Blue Christmas: There are no Shortcuts with Grief

God alone is wise…

St. Paul says as much in our reading from Romans this morning, “God…alone is wise.” I probably don’t preach Paul enough. I know a few of us have suspicion about the letter-writer, some of it well founded. But on this point, I agree with Paul. Paul makes a distinction about wisdom, in another place Paul says what the world sees as foolishness, Christians proclaim as wisdom. God alone is wise.

This is a Blue Christmas service. Even the name sounds a little strange, it evokes Elvis for some of our older generations at church. Some of the younger folks have no idea why. We started the tradition of Blue Christmas here at Holy Communion four years ago, and some questioned the wisdom. Why would you put such a depressing service before all the joy to the world?

Well, St. Paul says, sometimes God’s wisdom looks like foolishness to the world. The world peddles a great deal of supposed wisdom in the name of Christianity. For instance: did you know that the phrase “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” doesn’t appear in the Bible? It’s not in the sacred text. In the Bible, God often makes food appear for folks. The Bible is less convinced of the merits of capitalism. God feeds the hungry. Jesus multiplies loaves and fish.

Likewise, nowhere in the Bible does someone go up to a grieving neighbor to say, “don’t worry. God has a plan.”

I wish I could ban “God has a plan” from church.

As a preacher, it’s not JUST oversimplification. The words are theologically problematic. In what planned world of God would 300,000 people die of a preventable illness? I can’t believe in a God that would have such plans. God did not plan all this suffering. God did not plan all this death.

I believe in the God who shows up for those who are suffering, the God who stands with patients struggling for hours for breath. God shows up for and with the nurses and doctors and front line workers. I can believe in a God who shows up for the loved ones who aren’t allowed into the hospital. As a preacher, in the midst of a pandemic: the only plan I dare to call God’s is to show up when life hurts.

And so I can believe in the God who shows up in today’s Gospel from Luke.

Today we find a scared girl.

Mary, in the wisdom of the world, a sinner. She’s pregnant, out of wedlock. Finding out the news, she’s on the run, escaping the judgement of the neighbors who know everyone’s business. Mary goes to visit her cousin Elisabeth.

In a village called Ein Kerem, just a few miles to the West of Jerusalem, up in the hill country of Judea there is a statue. This statue may be one of my favorite pieces of religious art. Ein Kerem today is an artist colony, the little town has beautiful shops and great ice cream. Ein Kerem is famous because supposedly this story of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth took place in the village, high in the hill country of Judea, far away from her home town of Nazareth.

The statue I love is all curves. The figures are elongated and feminine. Mary and Elizabeth meet together, their bellies almost touch. Elizabeth is a bit heavier with child, at this point in the story, a bit further along. Mary looks scared, but her cousin looks at her with joy, with delight.

There is loss and pain at the heart of this story of Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth, and it’s a loss and pain we don’t talk about enough. We don’t talk about fertility very openly. The subject is private, taboo. And yet here it appears in the Bible. God is wise.

Mary today faces loss, faces grief. Mary is scared, because her fertility has caught her unexpected. When the angel tells her she is pregnant, she asks a question many have asked: “how is this possible?” How is this possible? There’s a lot in that question, I think. There’s a sense of terror, and a sense of loss. There’s a holiness to the question. God’s angel is there with Mary as she asks, “how is this possible.” The angel doesn’t solve the problem, doesn’t make it go away.

Mary is grieving the future she thought she might have. There’s a real possibility this pregnancy might end her betrothal. Mary is struggling to take in the news. How is this possible? Notice, the angel doesn’t say, “don’t worry God has a plan.” Instead, after some theological description the angel says, “Elizabeth.”

Thank God for Elisabeth. Infertility is hard.

If Mary’s fertility came as a sudden shock, Elizabeth’s came after years of quiet grief. We talk about infertility and pregnancy loss so little, especially given how common it is for a folks to struggle to conceive. I’ve prayed with so many people who have come quietly to church, as if for confession. I say again and again, infertility, miscarriage, these are not signs of God’s plan. If you are struggling with the loss of a pregnancy, or with the frustration of not becoming a parent, do not let the world tell you that you are broken, or inadequate. God knows that isn’t true, even when the world doesn’t.

I wonder whether all of the longing that Elizabeth went through, all the grief she felt as friends and neighbors gave birth to healthy babies, whether her unexpected news, that after having given up, she was going to have a kid, I wonder if all of that emotional work prepared her to welcome her scared younger cousin.

I wonder if all Elizabeth had carried, meant that she was ready to help Mary carry the news.

I don’t believe it was God’s plan for Elizabeth to spend so many years struggling with infertility. The language of “God’s plan,” I think, is a false theological and emotional shortcut. It’s a dodge. “God has a plan” is a way of avoiding grief, and loss. And friends, there is no avoiding grief and loss. Grief and loss are always a part of life. We don’t live past the grief, we learn, over time to live with the grief.

Yes, there may be a moment, years and years later, when lessons learned in loss can bring healing, peace, grace to others. But you don’t get to jump from point A to point Z. All of the steps on the journey take work. I wish I could banish the phrase “God has a plan.”

There are no shortcuts.

I wish we could say instead: God is with you. That is the whole message of Christmas. We welcome Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us in the midst of this terrible year. God is with us in the midst of loss. The work of Christians is to follow Christ, and to show up, to show up for those who are suffering, to show up and say, “I’ve been there” if we have, or be honest and say, “I can’t imagine,” if we haven’t. But to show up anyway (safely, with phone calls, and cookies on doorsteps, and Zooms), to show up with all our vulnerability and sense of inadequacy, to show up having born our own grief. The work of those who would seek to follow God is to show up and remind folks, you are not alone.

These past four years with the help of Gene Dobbs Bradford and his friends, we’ve welcomed folks to worship, to pray, in a way that makes room for grief, that makes room for suffering. Before our first Blue Christmas service in 2017, Gene told a reporter: “Even when you have faith, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to experience the difficulties in life.” That’s some wisdom. It’s hard wisdom. It doesn’t sell well, but it’s true. Faith isn’t about finding shortcuts. Faith is a way to survive the long road.

Only God is wise. Whatever sorrow you are carrying, whatever grief, know, this church isn’t a church of shortcuts. The message of Christmas is that God chose to show up in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Seems foolish to the world, but there’s God’s wisdom. God chooses to walk with us when life hurts. That is the only plan.


Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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