How to Find Joy in the Heartache of Christmas
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I’m no longer surprised by my struggle to find joy this time of year.
My first “joyless” Christmas debuted the year my mother-in-law passed away. It felt wrong to be happy without her.
It’s been over twenty years since her passing. In that time, I’ve lost many more loved ones. Each passing seemed to grab a fistful of my precarious Christmas happiness. My desire to experience joy during a season that I wanted to be cheerful began to feel more like an arm-wrestling match.
Some days the ache for a missing loved one can leverage our ability to celebrate. Other days we “win” and feel the happiness that we’re certain God wants us to. But most days, there’s tension. Two hands clasped, joy and sorrow, in a constant state of push and pull.
As I write this, I still feel lonely for the ones that aren’t here, BUT each year God shows me a new mercy. The strange thing is, I don’t miss my people one bit less. Instead, God repeatedly shows me a blessing in the ache of their absence. This time He spoke it through a crazy thing called the Feast of Booths.
Here’s a great explanation of this Jewish tradition from R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries:
“Few of the feasts that were a part of old covenant worship were as joyful as the Feast of Booths. Also known as the Feast of Tabernacles… this celebration was the last of the fall festivals. It was held at the end of the agricultural year when the grapes and olives were harvested in Israel. This was a time to thank God for all of the preceding year’s provision and to pray for a good rainy season, which lasted from October through March.
Primarily, however, [it] was designed to remember the wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan, when God made the people live in booths… A tangible reminder of His provision in the wilderness during [The Feast of Booths] showed the Israelites they must always trust Him alone for their supply.”
I was reminded of the Feast of Booths as I was reading Nehemiah. I had been parked in chapter eight when I came across this well-known verse:
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10 NIV
Full disclosure…I sighed when I read it. The arm-wrestling had already begun, and Christmas hadn’t even arrived. “Surely, I can make myself feel joy.” I thought. “After all… the joy of the Lord is my strength!”
But I couldn’t fool myself. Finding joy felt like one more thing to add to my list of Christmas to-dos. That is until God revealed a timeless truth from the Feast of Booths.
Nehemiah had spoken his infamous words of encouragement to the Israelites when they were in the throes of deep sorrow. They had recently returned from their Babylonian exile to Jerusalem.
During the exile, they’d nearly forgotten who they were and whose they were. Nehemiah gathered the people in the city square, and the priests began to read from massive documents of their history, their law, their God.
And. They. Wept.
They remembered what it was like to be home. They recognized the way it was supposed to be.
Grief for what is lost is NORMAL.
It was in this context that Nehemiah reminded the people not to get stuck in all that was lost. He followed with these words:
“Be still. This is sacred time and space. Do not mourn.” Nehemiah 8:11 The Voice
God is tender when it comes to our sorrow. He doesn’t dismiss it. It is sacred to Him. But He also doesn’t call us into a wrestling match over it. He calls us into a place of stillness.
The Israelites returned the next day to learn more from God’s law. It comes as no coincidence that they were in the seventh month of their year. God reminded them of the Feast of Booths that was to occur every seventh month. It was a celebration of God’s provision as the Israelites moved from their station as exiles in Egypt to their predestined home as God’s children.
Living in a booth for seven days was their reminder that their state of exile was temporary, and God’s promise of provision was permanent.
This holiday season, the Feast of Booths reminded me that I live in a temporary shelter also. The ones that I love have simply gone ahead of me. They are HOME. They are waiting. And I will celebrate with them soon enough.
For now… THIS day… this Christmas, I will celebrate because I know that just as God walked through the wilderness with His Israeli children, He is walking with me through mine. My prayer for all us who’ve experienced loss is that the hope of our permanent residence will bleed into the realities of our temporary life and that the result will be—
Genuine joy. Grown-up joy. Not a naïve’ joy but the kind that’s been tried and tested. The type that KNOWS it will not be slammed to the table but that it will only grow stronger, not despite the tension of pain, but because of it.
That is kind of joy I am learning. If you’ve been in a hard place or if you’re in a hard place right now, it’s the kind of joy I wish for you.
Indeed, may the joy of the Lord be our strength, this day, this season, and in the seasons ahead.
Savoring the (joyful) journey with you,
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