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A quick scan through the radio dial this season may leave a grieving soul with the impression that there is no room for the sorrowful during the holiday season. This is, after all, a holly-jolly season. It is the most wonderful time of the year. If the television commercials are to be believed, everyone appears to be happy, hopeful, and honestly thrilled to be celebrating another Christmas. Sad people apparently are not included.
In our sanitized versions of the Christmas story, even the folks in the nativity scene seem to be absolutely beside themselves. Mary and Joseph, after the minor hiccup with the hotel arrangements, end the evening with a happy, healthy, baby. The Shepherds get free admission to the very first Christmas cantata. Even the wise men, after a long and arduous journey, found their way to the Christ child while bearing gifts that were sure to upstage almost all others. Most shops in Bethlehem sold out of gold, frankincense, and myrrh on Black Friday.
It all seems so sentimental, so serene, so superbly blessed that it’s tempting to think that whereas at that first Christmas, there was no room at the inn for Jesus, now, two millennia later, with all the tinsel and the toys, all the laughter for girls and boys, there’s no room at Christmas for those who are grieving.
I have good news for the sorrowful. While there may not be room for you in a Hallmark version of Christmas, there’s all sorts room for you in a New Testament Christmas. I know this because right there in the pages of the New Testament, we learn that a grieving heart had a front row seat to the arrival of the Messiah.
We learn from Luke 2:36-38 that Anna, a widow, was one of the very first souls to bear witness to the coming of the Lord. A couple of things stick out to me about this short little passage.
The first is that the God of Israel makes room for the grieving. We don’t always make room for one another in our grief. Nobody’s mean about it. People don’t intend to isolate those who are grieving, but little by little the actions of our friends communicate that they have moved on and make little room for those who have not.
It was even worse in the ancient world, at least for a woman. Anna’s husband died after just seven years of marriage. According to the tradition of the day, Anna was probably 19 or 20 at the time of his death. With so much life still ahead of her, she nevertheless, found little to look forward to. In her culture, a woman without a husband was in danger of becoming destitute, with no home, no hope, no future.
Remarkably, she found a home in the very shadow of the Almighty. Others might have been repelled by her grief, but not God. Far from being excluded from God’s presence, she was invited to live out her days in the very courts of the Temple.
It’s good news to learn that God gives us room to grieve. God does not insist that we put on a happy face. God does not encourage us to get over it. God does not ask us to move on with our lives. He, instead, invites us to move into his presence bringing our grief right inside with us.
The second thing I notice in this passage is related, Anna’s grieving opened the door to new visions of God. The text tells us that Anna was a prophet, which means, she was someone who received special insights into who God was and what he wanted for his people. We don’t know if she was considered a prophet before the death of her husband or just after, but there is good reason to believe that this new ability to hear a word from God came only after the tragedy of her husband’s death.
I don’t believe for a moment that God caused her husband’s death to make her a prophet. I don’t think that is how God works. I do believe that some visions of God only come to those who have tasted grief. Sometimes, it takes a great loss for us to be in the right frame of mind to hear a word from God.
Sitting there day after day, still reeling from her grief, Anna was not consumed with many of the things that concerned others in the temple courts. All the old contests, all the old concerns, all the old activities that filled her former days had lost their luster for this grieving saint. Instead, her heart was filled with the deepest longings for good to prevail and for life to be restored.
Those longings led her to prayer. Prayer led her to God. God gave her a glimpse of the Messiah.
Which leads me to the last point: True hope resides only on the far side of loss. People who have never lost anything, the extremely young, or the extremely sheltered, don’t tend to long for the future because they mistakenly believe they have everything they need today. Those who have experienced loss, recognize the need for an intervening hand. Not all those whose hearts ache turn their heart’s attention towards the Lord, but Anna did. For over seventy years she listened, and she watched. She knew this life didn’t hold the answers to all our yearnings, so she longed for another.
Eventually, she saw the God-child that would fulfill the longings of all those who were on the lookout for something more. Glory! What a moment it must have been. We know it was a special moment because of the way the Bible highlights this grieving widow. Very few people in the Bible get named. We don’t know the names or the shepherds or the wise men, but Anna, watchful, grieving Anna, gets named. Like I said, it’s a high honor to be named in the pages of the scriptures.
You know who also doesn’t get named, all the other people at the Temple that day. There were likely lots of them. These other people not only don’t get named, they don’t see. Nope. These other people did not see Jesus that day, even though he was there for all to behold. They were too happy, too content, too preoccupied with the present to be on the lookout for the future that was unfolding at their feet.
Who stays on the lookout for such things? Only those who have lost something. Only those who are looking for something or someone to return. In other words, only those who grieve.
Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). It’s a weird thing to say, especially when we realize that the word blessed can also be translated happy. Happy are those who grieve. Strange and not a verse we often associate with Christmas.
I wonder if we might not think of it as Anna’s verse. Maybe it can be your Christmas verse, too.
Blessed as those who mourn, for those who watch, for they shall see what others don’t and be comforted.