Traversing a particularly brutal first trimester during Advent has given me pause for reflection on an all-too-common holiday malaise: sadness in the face of joy. The dichotomy experienced between my own heart of hearts and my everyday reality in pregnancy is vast; I know that the joy and excitement I feel when I first learn of my children’s existence is sincere and true—and will rise to the surface again—but week after week of dizzying nausea and debilitating exhaustion can bury that joy in the moment and a much-degraded quality of life can leave me…sad.
I struggle to express the joy that I know because of the pain I feel. My body and my soul are at odds. This struggle is born in many who know hardship and loneliness alongside the saving power of Jesus Christ, even through, and perhaps even especially through, this season of joyful anticipation for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Competing Sadness and Hope
When you stand in awe of the Incarnation yet struggle to smile through Christmas parties, where does the problem lie? In light of the eternal gift that is redemption, what can possibly cloud our joy? When all things are passing but God never changes, why can we not simply surrender the transient to the everlasting? The short answer is of course that we are human and do not naturally live in the infinite but rather in the here and now, so when the here and now aches it takes effort to shift our focus. Even the great saints have struggled to subordinate their flesh to their will. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:19). This may just as well read that we do not feel the joy we want but the sadness we do not want.
Yet hope remains.
We may never regain the unfettered joy of our childhood, but we can take steps to reclaim the spirit and wonder of Advent and help our hearts prepare him room. He wants to meet us, to enter into our lives and heal the heartache here and now, even as we long for the final and perfect healing that the coming of this little baby promises.
Here are three ways in which we can embrace the hope of the season, even in the midst of loss or sorrow.
1) Invite Jesus into Your Heart
It begins with responding to Christ’s invitation. It seems the answer to human suffering always starts here, so here we begin again. Carve out time to sit with Jesus, to pray, reflect, listen to sacred music, contemplate the manger scene, or just be. I often struggle to give this time to God because I don’t necessarily leave feeling different and there are a thousand other holiday tasks that offer concrete accomplishment, but while the peace and joy may not be immediate, when Christ promises to transform us, he means it. If you want your heart to change, give it to him.
2) Acknowledge What is Lost
Set aside time to grieve. If you can name the cause of your pain, look at it. Acknowledge it. Feel the weight of what is missing. Separating and looking squarely at loss of health, a loved one, a sense of self, whatever it may be, can take away some of the chocking power that might otherwise lay like a blanket over everything. If there is no clear cause, reflect on your loss nonetheless. Something is different than it once was, and something is gone that once was present. Whether it is the hope of a certain future, life free of depression and anxiety, or something even more abstract, it ought not be this way and it helps to acknowledge that there is a reason you struggle with this season. Attempting to diminish or stifle authentic sadness is a fool’s errand. Feel truly sad to make space for joy.
3) Give of Yourself
Finally, the age-old cure for sadness remains giving of yourself, and what better a time than in anticipation of the greatest self-gift known to man? Whatever your propensity for service, there is an organization, a family, a person out there who is in need of that very help. Years ago, as a single foster parent, I recall how the volunteers who brought meals, cleaned bathrooms, played with toddlers and helped grade-schoolers with homework were equally revitalizing and appreciated. One gentleman would come and hold babies for two hours every week. He loved it, I loved it, the babies loved it! There is a way to touch the lives of others that will be life-giving to you. Find it; it may help more than you know.
Let God Bring Heaven to Earth
Thank God for Love Incarnate. Thank God for the promise that he brings. But don’t stop there. He is here, now, to help us live anew. There is real pain on this pilgrimage, but Jesus Christ has entered into this pain to carry us through to eternal joy. Give it all to him and watch as he brings heaven to earth in your life during the Advent and Christmas seasons.