Christmas has always made me feel a little sad and a little lonely. As a young girl waiting to open her presents on Christmas, I always felt a hint of melancholy. My mind would wander to people who might be sitting alone, those without a family or a warm home. I could easily work myself into tears. Even the Christmas story itself didn’t bring me a lot of comfort. Though I knew the Savior of the world had come and we should be celebrating, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Mary and think about how scared she must have been. I thought of Jesus—this tiny baby born in a stinky manger with a stuffy old king already plotting his death. Every year I was left feeling gloomy no matter what new toy I received. I was always somewhat relieved the day after Christmas.
As I grew older, my melancholy eased a bit around the holidays. Then one year I found myself in the midst of my loneliest season. I was one of those people who didn’t have a home, and though I had my extended family, I was losing the largest part of my immediate family. I was getting a divorce.
Dozens of words describe the devastating experience of divorce: lonely, scary, sad, but also liberating. We had permanently separated in the summer, and I was doing okay; I even felt good on some days. But my husband had kept the apartment, the community, and on most days the dog, and so I was living on a friend’s property in a tiny house with no running water (true!) nestled in the scenic canyons of Los Angeles, having a Thoreau-like experience. I was alone in a place that, although beautiful, was not a home. But at least it was a landing pad, a place to breathe, a place to feel safe.
Then as the Christmas season drew nearer, I became overwhelmed with anxiety at the thought of having to see my large, extended, Christian family at such an obviously vulnerable time without the buffer of a husband. I poured myself into work thinking that if I could just accomplish more, then people would focus less on the divorce and more on my recent career success. I threw myself into working out in hopes of looking thin and beautiful so people would think, “She’s not sad. Look at her! She’s doing great!”
In truth, I knew Christmas with my family would be hard, but there was nothing I could do to fix that. So I wanted to avoid the holidays altogether. Unfortunately, flying to a tropical island south of the equator wasn’t an option, but I did house-sit for a couple who left town for Christmas and looked after their two large, unruly pups. I felt certain these sweet dogs would help me forget the realities of the season. Now, how could I get out of Christmas with the family? Impossible! So I went in search of wise counsel and asked a few divorced friends for tips on how to deal with this first Christmas alone. Apparently, though, no matter how you deal, it still hurts and you just have to “get through it.”
When avoidance and wise counsel didn’t ease my anxieties, I finally went to God. Faith had gotten me through the most difficult years and the ending of my marriage. I had gripped God’s Word tightly. I sought His presence with a desperation and clarity that I had never experienced before. He was all I had in the mess of a frightening and turbulent marriage and thus my whole heart was turned toward Him. He, in turn, revealed His gentle and mighty presence in a myriad of ways. God used friends and strangers when answering my prayers for safety and guidance. Timely words of wisdom were spoken into my life. Gifts came my way: a book with money hidden inside in case I needed a hotel, a house key in case I needed a place of safety, a bracelet with the words “I love you” from a friend just hours after I begged God to remind me He loved me. Countless times God placed the perfect people with the perfect words or the perfect gifts at the perfect time in my path. At a time when I could have easily felt condemnation, I instead felt cocooned and covered by God’s seemingly growing presence.
So why, after all of those examples of His faithfulness, would I choose during this season to turn to Him last? Well, I’m human and I easily forget His goodness. Though He had become increasingly tangible during the previous year, as Christmas approached accompanied by the anxieties of having to be with my extended family, I drew away from Him. I avoided praying about my fear and nervousness over the hurt that would surely come with this first Christmas alone. I somehow falsely convinced myself that the negative perceptions people, the church, other Christians, or my family might have about someone who is getting divorced could also be God’s perceptions. But drawing away from God wasn’t helping, and avoiding His possible judgment also meant avoiding His comfort. At last I leaned into Him with all my fear, anxiety, and sorrow. I held nothing back and I prayed.
As I struggled through that Christmas season, Jesus seemed bigger and more present than I had ever felt on any Christmas before. It became clear He was very much with me. He met me when I was out walking those two unruly pups, He met me as I tried to create a “home” in a place that was just a landing pad, He met me when I could not keep the tears at bay, He comforted me as I nervously drove to my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve. He met me in every hug from my family, and in every person who didn’t point out the obvious absence of the man who had been my other half for nearly a decade. Mostly, though, He met me in the silence when my mind would drift off to what had been and what could have been if there was no such thing as divorce. He met me in the silence when I couldn’t muster the energy to pretend that being alone didn’t hurt. The silence that could have felt so lonely instead felt so full, so full of Him.
Throughout that Christmas season I was reminded why Emmanuel, God with us, came in the first place. To save a hurting world, to ease our loneliness by being with us, and to seek and save the lost. In the midst of what could have been my loneliest season I found, once again, that no matter what season, or what circumstance of life, seems to overwhelm us, He is present, He is near, He loves us. Paul, in writing to the Romans, reminds us that “neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”