We are all here for many reasons. This is the season of Advent in the Church, which is a time of hopeful expectation and longing, but in the world outside our doors it is the relentless Christmas machine. Some people love that – jungle bells and decorations and Santa Claus everywhere you look. And for some of us, this is a season that is incredibly painful. It’s painful, more because of what is not, than because of what is. We have lost loved ones to sickness and death and dementia and suicide and addiction and violence. Some of us have lost faith, faith in God and in ourselves and in other people. Some of us have incredible shame, shame for what we have become or were never able to be.
And even though intellectually we know it’s not true – we know that we aren’t alone in our feelings of isolation and sadness – the culture around us doesn’t acknowledge any grief or isolation or shame at this time of year.
And so we gather here. We gather together in church, to lament and mourn and worship all at the same time. We gather our grief and direct it to God. Some of you might find it difficult to trust the idea of God in your grief. I get it. What are we to make of a God who does not prevent suffering in this world?
I can tell you that I’ve studied for years in seminary and as a priest, and I can’t answer that question intellectually. But what I can do is tell you a little bit of my own story, my own experience. Some of you know that I have a beautiful eleven year old daughter, Carly. I also had a number of miscarriages. I remember one year, it was fall, and we were trying to get pregnant for the last time. We had already had three miscarriages. I remember seeing the pregnancy stick and there were two lines on it, and I was afraid to let myself hope for another baby. So fall continued, and Thanksgiving went by, and I was still pregnant. Then Advent came, and I began to miscarry.
I remember thinking I couldn’t possibly go to church. I didn’t think I could stand coming to church because at church I would hear all about pregnant Mary. Everything would be pointing toward this beautiful baby, and it would just be too painful. But I did decide to come.
I was going to St. Matthews in St. Paul at the time, and at that church there are a lot of artists. The artists of St. Matthews had created fourteen stations of the cross—these works of art that depict Jesus’ passion, his arrest and crucifixion and death. These stations of the cross were all around the sanctuary. So that particular morning, the morning I was miscarrying, I went to church, and I sat in my usual spot in the pews. And at some point in the liturgy, I looked up, and my eye fell on the station of the cross nearest me. It was Mary, holding her dead son in her arms.
And suddenly I realized that our tradition is not cute. It is not the story about a perfect family with 2.2 children living behind a white picket fence. It is not the sweet nativity scene we have here. It was the story of an unwed pregnant teenager who was forced to travel to register in her hometown so her colonial oppressor could tax her. It was the story of a baby born to a peasant family who had to become refugees due to political persecution. And it was the story of a mother who dearly loved her son, who had to watch him die.
What I realized, what I felt in my heart, is that our tradition, and the living God at the heart of it, is like a giant castle on the shore of the sea, and the waves of loss and violence and grief can crash against it, but not destroy it. The stories of our tradition are big enough for each of the stories that we brought with us today. We aren’t on the outside looking in like orphans looking through the windows at a candy store. We are exactly the heart of our tradition. Our God is a God who deals with human suffering by entering into it with us. God is closer than our own breath, closer than our own names, and weeps with us. And the love of God is stronger than death, or violence, or shame, or loss. When everything else crumbles away, the love of God for us and with us remains.
Our tradition affirms that death does not have the last word. Out of nothing, out of situations of no hope, God breathes life into us, like the life breathed into Jesus in the tomb, like the breath of life into the nostrils of the first person, like the light God spoke into being at the beginning of all creation.
May God wipe every tear from your eyes, because God has also wept. May God embrace you with a love that is eternal, that will never let go of you. May the love of Christ give you life and comfort and hope. Amen.