My friend's church held a special service last night, at which I completed my only musical assignment of the Christmas season. The service was called "Blue Christmas", and it was designed for people who weren't especially merry this holiday season, for people who were mourning the loss of a loved one, of a job, of their health. It was for people who felt blue, instead of red or green or sparkly gold.
I'll admit up front that I'm not always a "happy Christmas" person. Even as a child, I felt some poignant sadness about this season. The whole birth of Jesus story kind of upset me (how awful to make that long trip and be turned away at the inn, forced to have a baby in a barn!) Even looking at photos of the lovely virgin mother and her baby made me sad, knowing what would happen to her child just 33 years later.
And though I'm a pretty regular church-goer, I'm not a terribly religious person. I'm not sure I'd even call myself a spiritual person anymore. After five and half decades of living in the real world, my capacity for wonder has diminished somewhat. Still, the burnished hues of autumn, a canopy of sparkling stars in the night sky, even a perfectly turned melody or a smartly crafted sentence can stir my passion. And whatever your religious beliefs, or your feelings about the divinity of Jesus, who can dispute the miraculous influence of this simple man whose legacy created the largest religious movement in the world?
As the song goes, Jesus was a man who was acquainted with grief. Reading the Bible, you get the sense that here was a man who knew what hardship was, who understood that suffering took its toll on the common man, but that also believed there were ways to mitigate life's inevitable sadness with hope and love.
The minister at last night's service was very reflective of those ideas. He, too, obviously understands sorrow and grief - he described it to a "T." The sense of being stuck in one place, unable to move, as if you're mired in quicksand. The way it hits you in the face every morning when you wake up, struck fresh with the memory of your loss. Most of all, the way it saps your strength, the bone breaking weariness of carrying such a heavy burden, of being so tired and weary of it all.
Since we were in church, this was the place in the story where Jesus entered. "Come all ye who are weary," He says, "and I will give you rest."
The sweetest word in the world to those worn down with grief. When we're burdened by sadness, loss, despair, doubt, Christianity tells us that Jesus will walk beside us and carry that burden for a while. "It doesn't happen in an instant," the minister said last night. "It's not magic. But it's possible, it's available, it's there if you reach out your hand. You are not alone."
There weren't a lot of people in the sanctuary - at first just a handful, and then later, another handful, until it was finally a respectable armload of folks who scattered themselves along the pews. There were young and old, an elderly couple who I heard had just lost their only son. A young woman, all alone, who knelt and genuflected, even though this was a Presbyterian church where that isn't ever done.
The altar itself was adorned with about 50 small votive candles, and after the message, people were invited to come forward, light a candle, and speak the name or names of those persons they were holding in their hearts. I was a bit skeptical whether people would feel free to do this. In the protestant tradition, we don't go in much for candle lighting or naming. But the moment the invitation was made, people practically surged to the front, the elderly couple I mentioned earlier one of the first in line.
Arm in arm, they approached the altar, and with trembling hands, lit the tiny candle. Leaning into the microphone, he spoke -"Jeffrey David Prichard, our son."
There were people who spoke loudly and clearly, those whose voices were only a whisper. They hugged one another as they left the chancel and returned to their pews. I had been asked to play softly during this time, and while I had prepared a lovely, simple version of Silent Night, I ended up quickly turning to another piece in the collection I had brought. And at the close of that, still another.
I've been fighting a sinus infection for days now, and physically I'm tired. I'm carrying some other sadnesses around too, so emotionally I'm tired. Before I went into that service last night, I wanted nothing more than to crawl under the covers and stay there for days. I craved someone to do something for me, to shoulder every burden and take care of me.
Truthfully, when I left the church last night, I felt lighter somehow, clearer headed, less likely to cry at the drop of a hat. I give some of the credit to the heavy duty decongestant I swallowed before I went in - my head no longer feels as if it's going to explode.
But I wonder if there is more to it than that, if a spiritual force empowers people in community to bolster one another, if the energy created by commonly held beliefs creates a cushion of comfort for our weary souls.
Whatever the source, I feel more rested today, less burdened.
Not quite so blue.
How about you? What color is your Christmas?