When Joy Doesn’t Come in the Morning
Christmas — lights, smiles, ‘holiday cheer,’ and as Lucy says, ‘Santa Claus and Ho Ho Ho.’ Christmas time is here, and is full of the ‘silent majesty of a winter’s morn, the clean crisp cheer of the holiday air…’ There’s laughter, mirth, and joy. I love Christmas. I love the light in my kids’ eyes, the music, the gifts, driving my daughter around yelling at unlit houses or ‘hugbugs’ (her version of ‘humbugs’).
I love Christmas. But not this year.
I look forward to the Christmas season every year, but I honestly don’t know what to feel this year. Writing about it seems like empty words on a page. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. Only that my brother is gone.
And it’s not some extended self-pity; some self-aggrandizing effort towards sympathy or an unhealthy obsession with grief. It’s just grief. It’s just pain. I just don’t feel like embracing joy.
Joy is what Christmas is about right? If you don’t believe in Jesus, Christmas is about the joy that fills the room when your kids first see the tree ballasted by a mound of presents. It’s the joy in finding creative ways to make your loved ones smile. If you believe in Jesus it’s all those things, plus the eternal hope that fills your soul as you reflect on your Savior.
Hope, Joy, Celebration.
I believe in all those things. I know them in my mind. It’s as if I can reach inside of my brain, pull out joy, all its definitions, all its facets, all its manifestations…and not feel any of it. It’s shaking a snow globe, trying to figure out how to get inside. It’s a strange feeling to be sure; maybe even a foreign feeling. I WANT to be joyful. I WANT to be happy…but that’s just not the reality.
That’s not what’s real, right now.
In Tolkien’s ‘The Two Towers,’ Frodo and Sam trek towards Mordor to cast the ring into Mount Doom. As they reach the Dead Marshes just outside of Mordor, Tolkien describes the journey:
‘Out from their feet were flung huge buttresses and broken hills that were now at the nearest scarce a dozen miles away. Frodo looked round in horror. Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes…For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows.’
It was a desolate place, for a desolate and hopeless journey. At this point, Frodo and Sam almost quit, they almost gave up the quest. The absence of joy in this place is palatable. In a later interview Tolkien revealed this land was inspired by the Battle of the Somme in WW1, one of history’s worst, in which Tolkien fought.
Psalm 30 may be familiar, especially verse 4:
‘Crying may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning…’
Joy comes in the morning. But what happens when it doesn’t? What happens when the shadows Frodo and Sam faced shroud the morning? What happens when you find yourselves between the cross and the empty tomb?
I confess that’s where I am. In the desolate lands. In the Dead Marshes. In the three days before Christ rose.
I’ve said before I won’t deny my God. I know my Bible, I know the verses to write as a placard on my mind. But sometimes you just stop, take a breath, and are sad.
I think we should stop here for a minute. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Lots of folks feel this way, and I confess I have no idea how to deal with this. I don’t know if any of us do really. A common response is to quote all the joyful scriptures, quotes, poems, or motivational posters we know. Another response is to pump up, to hit the ‘Play like a Champion Today’ sign, to distract, to motivate, to try and ‘cheer up.’
What if we just stopped, stood by the hurting, and just stayed. Put an arm around a shoulder. Maybe a hug. Maybe a quiet, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Maybe just a warm body sitting beside a loved sufferer.
Too often, by our actions, we act as if grief doesn’t exist. We try and push it away, pray it away, speak it away.
That doesn’t work.
Jesus wept. We know this; he came to the tomb of Lazarus and cried with family. Jesus became angry. Jesus felt emotion.
It’s too easy to think of Jesus as a happy Savior. Sure, he was happy many times throughout his life, but it’s not like he was intrinsically happy all the time. He faced desolation—40 days in the wilderness, capillary-bursting hours in the Garden, 24 hours of unlawful trial, betrayal, beating, scourging, crucifixion. And finally excommunication and all of history’s darkness as his Father turned away.
Or consider his closest friends and family. They believed he would rise again, but mostly based on an abstract hope in prophecies laid down centuries before. You think they experienced a visceral grief, anger, sadness, and depression after he died? Those three days between death and resurrection were the Dead Marshes, the Somme in their hearts.
This Christmas I confess I don’t have a lot of joy. In fact, it’s safe to say I don’t have any. Honestly, I don’t really want to ‘do’ Christmas at all. I love my kids and I love my family — and because of them I will do everything I can to make them happy and see smiles on their faces. But that doesn’t erase the shadow over my heart.
But Christmas, ultimately, isn’t about the emotions we feel. It isn’t about the gifts we give. It isn’t about the rituals we perform. We know this right? ‘What is Christmas all about Charlie Brown?’
It’s about Jesus right? Yeah yeah, the Sunday School answer. The little baby that found its way into a dirty animal trough that grew up to save the world.
But you see, that’s all I have.
The answer to this shadow over my heart is not to try and will it away, or speak it away, or pray it away, or ‘family’ it away. That doesn’t work. The darkness remains. If you grieve, you know this darkness, you know this shadow.
The answer is Jesus.
Right now I’m living inside of the time between the Cross and the Empty Tomb. We get to live on the other side of the Resurrection, but damn if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, I have a hopeless hope. I might as well end my quest, like Frodo wanted as he peered across Mordor. Because what hope have I that any of this should be made right?
But…but, if Jesus did indeed rise, He rose victorious over all darkness. If, by His work, the shadows are but now shadows of themselves, I can hope in a better future. A future full of light and peace and understanding.
I don’t have joy now, but I have to believe that joy will come in the morning. It’s hard to live in that morning, when our current morning is full of sorrow and suffering. But that’s okay, because I believe one day everything sad will come untrue.
Everything sad will come untrue.
And once we experience that, though now we face the opposite, we will feel what Pippin felt as Gandalf described the Great Morning:
‘Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path… One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass… And then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf?… See what?
Gandalf: White shores… and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: [smiling] Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: [softly] No… No it isn’t.’
Grief. Sorrow. Shadow, Sadness—it’s reality, but when we consider the white shores…and beyond. A far green country under a swift sunrise. When we consider a suffering Savior, one who is acquainted with grief what do we say?
Well that isn’t so bad.
No…no it isn’t.
Jason is an entrepreneur, design consultant for non-profits, and writer // he’s starting a new business in 2017 and documenting every step // dad of 3 // “hip” economist