If you were in church this past Sunday, you may have lit the messenger’s candle of hope in honor of the first Sunday of advent. I love this tradition. I love the thought of lighting a candle — just a tiny flame — and it being enough to push back the darkness. The story you’re about to read is one I wrote two years ago, and I love to revisit it every Christmas season.
It’s my candle of hope, I suppose. A collection of stories unfinished — true stories of people I know and love, in their most broken places. Some of them have experienced great breakthroughs in the two years since I wrote this. Some still long for hearts healed and promises fulfilled. Some grieve losses that won’t ever be fully reconciled on this side of Heaven.
But this is a season that we pull back the curtain and peer into the other side. The heavenly side. The part of the story that says, despite our current circumstances, that the war has already been won. This is the season to wonder at all that’s yet to be. So we read unfinished stories, and we marvel at the possibility of how our God might complete them.
December. The malls are a zoo, with all the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping. It’s just like the song “Silver Bells” says, ‘Strings of street lights, even stop lights blink a bright red and green, as the shoppers rush home with their treasures.’
Christmas parties fill every weekend until New Years for most, and church attendance will hit an annual high on Christmas Eve. And behind all the crowds and craziness, each individual has a story.
A widow hangs an airplane ornament on her Christmas tree, and she still misses the pilot seven years after that unforgettable April morning. An ornament falls off the back of the tree and shatters, and she laughs at the irony because that’s kind of what life has felt like since he’s been gone. Twinkle lights and the prettiest of ornaments in front, but in the back something always seems to be breaking.
A faithful wife makes her husband the same Christmas breakfast they’ve had together for 50 years. “Surely this will make him remember,” she thinks. But he still doesn’t know who she is — the dementia is at the point of no return. She wonders when she’ll have the heart to let him go, and let someone else take care of him. “Oh, but it’s Christmas,” she thinks. “We have to be together on Christmas.” And she’ll think the same thing for Valentine’s Day, and Easter, and all the holidays that follow… And her daughter says with tears in her eyes, “Momma, he’s not really here. It’s time to let him go.”
A young husband spends Christmas in the hospital. He’s been fighting leukemia all year, and it’s finally gone. He’s not here for his cancer — he’s here for the cancer his wife was diagnosed with while he was recovering. They can’t seem to catch a break this year — but at least they made it to Christmas. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Somewhere in Houston an old man sits alone in a trailer, sipping a glass of scotch and thinking about the family he abandoned so many years ago. He doesn’t know they won’t be together this year, because the brokenness that he left them with decades ago has finally become such a mess that they can’t even get together anymore. And all less than a one hour radius of one another, they spend Christmas alone, because they don’t know that the answer to their pain lies in that manger in the all-too-peaceful scene they can’t seem to get away from during this season.
All of them except their baby brother, who has a family of his own. And he takes care of mom, and she follows this Jesus he started talking about so long ago now, too. They envy his strength but they’ll never admit it, because he’s just their little brother. They want to taste the hope that he seems to walk in such peace in, but they don’t quite understand what it is — and they’ll never ask. They’re too prideful; too wounded.
So he keeps hoping, and he finds joy in those three little girls who are now grown up women of God. He thanks his Father — the Daddy who swept in and saved him when his own dad left — that somehow despite his own past, he created something new. Something beautiful. Something full of hope for the future generations of his blood line. Not without a few of his own painful mistakes, though. And he thinks about those, too. Oh, but grace is a beautiful thing — he thanks Dad for that, too.
He takes the last ornament of the advent countdown off the shelf and hangs it on the tree on Christmas morning, as his beautiful wife puts candles in a coffee cake and readies the family to sing “Happy Birthday Jesus,” just like they have done since those three grown women were just little girls. He looks around and marvels at his life. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been hopeful, and God has always been faithful.
This is his Christmas miracle.
And with a heart full of thankfulness, he sneaks back to his bedroom and kneels on the kneeler he prays at each morning. Because 48 years later, he still believes. He still hopes for the souls of his broken family. And a thankful heart prepares the way of the Lord … so he thanks Him, and he pleads for those he loves that don’t yet know his Father.
Just like the song we sing each year at this time says, he knows it’s true:
“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.
And in His name, all oppression shall cease…”
So the widow hopes for eternity with the pilot as she watches the grandkids that bear his name play with their new toys. The faithful wife enjoys her breakfast despite her circumstances, and hopes for the day her husband knows her again, though it won’t happen this side of heaven. The young couple in the hospital shares Christmas night take-out in a matching pair of flannel PJs — it’s the little things they’re learning to find joy in.
That’s what this season is about. Hoping in our darkest places, in our deepest wounds. Because this is the season that we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. Peacefulness is healing — and healing is peace.
And the peace is contagious, and even those who don’t know what it is can feel it. So the old man puts down his scotch, and he pulls out an old photo album. He kept one of them, even through all the years of running. He doesn’t know what it is, but he knows there’s something about this time of year that makes him wonder if he really could mend all those broken relationships.
I watch all these stories unfold, and I’m humbled, because I’m one of those three little girls that the baby of the family raised. And he sees me as a hopeful future, but maybe the purpose of the hopeful future is to bring healing to the broken past.
He came to bring restoration, didn’t He?
So I hold onto the words that come at the beginning of that same song that I love.
A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices.
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.