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Service of the Longest Night 2023

The Lord Is Near

Longest Night Message

When I was a small child in the mid 90s, I discovered the truth about Santa Clause. I didn’t come to this truth because my parents decided to sit me down and have a hard conversation with me about Santa. I didn’t come to this truth because I overheard some older kids discussing what they had discovered about Santa. I learned the truth at church; not because anyone said it plainly but because I spent a lot of time in my thoughts, processing things that I saw and heard. I was in the first or second grade one Christmas season when someone at church announced that they would be gathering toys for the Toys for Tots organization. I came to learn that the mission of this organization is to collect and distribute toys to children at Christmas. I couldn’t understand, for the life of me, why Santa couldn’t bring all children, everywhere, toys for Christmas. So, I confronted my parents about my confusion. I asked, “Why are we having a toy drive at church? Why isn’t Santa bringing toys to everyone?” My parents seemed surprised that I was asking those questions, and they did not attempt to answer them in that moment. Their silence spoke volumes to me about the reality of Santa and a hard truth…. That Christmas is not the same for everyone. 

While this season is marked generally by sentiments of joy and celebration, this is also a time of profound grief and lack for many. In the midst of all the festive cheer, the Christmas parties, the gift giving, the cherished time away with loved ones, we must recognize the shadows that stretch across the lives of those who find Christmas a season of despair, longing, and isolation.

Not all hearts are adorned with decorations and wrapped in the warmth of familial love. While the world outside may be adorned with dazzling lights, with people sipping egg nog, decorating ginger bread houses, and listening to their favorite carols, there are those among us who navigate this season with heavy hearts, doing none of those things, either because they don’t have the means to or because those practices during the holiday season are not meaningful, and possibly triggering. We must understand that grief and lack do not take a holiday; they persist even in the midst of the most joyous time of the year and because this is supposed to be a season of joy, it is possible that many people who have been struggling all year feel even worse than they did before because joy has been a stranger for a very long time. And no matter what they do, they can’t seem to find their joy. 

For some, Christmas magnifies the absence of loved ones who are no longer present to share in the festivities. Empty chairs at the dinner table become poignant symbols of loss, and the echoes of laughter from years past reverberate in the silence of the present. Financial hardships cast a long shadow over this season for many individuals and families. There are people who are struggling to come to terms with their inability to provide even the most basic necessities for their loved ones while they are surrounded by colleagues and acquaintances who are having conversations about their Christmas shopping and what they bought for their families. The pressure to conform to societal expectations of gift-giving and lavish celebrations can worsen the sense of lack, deepening the wounds of those already burdened by life's challenges. Especially this year, in light of crippling inflation. 

Earlier I mentioned the reality that the season of Christmas isn’t as bright for all children. For those of us who did experience the joy, anticipation, and enchantment of Christmas as children, we may find ourselves navigating a Christmas that may not align with the memories of our youth. The changing relationship dynamics of family, the passing of loved ones, and the ebb and flow of life's challenges can cast a shadow over the once-unblemished joy of the season. A friend told me once that Christmas is difficult for her because it’s a reminder that she’s no longer close to her siblings since they’ve gotten married and had children of their own. 

If you are one who finds yourself struggling at this time of year, I encourage you to embark on a journey of authenticity, giving yourself permission to cast aside the societal expectation that demands unbridled joy during this season. We know that one of the gifts the Christ child brings is joy-and this joy is available to all of us. But if you find yourself in a season where you are not able to experience this joy, that is okay. Liberate yourself from feeling obligated to put on a face because that’s not what God needs or expects from you. God needs you to be your most authentic self and lift to God the things that burden you or cause you grief. The word tells us to cast our upon God because God cares deeply about the things that concern us. 

May we remember the profound truth that the Lord is near to those who grieve, especially during the tender season of Christmas.

We must recognize that our God is a God of compassion, intimately acquainted with the depths of our emotions. Christmas, for many, is a time when grief takes center stage, but in that grief, the promise of God's closeness shines so brightly. 

If you look to the Christmas story, you will find that the story itself is a testament to the closeness of our Lord in times of despair. In the humble stable of Bethlehem, God chose to draw near to us in the most vulnerable form – a tiny, fragile baby. This act of divine proximity speaks directly to the heart of our grief, assuring us that God understands the depths of our pain and disappointments because God entered into our human experience as one of us. 

The psalmist, in the verses of Psalm 34, declares, "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." Our God does not shy away from the reality of our grief; instead, God draws even closer to us, inviting us to be authentic in our expressions of sorrow. 

This season, we often speak and sing about Emmanuel-which means God with us. Jesus, our Emmanuel, is not distant from us untouched by the trials of humanity. He is a compassionate Savior who experienced the full spectrum of human emotions. Jesus feels our pain because he felt it too. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus himself grappled with the weight of sorrow, crying out to His Father in distress. In this, we find a profound example of how we, too, can approach God with our true emotions, knowing that He understands and empathizes with our pain. The God of comfort calls each of us to be honest and stand in our truth, This is the first step toward healing.

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