The year is 1944, and the new holiday movie is Meet Me in St. Louis starring Judy Garland. On Christmas Eve in the film, Judy Garland’s Esther sings a song to her little sister as their family is planning to pack up and leave their beloved home in St. Louis, losing all that they know and love.
Here is an excerpt from the original lyrics, which we never hear because it was too sad for a subsequent singer, Frank Sinatra:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
It may be your last.
Next year we may all be living in the past…
No good times like the olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who were dear to us,
Will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together,
If the Lord allows,
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Wow. Does that not sound like a song for today?
When Garland sings that song to her little sister, it's to comfort her. Not to tell her that everything is all right — because it isn't. But to tell her that someday perhaps, it will be.
This holiday song was fitting in the year 1944 when the film premiered. America was in the midst of World War II. That year, a lot of families got news that people weren't coming back. So it was exactly what Americans, weary from the years of World War II, needed to hear: those words of hope—the promise that in the next year all would be well. Those words are especially relevant as we await victory over another implacable miserable enemy that will not give up easily.
Because this year too has been marked by many losses of what we know and love—physical losses in the separation and death of loved ones; financial losses of employment and stability; social losses with our inability to see and hug one another. Our prayers go out fervently to all those who have lost loved ones, whose family members and friends have gotten sick, who are missing the physical bonds with those they love.
In this landscape, we come to Christmas 2020. We still speak about joy, hope, and peace. And in our hearts, we may ask: where is the Lord of hope, the Prince of Peace? Where is the joy that is so inseparable from Christmas?
It may not be where you expect it, or how you normally think of it. Here is my story:
Several years ago today, my mother died suddenly. As my siblings and I absorbed this news, my father mentioned that he didn’t want to live another day without his wife. “I just want to be with her,” he said. Thirty hours later, he was. He died suddenly of a heart attack. He didn’t have a heart problem, but he died of a broken heart, a heart that was then made whole by his reunion with his beloved wife of 72 years.
And then the world approached Christmas. So did I, amid the shock and grief of losing both parents: shaken, numb, and newly orphaned, but looking toward the birth of a holy Child who would one day ease that grief.
Surprisingly, that one day came on Christmas Eve. As I preached about the joy and wonder of Christmas, I could see the people in the pews radiating that joy and wonder right back to me. They did not know what personal devastation had happened to me—I would inform them later, so that they could experience Christmas without having to deal with my grief. And their unabashed gladness and joy and wonder came back to comfort and succor me that Christmas Eve night and made me joyful, too.
It was not a happy joy that I felt, that we come to define as “joy.” Joy is not necessarily happy. Christmas is not necessarily merry. This year, it’s an important distinction because on Christmas in the year 2020, there is little fuzzy warm hugginess.
But there is still joy. Because Christmas is a time of fierce joy, a joy that is deeper than happiness—a defiant joy in a way, defiant in the same way that God’s love is defiant. God’s love will never give up even in the face of deep loss, hardship, or even evil. God’s love defies all our expectations by bringing to us God’s only Son to comfort and succor us as we muddle through these dark and difficult times. God’s love is strong enough to enfold us even in the bleak midwinter of our lives, because as you all say so proudly, “God loves you—no exceptions,” and that means all people, in all times and places, through loss and hardship, and throughout all eternity. The gift of love and joy—no exceptions.
After that midnight service in the church, one person said to me, “It looked like you were surrounded by angels.” And so I was. But not the heavenly kind. I was surrounded those angels sitting out there in the pews, unknowingly giving hope and joy to one bereaved.
So dear people of St. Barnabas, blessed angels all, have yourself a joyful little Christmas. You bear the Christ Child with you in your heart, and don’t you ever forget it.
I would love to hear your reactions and thoughts! Please respond at email@example.com and let’s have a conversation!