I really loved my first forty-five Christmases. They certainly weren’t perfect, but they also weren’t painful. In fact, I would say that based on the purely imaginary Standard Holiday Happiness scale, although I had known highs and lows, my cumulative Christmas experience stood at a good, solid 8. I really liked holidays, and I loved making them happy for my husband and kids. It was a job I felt born to do.
Then came February 2011.
Just after celebrating our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary and on the day of our daughter’s sixteenth birthday, my wonderful husband, Steve, was diagnosed with ALS (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). ALS is a disease so fierce and foul that I feared all my holidays—before and after—would be redefined by it. I imagined looking at the family picture taken when we celebrated Christmas at SeaWorld and mentally recaptioning it: one year before our world fell apart.
In the months after the gut punch of the initial diagnosis, I caught my breath a little. We began to get our heads around what we were facing and how we would fight it. Slowly, as spring moved into summer, we developed a new sort of normal—tentative and tender but still more secure than we had felt in the brittle winter of Steve’s diagnosis.
Autumn snuck up on me with a beauty that took me by surprise. I remember the day I gave myself permission to love it. Long drives with Steve followed as we searched for the most beautiful trees in Central Oregon and just enjoyed spending the season together with few words and much wonder. I loved fall. And I felt ready for Christmas. I really did. But as soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers were put away and the annual after-dinner Christmas movie was playing in the family room, I knew I was in trouble. Spring had been hard—appropriately hard because it was cold and the news was fresh. Summer had brought welcome warmth. Fall was lovely and peaceful. But Christmas is supposed to be happy. I wanted to be happy—more than anything. I wanted it for my kids and my husband and my friends, but don’t let me kid you: I wanted it for me. I longed to fall in love with Christmas, but my broken heart had a mind of its own, and it didn’t seem to understand the rules of the calendar.
Not knowing what else to do, I sat down with my Bible and outlined my options for facing my most difficult-to-date Christmas: (1) ignore it, (2) fake it, or (3) rescue it.
Option number 1 was tempting, and I probably would have chosen it if I didn’t have a family depending on me for hope. Option 2 was also tempting—but impossible. I didn’t have the emotional energy for it. I wasn’t sure what option 3 would look like, but I wanted it. I wanted to find a way to make Christmas come alive in my broken heart and sad home. I felt desperate for Christmas to be rescued, and even though it seemed like a long shot, I decided to give it a try. I determined that instead of running from Christmas, I would instead invite Jesus into it. I would intentionally let his comfort come to my chaos by leaning into the swirling storm of sorrow and joy rather than away from it. And as I experienced his goodness in those tender days of Christmas, I realized I could have that goodness in all the days I would ever face as we traveled the road of suffering. In the end, the holidays of that first year post-diagnosis turned out to be some of our most beautiful.
Are you drowning in disappointment and heartache? Seasons of sorrow can easily suppress the beauty of the changing seasons and their accompanying celebrations. Holidays serve as milepost markers in our lives. We remember who we were with and what we ate and how happy everything seemed in comparison to the raw reality of right now. The problem with these built-in milestones, though, is that they’re impossible to dodge. They show up every year like clockwork, woven into the rhythm of our Hallmark-card culture. We can’t avoid them! But we don’t have to face them alone. The real beauty of the incarnation is that Christ came. He came for every hard or happy day we will ever face— from weddings to winter solstice—and he promises to be near us on every single one.
Will you join me in this unlikely dance of suffering and celebration? Let’s stand together for a moment—not around a perfectly Pinteresty holiday but at the foot of the cross—and look again at the Savior who was willing to step into our sorrow. There he is. For you. For us. For our sin and sadness and our breakdowns in the middle of department stores on Black Friday (oh wait, is that just me?). He is joy, and at the heart of his story is fullness of joy . . . especially for the brokenhearted.
This is excerpt is reprinted with permission from Thomas Nelson from the book When Holidays Hurt by Bo Stern. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
Bo Stern is a sought-after speaker, writer, and a teaching pastor at Westside Church in Bend, Oregon. She is a wife, a mother to four children and a new grandmother. She is involved in raising awareness and funding for research to find a cure for ALS. For more info visit www.bostern.com.