The hope of Christmas when joy seems distant

By · Dec 5, 2016 · Filed under Blog

Perhaps you have someone near you whose Christmas is bittersweet, or perhaps just seems bitter. Maybe it’s a neighbor who has experienced loss, has an empty nest, a sick child or who has to work especially hard. I encourage you to acknowledge the pain, offer a simple prayer and point him or her towards the hope of Christmas in the middle of their storm. In Christ, we always have hope, even when the usual joy surrounding Christmas seems distant. I learned this lesson of seeing deeper hope quite powerfully back in Christmas of 1979.

In a strange sort of way, it is one of the most special Christmas memories for me, though it is a bittersweet one. The story leading up to Christmas 1979 starts in December 1978. In December of ‘78 I was in my dorm room studying for finals. A close friend came rushing in and told me I’d better call home right away.

So quickly your world can change.

One minute a typical college student…the next headed home for my sister’s funeral. Darcy was an 18 year-old senior in high school whose life was tragically cut short in an automobile accident with a drunk driver.

December 16, 1978 will remain a day of contrasts for our family. In the morning my father had danced with her at a wedding she had been a bridesmaid in; that night he was being asked by the police to identify her body. In the morning my mother had helped my sister get ready for the wedding, wondering how time had passed so quickly; that evening wondering why the world seemed to stand so still at the same time wondering how she would make it the next moment. In the morning I couldn’t wait to get home for the holidays and had only given fleeting thought to finals being over and heading home for Christmas; that night I was afraid to go home, wishing the plane to speed up and slow down at the same time.

As you might imagine Christmas of ‘78 was a blur for our family. The arrangements, the funeral, friends, flowers, cards, and Christmas. Some moments of those days are crystal clear while others seem like a distant dream. Since then Christmas has had a bittersweetness to it. It is still hard for me to hear Silent Night (sung at her funeral) without a lump in my throat. I often wonder what she would have been like and how her life would have turned out. It is strange being an only child now.

Many Christmases have come and gone since 1978. In that time Romans 8:28 has proved true for my family. Out of great disappointment has come opportunity for good. My parents still carry the disappointment of tragedy and broken dreams. There isn’t a day they don’t wonder why, or how it could be different. Yet they have moved forward. My mother does grief counseling and speaks to a variety of groups about her experiences. My father developed a greater dependence on God. For me, the experience helped a fairly immature college junior do some growing up. I never fully appreciated my parents’ loss until I had children of my own. I hope it has made me more aware of the moments of life. Certainly we wish circumstances would have been different on December 16, 1978 but they aren’t.

I had purchased a gift for my sister a few days before her death. It was a small plaque with a quote from William Arthur Ward, “Go as far as you can see and when you get there you will see farther.” Little did I know that they were words I would need. God has been faithful and healing was possible. Yes, Christmas has been a strange holiday for our family. Because of the natural holiday issues and the timing of my sister’s death, at times Christmas has been less than joy filled.

Still Christmas of 1979, the year after Darcy’s death, holds such great sweetness for me. I came down the stairs fairly early that morning, dreading the day. I knew how disappointing that Christmas morning would be for my parents. It has been my sister that loved Christmas so much. My Dad was sitting in the kitchen. We didn’t say much to each other; there wasn’t much to say. After a while he asked me if I wanted to go with him to the cemetery.

It was storming out and when we arrived at the cemetery we couldn’t drive back to her gravesite. We got out to walk the quarter of a mile and it was snowing fairly hard. Neither of us spoke as we walked. I remembered following my dad plenty of times through the snow when I was younger. Darcy and I used to jump from footprint to footprint as we followed him. Now I was walking side by side with him. My dad’s footprints weren’t quite that big that day.

When we got to the grave, Dad dropped to his knees and began to sweep the snow away from an evergreen tree he had planted in the summer. That little tree was nearly covered with snow. I’d always been impressed with my dad’s big hands. That day they gently brushed the remaining snow from that little tree.

When the snow was cleared my dad reached in his pocket and removed a small stained glass ornament. It portrayed a nativity scene. Mary holding the Christchild. He placed the ornament on the tree and I heard him say, “She always loved Christmas.” Then he asked me to pray.

So on Christmas morning in the midst of a storm, kneeling at a graveside, we thanked God for Christmas. For just a moment it wasn’t cold, for just a moment it wasn’t sad, for just a moment it was Christmas. Because of Christmas there is hope, because of Christmas there can be joy, because of Christmas we can get through the storms, because of Christmas the words on the stone that marks my sister’s grave have meaning:

Grieve not for me,nor let one small tear fall.
For what you can only dream, I can see. And friend,
tis worth it all, tis worth it all.

As we were leaving the cemetery my Dad said, “At least we have hope.” Christmas morning 1979 will always be a special memory because even in the face of great disappointment, God can be trusted to keep his promises. He said he would send a Savior and he did. He promised he would go with us and he does. He has promised he will come again and he will.

May God open your eyes to the opportunity to share with a friend or neighbor, perhaps, the deep, abiding hope of Christmas this year.

Rick Rusaw

Rick is the Lead Pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church. He is co-author of several books including The Neighboring Church, and The Externally Focused Church, Life & Quest series of books.