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Reverend Jes Kast-Keat is away today and invited Reverend Annie Reilly to write in her place. Reverend Reilly is the minister at State Street Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, NY.
My father died on October 26, 2015. He had been diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer two years prior. Stomach cancer is one of those cancers that usually has a pretty short timeline. We knew we were on borrowed time. And we gladly accepted that time at the cost of pain-filled days and nights for my father. Dennis Reilly was 62 when he died.
I’ve been emotionally ragged for weeks. My congregation, a lovely and small Presbyterian group, has gotten very used to me crying. Stoles mop tears fairly well.
In my ministry, I’ve tried to be mindful that the Advent and Christmas season isn’t all comfort and joy. I held a “Blue Christmas” a few years ago in order to invite people into a space of grief, mourning, and naming those feelings. We read heavily from the prophets and sang the quieter Advent hymns. Though only a handful of people showed up, I felt at the time that I was doing an important community service. But I haven’t done it since.
Thanksgiving was exactly one month after my dad died. I had invited him and my mom to make the trip from Michigan to New York to see my new house. But it became very clear that he wasn’t going to be able to travel. I find myself in the position of being a spiritual community leader processing fresh grief during one of my most busy seasons. All the usual performance anxiety exists, as does hectic year-end meeting and party schedules, with the added bonus of the usual family obligations that are now land mined with deep sadness. I am not the first minister to be here. I have so much support.
There is no good time to lose a parent, or family member. The first Christmas will always be hard. Frankly, “hard” is insufficient. There isn’t a liturgical answer for honoring the soul-wrenching anguish of grief, salted by so much merriment and bloated consumerism.
What I’ve started saying is “The grief in me sees the grief in you.” Incorporating a little professional transparency in the pulpit has helped me let go of the sense that I need to have it together in order to give my congregation another perfect Advent and Christmas season. Because it’s the season of lights, joy, home coming, and perfectly executed and seasonally creative worship services.
Christ broke into the world on a dark, cold night. He came to be the ray of hope and the source of joy that was so missing from our world. Everything else is just tinsel. I am bringing my whole self to the manger this year, all of my sadness and all of my mess. There is room, somewhere between the angels and the cattle, for our whole selves; for us if not to have a merry Christmas, than to have a meaningful one.