Daddy was not an easy man on most days of the year, but at Christmas his moods were especially dark. On Christmas mornings he’d sit on the sofa and watch us tear through the red and green paper, tossing ribbons behind us and slapping the sticky bows on top of our heads like miniature hats. I can still see him sitting there, hands folded across his round belly, trying to raise his eyebrows at the appropriate times: “Oh, that’s nice ... who got you that?” (Half the time the answer was, “You and Mommy.”) Still, the darkness in his heart was never hidden, not even from our young eyes.
When I got old enough to put words to my wondering, I’d ask my mother why Daddy didn’t like Christmas. She’d put me off with a shrug or a wave of her hand, saying something about materialism. But there was a glitch in the shine of her eyes that told me there was more.
Then, one year, with Daddy out of town and my sister and me old enough to push Mom harder, she told us. Daddy’d had problems as a younger man, she said. Problems that required help. And when the men came for Daddy (and they really did wear white suits), it was Christmas Day. He stayed in the hospital for nearly two years.
So many puzzle pieces fell into place in that moment. And I saw Daddy’s black moods much more clearly from then on.
Things changed a bit when he became a granddaddy. He went out and bought the toys himself (he had to buy us a new toy box one Christmas just to fit all of his gifts). But his joy was vicarious -- he remained on the sofa, hands folded.
Then came Christmas, 1999. I finally saw my father claim Christmas for himself. There was peace and joy from his own intimacy with Christ, not merely from watching his loved ones’ faces. That was the Christmas Daddy died.
He’d been ill for several months; there was no doubt he was dying. He deteriorated rapidly and finally, two weeks before Christmas, he was confined to his bed, saying his goodbyes.
Though I had never been sure of my father’s salvation, I was sure of it now. I don’t know when he accepted Christ as Lord; it may have been years before or merely weeks. But as his death approached, the dark memories in his heart were chased away by the light of God’s grace, as shadows are scattered by sunlight.
My mother attended to his physical needs, and they attended to his spiritual ones together. They sang hymns and read through his favorite Scriptures. Two days after Christmas, my father left his ravaged body and rose to meet the One whose birth he had finally truly celebrated.
My own reaction at the time was not one of joy. I was heartbroken, exhausted, emotionally flattened out -- and more than a little bit angry that all this had happened at Christmas. It seemed like a cruel joke, to plague my father with yet another tragic Christmas. And in my grief, I saw all my future Christmases stretching out before me, cloaked in the remembrances of this Christmas past. I saw myself, like my Daddy was, on the sofa every Christmas, faking enthusiasm for the sake of my kids.
But a funny thing has happened in the five Christmases since Daddy’s death. Though this sorrow never leaves me, alongside it there is the brilliance of joy. It’s not there in spite of the pain, and it’s not dimmed by it. The joy is intensified into something that does not merely illuminate, but pierces.
I see the manger in a whole new way: the crudeness and stench and frailty of the stable were the perfect contrast for the purity and beauty and power of the infant Messiah. The manger is the perfect picture of the human heart, and its complete transformation once Christ is born there. God showed me that He was present in my grief, as He was present in the blackness of Daddy’s heart, as He was present in that dim stable. Only in the darkest of places can you fully appreciate a sudden burst of light.
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