Christmas feels different this year.
I've sat with young mothers in my family who have lost young children, babies. I've sat with them physically for a short while. I've sat with them in my heart and mind for much longer.
Christmas looks different from here.
I don't understand how the truly monumental human feelings, the ones that contain all human connection in them, loss, pain, anger, love, empathy; I don't understand how they can transcend time and space and bring you exactly to another person's spirit, but they can.
And so here I am, in two places at once.
I am with my little family in Atlanta, cherishing every single moment.
I am with my bigger family in Pennsylvania, where my heart shatters and reforms every few hours, grief-striken.
Christmas looks different from this place. Where life is fragile; where I don't control whose heart beats and whose doesn't. Everything is more precious. Everything is a gift. It's tender here and dark. The darkness feels like a smothering shroud, some of the time. Like I can't breathe. Like I can't help but breathe. My heart feels like a tree in winter: Naked, cold, asleep.
Lighting the Christmas candle with the children each night feels like casting a patronus. A strong one.
Light in the dark.
Radiance, heat, vibration, the fastest thing that moves in the known universe.
Perhaps this is what the real first Christmas felt like, tenuous and complicated. Fragile, things could break so easily.
I like the cozy nativity sets, fat and happy baby Jesus exquisitely comfortable in his manger with clean straw. Mary in a white sash. Everyone beholding them adoringly. A star bathing them in cascading and brilliant light.
But it wasn't like that, it was bloody, dark, and lonely. A 14 year-old refugee woman giving birth unattended in a stable—except the scripture doesn't specifically mention a stable. It might have been a field. A 14 year-old refugee woman giving birth untended under brilliant star light—except, it doesn't say specifically the star shone that night. It might have been pitch black. How did she get clean? How frightened was this family? How relieved?
Contemplating Christmas from this place isn't something I've done before.
Things look different from here, darker. Broken.
My faith is comprised of unhealable wounds, things that forever alter a person after a divine encounter: Jacob walking with a limp after wrestling the angel all night, Jesus with the nail holes still in his hands. And now, that I think of it, Mary's motherhood.
Motherhood, even the very best kind, the kind where your children survive you, will crack you wide open and give you firsthand experience with protracted grief.
Motherhood is an unhealable wound. The mark of a blessing that was fought for, the mark of an encounter with the divine.
Leonard Cohen wrote in a song once, "there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
Light, any light, becomes so much brighter here--it comes pouring in from our wounds. From his wounds.
In grief, this strange transcendent human connection I feel with my cousins, sisters, nieces, it's the same heartache that motivated God to be with us.
Broken and fragile and wounded, he is with us.
Alone and in the dark, he is with us.
With hearts as asleep and cold as trees in winter, he is with us.
With hearts so shattered they've turned to ash, he is with us.
Skipping and jumping as fast as he can, faster than light, he is with us.
I have this tattoo on my left shoulder, Emmanuel in Hebrew calligraphy, because I always want to remember, written in indelible ink on my body, that God is with us.
Yesterday the power went out for a couple of hours, a tree limb fell on the power lines at the top of our road. The younger children were afraid, they huddled under foot for comfort. It was dark and dreary outside, spitting cold rain. Connor took a deep breath and said, "I'm going to build my lantern now, it's the perfect time to build a lantern, it's so dark."
Calmly, he wired up his lantern by the half-light of a flickering candle and what little sunlight could be coaxed from the windows.
When he was done, he sighed contentedly and said, "it shines so much brighter because it's so dark in the house, doesn't it, Mom? We need this light right now."
Amen and amen, we need this light right now.
God with us.