One of my must-watch Christmas films each year is Meet Me in St. Louis. The movie takes place throughout the year before the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. During the course of the movie, the family is told by their father that they are moving to New York City right around the first of the year. The entire family is devastated. As Christmas approaches, the boy next door asks Esther, the main character, to marry him. He longs for Esther to stay in St. Louis, and she hopes to remain in her hometown. Agreeing to marry him, she then goes inside to retire for the night. Esther notices her youngest sister, Tootie, still awake and lamenting the move. To console her, Esther sings the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
The words to the movie version of this song are somewhat different than what we typically hear on the radio this time of year. Most of us are familiar with the version adapted by Frank Sinatra. In 1957, he requested to change some of the lyrics from the movie version of the song for his album "A Jolly Christmas." The line "Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" was too gloomy for A Jolly Christmas album, so Sinatra changed the lyrics to "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." This cheery new version became a hit, and through the years, we rarely heard the original words from the movie. The sentiment of "muddling through" the holidays was buried.
But is everyone's Christmas jolly this year? With the many issues we face as individuals and families, a piece of Christmas will be cheerless for a number of people. As we push aside our lament and avoid lyrics and sentiments that reflect our sadness, are we trying to bury our pain? Even if we are happy, are we overlooking the possibility that our sisters and brothers might be suffering? Instead of being in the promise land that we call the Christmas season, many of us may be caught in the wilderness.
The wilderness is nothing new. At some point, everyone finds themselves in some form of exile. Stories in the Bible reflect the sentiment of being in the wilderness. Narratives such as Exodus illustrates a time of exile for the Israelites. After the baptism of Jesus, the text states "the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days..." (Mark 1:12-13a). Even Jesus found himself in a place of exile struggling spiritually.
The wilderness comes in many forms. For some, it's mourning the death of a family member or friend. For others, it's being in between jobs. Maybe some have gone through a divorce or ended a significant relationship. Families are separated by distances or conflicts. Many of us experience reproductive loss or struggles. Others are finding their ways through illnesses, exhaustion or depression. No matter where you are in the wilderness and with what you are wrestling, it can be lonely and harsh.
Under these long starless night skies of winter, we feel as if long sunny days will never shine again. Because of this, exile can seem never-ending.
Yet, as we muddle through this season, there may be moments when we can begin to see the first rays of dawn. Maybe we begin to observe a few beams of light trickling into a shadow-filled room. It may take time, and it may be slow. We may muddle through our lives until we can actually see the first traces of brightness in front of us.
God does what is possible to help us see the future. God shines the light of grace, and the Divine hopes for us even when we no longer can hope. God calls people into our lives to bring comfort and love when our exile seems long.
You may continue to feel like you are muddling through the long nights of winter, Christmas and the New Year. Take the time you need to work through your grief. In the next few days, some churches may hold a Blue Christmas or Longest Night service. These services are to honor your place in exile. When the time is right, reach out to others to help you along in your mourning. There are people around you, both in your churches and the community, who are willing to listen if you need to talk through your grief. Create new rituals during your holiday season that honor the past but also look ahead to the future. My prayer is that through these small steps, you may experience God's presence and comfort.
And maybe next year all of our troubles will be miles away...