On Tuesday night, three cars left our neighborhood at the same time. Two of them, driven by my closest friends on the street, went to a light show at a local farm. My car, drove right past the light show to an outdoor Blue Christmas service at our church.
Blue Christmas is a relatively new name for an old Christian ritual, which used to be called the service of The Longest Night. Traditionally held on the Winter Solstice, it’s a gathering designed to allow Christians to grieve and lament before the coming light of Christmas. I have gone to my church’s version every year since they started having it seven years ago. This year, my 16-year-old daughter Sophia went with me.
Some of our fellow attendees had experienced acute losses this year – deaths of loved ones, illnesses, divorce, joblessness. When I began attending, I had lost a dear friendship and was grieving it. Every year afterward, I continue to show up to worship, cry, hear a message, and be prayed over, because in every year there is something to mourn. The world is broken, my heart is broken, some of my relationships are broken, and into the reality of those cracks flows Jesus’s deep comfort, mercy and love. I actually enjoy Christmas more when I don't expect it to be non-stop happiness, all "our troubles out of sight" as the song goes.
I pause a moment to remind us of some of the Beatitudes of Christ, what he said will make us feel happy:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blue Christmas is the place I go to declare not the joyful and triumphant light of the baby Jesus, but the distressing truth that I need the grown-up Jesus of Calvary, and the fact that, even as his saved and loved child, I’m still living in the exile of a world not yet repaired. I'm too poor in spirit to be as loving as I want; I'm mourning the state of the world; I'm working on meekness (I stink at it); and I'm hungry to be righteous (I'm not) and for the world's systems to be righteous (They aren't.) I sing “Oh Come Emmanuel,” and I mean it down to my toes.
Sophia came with me this year because she is grieving various losses – including but not limited to the loss of one quarter of her high school experience. As an American teenager, having been sold that high school is one of the high points of life, this is a real loss for her and her friends. They are missing choir concerts, pep rallies, football games, homecoming and prom, dating, parties, and playing sports. When they turn to one another for comfort, the best they can offer is, “Yes, this SUCKS.”
Though I have my own things to mourn in 2020, as I sat shotgun in my own car, I concealed my delight from my 16-year-old driver; I tried not to show her the glee I felt because she was coming with me. It’s not nice to be filled with glee when your kid is mourning. I prayed wordless thanks that out of these ashes is coming her real faith—the belief that God might have the comfort she’s looking for.
We both cried at church that night. But we also got inappropriate giggles. Because while our pastor was reading us poetry and scriptures of lament, he kept getting interrupted by wild teenage cheers echoing across the canyon of our megachurch’s campus. The high school Christmas party was going on at the same time. At it, they were screening mini-films created by teams of students, their own takes on classic Christmas movies.
Sophia had been part of one of those teams (She was in a musical version of Elf), until she found out one of her fellow teenage singers, who had not worn his mask during filming, tested positive for Covid three days later. She didn’t go back after that. So ironically, she was at church grieving not being able to complete that fun experience, while hundreds of other kids were voting for the film-festival winner by a show of enthusiasm.
“God is close to the broken hearted,” our pastor read.
“WOOOOOO HOOOOOO!” yelled the high school kids.
And behind our masks, Sophia and I giggled and snorted. We were blessed unexpectedly not only by the comfort of Christ, but the irony of the experience.
On the drive home, we talked about the odd juxtaposition of the night: Sophia at the mourning service, her peers at the film festival. I told Sophia about the Beatitudes of Jesus: through an acknowledgement of our spiritual poverty, through mourning, through a hunger for righteousness rather than a hunger for worldly happiness.
I kept it short because, mature, deep girl that she is, no teenager loves a sermon from Mama. I told her I was proud of her for the sacrifices she’s made to keep herself and others safe, and affirmed her that taking the time to face sadness might bring her longer-lasting comfort and peace than anything else.
I giggled again as we drove back past the site of the light show. The truth is that I didn’t make a profound spiritual decision to mourn while my neighbors went to be merry and bright. I was too cheap to pay the $50 entrance fee, and then happy (and blessed!) when I realized that eschewing that extravagance meant I could attend Blue Christmas. I drove back to my house, which is so well-illuminated by Christmas decorations that you could read fine print in my backyard. Our family will certainly be making merry as much as possible in the next month. We have plans for cookie-baking, Christmas movies, game nights, (free) tours of neighborhood Christmas lights, and as much other spirit-lifting frivolity as we can do.
Here’s my understanding of what makes Christmas work – indeed, what makes spiritual life work. I create and drink in every beautiful, fun, silly, and jolly experience I can in this life, thanking God for all he has given me for my enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17). But I trust not that those things are what ultimately sustain me, nor do I use them to cover up the realities of pain, injustice, my own sin, the sin of others. I connect with God by walking through the dark places – not pretending they don’t exist or feeling guilty that I experience them. And I do find comfort, blessing and rich fulfillment. At Christmas, I hold the joy in one hand, and the sorrow in the other. So I'll have a Blue Christmas, thank you, rather than a merry little Christmas. This is living in the kingdom of heaven, and until God makes all things right, it is enough.