Christmas is a time of very mixed emotions for me. As a father and grandfather, I enjoy the warmth of family. But there are empty chairs at our family table. As the sounds, sights, and smells of the season take me back to earlier times, I find myself reflecting on what might have been.
It’s been seven Christmases since the death of a daughter left the first vacant chair at our table. One would think that the pain would ease, but it has not. Those who know that pain themselves tell me it never will.
I know that my family and I are not alone in our pain. In my years as a pastor I’ve met many who have an empty chair at their own table on Christmas Day—a chair once filled by a wife, husband, father, mother, or child.
I often ask myself the hard question—the “why” question. At such times God and I wrestle, but in the end God always draws me close. Like a father dealing with an angry, hurting child, he wraps his arms around me, wipes away my tears, and gently whispers, “I know, I understand, I’ve been there.”
As I reflect, I am reminded that Christmas is not first of all about family and friends. It is not even about my daughter. It is about Jesus: his birth, his life, and his sacrifice.
Have you ever considered how God the Father must have felt on that first Christmas? For the first time in all eternity the Father witnessed his one and only Son stripped of his divine glory and brought low. God incarnate was now a helpless baby lying in a Bethlehem barn. The creator of heaven and earth was sleeping in a feed trough.
When I see the empty chair at my table, through my tears I see heaven. I see hope and peace in Jesus, but it was not so for God. Not only was there the pain and loss of seeing his Son brought low, but God knew that what lay ahead was the journey of the cross: a journey ending in humiliation and death. God the Father knew that one day, for your sake and mine, he would turn his back on his one and only Son, sending him into the bowels of hell itself.
Yet in midst of this, God’s message to the shepherds and to us was one of joy: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
You may wonder what this has to do with the church at work. On the one hand, it has nothing to do with it; this is simply my personal reflection on Christmas. But on the other hand, it has everything to do with it.
The church exists to transform lives and communities around the world. Empty chairs, as painful as they are, are constant reminders of who we are and what we do. They remind of us of death—and resurrection. They fill us with pain—and hope. They focus our attention on ourselves—and others. They draw us back into the arms of our loving Father.
As I close, I and the staff who serve in the ministries of the Christian Reformed Church wish you a blessed celebration of our Lord’s birth. Remember the price that our Father paid to make this season possible. Remember not only the child in the manger but also the Christ on the cross. Remember not only the whimpers of the newborn but also the agony of a dying man.
Most of all, remember that it was for you that he came and for you that he died. As you gather your family and friends around you for a celebration of the season, reflect on the grace of God that restores and redeems us.