This morning I found myself chocked suddenly with tears when “Away in a Manger” began to play on my Pandora Christmas channel.
There were many tangled reasons behind those tears. As I bent over a sink full of dishes and wept this morning, that simple, child-like song seemed to be the connecting point for so much pain and grief…and joy.
“Away in a Manger” was one of my beloved Grandma Ann’s favorite Christmas songs. The simple, pure lyrics, especially of the last verse, perfectly capture the faith of my Grandma. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care and take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.” This love and closeness to the Lord was her whole personality. It was a part of everything she did and was. Even at the end of her life, when she was well into her 90’s, her faith seemed light and childlike.
A year ago, in my Grandmother’s last days on Earth, I listened to this song with her. She was bedridden, barely conscious, and yet she clung to my hand and reached for me when I moved away. I could tell she was listening to the song then, and that she wanted me beside her as she listened.
She died on the 3rd Sunday of Advent last year. It was time, she welcomed death and her final moments were peaceful and beautiful, but listening to this song without her this year leaves me aching for her.
My entire childhood is also, in a way, wrapped up in the child-like lyrics of “Away in a Manger”. That first verse, perhaps more than any other lesson or reading, taught me about the reality of the Incarnation. So simple, so pure, the first verse says, “Away in a manger, no crib for His bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head. The stars in the sky look down where He lay. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.” In those simple words, set to a simple melody, is the reality of our salvation. That God became a vulnerable, little baby, born in a barn, laid to rest on hay. And as he lay there, fully God and fully man, he asks simply for us to sit with him and gaze upon his sleeping face. He wants us to love Him and to receive His abundant love for us.
Inside of this song the Infant Lord has always felt very close.
And, of course, as the song played I wept for my own baby boy, so recently called to heaven.
Knowing that Max is in heaven, that his death was not my fault, that God’s plan is better–all of these things have brought me a great deal of comfort and peace, but the pain and grief remain.
I have cried so many tears in the past weeks that my eyes have perpetual bags under them. Desperately I want the tears to stop. I want the grief to be over and to get back to my normal, happy life. But, I have come to understand that this year Christmas will be different. This year Christmas will be a season of sadness and grief.
There is a terrible pressure to move past grief and sadness this time of year, that tears and pain are somehow unwelcome at Christmas. But this, of course, is simply a modern lie.
Grief and pain and fear have always been wrapped up in true Christmas joy.
For joy, unlike happiness, is not a singular emotion. Joy is deeper and fuller and persistent despite suffering and loss and fear.
Joy is grounded in a trust that is bigger than the pain, but the pain remains.
I am resigned to the fact that this Christmas will be a tearful one. I wish it was otherwise. I wish I was still carrying little Max in my womb and my only cares were morning sickness and stomach bugs, but that is not the case.
Grief will likely wrap all around my Advent and Christmas season, but I find comfort in Our Lady. Mary’s Christmas experience was never one of ecstatic happiness. No, her Christmas joy was much deeper and more complicated than that.
Mary labored and delivered a baby far from family and comfort. She went through all those confusing and intense parts of the transition to motherhood in a barn, with only her new husband beside her. Her joy at welcoming her baby, the Savoir of the world, was mingled with fear and confusion and physical discomfort and sorrow, perhaps, for the simple life she had been asked to leave behind.
Her trust, of course, was bigger than all these struggles, but the struggles remained.
And I know that my pain will remain, despite the gifts and lights and trees and family events and big meals. I will joyfully welcome Jesus on Christmas, but my joy will likely be a tearful joy, a joy that still hurts and wonders at what’s happened, a joy that moves in and out of peace, but ultimately, a joy that trusts.
Because my trust is bigger than this hurt, but the hurt remains.
Prayers for you, my friends, if this Christmas will also be a tearful one. Trust in the Lord, cry with the Lord and please know that you are in my prayers,
Your sister in Christ,