easy, but because He sustains us through the times that aren’t.
All of this doesn’t magically make Thanksgiving Day come alive for me this year as it did many years in the past. It’s still Thanksgiving in the dark. But it reminds me of what we have to be thankful for.
As a friend who is battling cancer observed earlier this week in a conversation, the best thing to be thankful for is that Jesus gets us through what is too much to bear on our own.