The winter solstice occurs December 21st and is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Those of us who have experienced loss and grief around Christmas time may feel more affinity for the longest night than the garish holiday brightness, which abounds and may deepen our sorrow. Many churches now hold “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” services for those of us experiencing complex and paradoxical feelings at this time of year.
I am one of those who find Christmas difficult. Though my mother died shortly after Christmas on January 3, 1979, the memory of her last Christmas, and the sadness that accompanied, it still lingers. I have been trying to capture my memories in a poem for some time. The one below feels unfinished, but I’d like to share it with you.
At the Christmas Eve service, I sang of angles, heard
the bright promise of the Christ child.
No one spoke of the stable muck, the smell of the animals
the slaughter of the innocents, the meaning of myrrh,
the death portended by the birth.
On Christmas morning, I bathed my mother,
rubbed rose-scented lotion into atrophied legs,
watched as my father lifted her from the bed.
Illness had trimmed her, she was as light
as the garland draped on the tree.
She lay in the blue reclining chair as we unwrapped presents,
emptied stockings and did not speak
of her impossible lightness, her unfocused gaze,
her fading light.
As I get older, I find spiritual growth and maturity requires accepting ambiguity and complexity, which means not only celebrating the bright side of life, but also accepting the tragic. I find comfort in Richard Rohr’s notion of “bright sadness,” which is a kind of “gravitas…held up by a much deeper lightness.” I’d like to think my poem above contains this “bright sadness,” and that it captures the complexity of sorrow and love.
This year, I will attend services on the longest night and on Christmas Eve. I will embrace the complexity and paradox at the heart of the Christmas story. The Divine becomes human. The Holy enters the earthly. As I celebrate a star shining in the dark night sky heralding the incarnation of Divine love in this ambiguous, complex, earthy life, I will embrace the “bright sadness” of this holy season and in my own life, for this, I believe, is the way of healing, of salvation.
(The quotation above is from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p.117)
Writing Prompt: What does the image of a “bright sadness” suggest to you. What thoughts and impressions are conjured by these terms? Free write for 5-15 minutes.