Yesterday was the winter solstice. For us northerners, it is the longest night of our year. I turned on our lamps at 2:30 in the afternoon, the sun was nearly gone by 3:20 p.m. but the light stayed even after the sun had disappeared for a while. It was pitch dark by 4 o’clock.
Here begins the longest night. We wouldn’t see the sun here again for a long while. Of course, when I was younger and living farther north, the days were even shorter, the nights even longer. Up in northern Canada, friends report a never ending night on this day without even a glimpse of sunrise or sunset.
We turn on our lamps, we curl up with blankets and books, we light candles, we make friends with the stars, we put the kettle on. What has to be endured might as well be enjoyed.
We have had a busy week so we’re behind on our Advent candles. This sort of thing used to bother me a lot – if this is the way it should be, lighting one candle every Sunday before Christmas, then this is what it should be! But now I roll with things a bit more, I’ve learned that Advent wasn’t created for more stress and turmoil and frustration and feelings of less-than: it was inaugurated because we’re all tired and longing and a bit of a mess and broken-hearted. So if I don’t manage to gather everyone around the table until the Wednesday, it’s okay, really. We will gather, the candles will be lit, the point isn’t the ritual, it’s the truth the ritual preaches to us.
Our candles were all lopsided. I bought the wrong size this year and so they don’t fit snugly into our brass Advent wreath; the candles list and sway and drip gobs of purple or pink wax all over the place. But we gathered after a simple supper of farmer’s sausage and perogies because there are two things living in Abbotsford has taught us to eat and enjoy: Mennonite food and Indian food. We praise God regularly for our neighbours who introduced us to both the delicious comfort of cabbage rolls and incomparable joy of paneer pakora.
We lit our crooked candles for hope, for peace, for joy, and then finally for love. We read our Scriptures by candlelight from the phone screen, dirty dishes still on the table, the toddler hollering for more “tookies!” (her word for cookies) occasionally.
And at the end of the meal, our son Joseph prayed. He said, “God, we thank you for coming to us with love and joy and peace and hope you always wanted for us. We still want everyone to have that. Not just when you came then for Christmas but today and forever and for everyone.”
I know these days can be hard for so many of us – you may be tired, heartbroken, estranged from loved ones, yearning for more, settling for less, broke, afraid, betrayed, rejected, struggling, addicted, disillusioned, lonely, isolated, thwarted, doubting, numb, any or all sorts of things that aren’t showing up on the easily resolved Hallmark Christmas movies or the shiny-happy-Jesus-people. Or maybe they are just better at hiding it, who knows.
There is something about Christmas that makes the unbearable even more painful, isn’t there?
Last night, watching the candles burn on the longest night and hearing my son pray, I thought of you in particular, broken-hearted ones. I wanted you to know that I praying for you this Christmas in particular.
Your sorrow isn’t overlooked by God, I know that.
Years ago, when I was broken and burned out and exhausted, I remember my father calling me and telling me that he was praying for me. He sent me the bible verse that he was praying over me, it was Matthew 11:28 which is from one of Jesus’ sermons: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
I remember how it felt when he said, “Sarah, I know you’re tired and worn out and burned out on religion. I’m praying that you will recover your life. I’m praying you’ll take a real rest. I’m praying you’ll walk with Jesus and watch how he does it, that you will learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Remember that if it’s heavy and ill-fitting, if it’s a burden, you don’t need to hold it. I pray you’ll keep company with Jesus and learn to live freely and lightly.”
I’ve never forgotten how it felt to hear him say those words to me.
And I’ll never forget how long it took to live into that answered prayer.
So come close. Here we go. I pray that God would be near to you, a strength to you. I pray for comfort. I pray for a friend who knows, a friend who sits with you, a friend who doesn’t try to jolly you up.
I pray for endurance in your heart and in your mind and in your soul and in your strength, I pray for perseverance beyond what you think you can bear. I pray that you would be someone who does not give up but continues to take up the space you need. I pray you will know how to ask for what you want. I pray for a community that meets you where you are at.
I pray for comfort. I pray for warmth in your home. I pray for candles and for lamplight, for good books and for movies, for long walks in the darkness lit only by street lights or stars. May your voice crack with tears when you sing anyway how there is a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices because you are longing for a bit of rejoicing. May you fall asleep humming good songs of hope. I see you trying to sing in your sorrow and I think it’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.
I pray for courage. No one ever told us how much courage it takes to have a broken-heart, did they? No one told us how brave we would have to be to simply carry on. And yet here you are. I pray for courage to rise up in you so that you can get up out of bed for another day and do what you need to do to carry on. I pray for an appetite to eat good food and I pray you’ll go to bed on time and sleep well, I pray you’ll be good to your own self in the midst of all this. I pray for your hands to find work you enjoy doing and for creativity to give you a respite.
I pray for you to find the intimacy of the Holy Spirit in these days. I have often found that it is in the wilderness and in the darkness and in the loneliness that the Spirit draws near. I pray for the active and intimate presence of the mystery of God to be close to you in ways you couldn’t name or explain or understand. I pray for dreams that will comfort the hours of sleep you are given.
I pray for peace in you and through you and about you. I pray for glimmers of reconciliation. I pray for bad jokes and for the kind of laughter that makes you want to whoop and pound the table a time or two. I pray for friends who become family and I pray for family to become friends.
I pray for God to be near to you in ways you never could have expected. I pray that this will give birth to a great compassion in you, a love for our suffering world like you’ve never known.
After all, now you’re in the company of the people of the unanswered prayers: we can hold both hope and grief together.
I know there is something for which you cannot even pray, there is no faith left in you: I pray for that unnamed thing, too, I have a bit of faith and you can have it. I don’t know what it is in you but I know you carry it and the better thing is that God knows.
I have always been so thankful that Jesus is described in Isaiah as a man of sorrows, a man acquainted with grief. This is a man I can let into that inner chamber of grief: he is acquainted with my sorrow and he will deal so gently, like a good mother, with our broken-hearts.
I pray for hope to rise, unbidden and unforced and surprising, like a flower breaking through the cement in a parking lot. I pray for you to tend that tendril of hope like a gardener, protect it, let it grow wild and unexpected into the places you least anticipated.
I pray for opportunities to serve others in your life. I pray for Jesus to bring you people into whom you can sow your inexhaustible love and your flagging energy. I pray for eyes to see the company of the broken-hearted around you and that you will become a place of rest for each other.
I pray you will find something or someone to love in these days.
I pray for real reciprocity of relationship – that for everything you receive, you are able to give someday. I pray for the prayers of children to be spoken over you. I pray for the love and joy and the peace and the hope of Advent to be yours. Maybe this isn’t your season for celebration but the good news is that Advent and even Christmas isn’t just for the ones who feel happiness; it’s also for the ones who are afraid and wondering, who are refugees and who are broken-hearted. You, as you are right now, were written into the Story from the beginning and you have a place here, you belong at this Christmas table.
And I dare to pray for joy for you. I pray that everything you are sowing in grief, you will reap in joy. It will be a different sort of joy, we both know that. There is the uncomplicated joy of those who haven’t suffered and then there is the joy that is born of suffering, the joy that is deeper for the loss that preceded, the joy that is in seeing redemption and yet knowing the scars you bear from the wounds are beautiful to those with eyes to see.
And may the Light break through the darkness to warm you and guide you somehow.
We have turned towards the sun now. The days will imperceptibly grow longer again. We won’t be able to notice the moment it changes over but now we know what we’re spinning towards, one day at a time, one morning probably sooner than we know, we will wake up to the long day of light.