I once thought joy was synonymous with happiness. Sure, I would use the word to mean extreme happiness, not just everyday cheerfulness, but still…I lined it up somewhere in the happiness spectrum. But joy is far more than happiness. Experience in God’s kingdom teaches us this more than His word, though it is confirmed there over and over.
In December 1997 my then ninety-three-old mother was in the hospital. We all knew, though we wouldn’t admit it, that she was dying. Previously, I’d been guilty of thinking that the passing of someone over ninety didn’t bring forth strong grief; after all, the person had lived a good, long life. I was totally wrong.
All ten of the children Mamma had given birth to and nine chosen ones, as well as thirty-three grandchildren and thirty great-grandchildren, expressed ourselves differently, but we were heartbroken at the thought of losing Mamma, Momsey, Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Miss Eula. We couldn’t imagine ever finding full happiness again without this dear lady whose cozy bedroom had become a sanctuary for all of us–a place where we knew we’d find loving support, challenges to keep our chins up, boosts to our faith, encouragement to continue pursuing our dreams, or simply the opportunity to catch our breath. Hers was a place where we could lean over a game of Scrabble and lose our other concerns in deep contemplation over whether we could find a brilliant or not so brilliant use for a q.
It seemed natural to sing around Mamma’s hospital bed. Gradually, she slipped too far for us to communicate in any other way. She’d always enjoyed her children being around her–so we sang, some of the boys strumming guitars. We gathered each night around Mamma’s bed to sing, even though, for days, there was no response from the still figure in the bed. We sang all her favorite hymns and, with Christmas approaching, felt compelled to sing carols too. It was apparent Mamma wouldn’t be with us at the big Stone Gables Christmas tree this year. In fact, some of her last words had been that she wouldn’t be seen sitting in her big blue chair “But,” she’d whispered, “I’ll see you.”
It was a struggle, even a battle, for me to sing “Joy to the World” beside Mamma’s silent form to the accompaniment of her struggled breathing. But I was determined to do it. When one of us dropped out of the singing because of tears, others took up the slack. Nurses, who had ignored hospital rules to let us overcrowd Mamma’s room, told us with moist eyes how much our faith–and, yes, joy–meant to them as we sang Mamma to heaven, her flight to perfect peace finally occurring in the wee hours of December 12, 1997.
For over a year I could not sing any Christmas carol without needing one of Mamma’s handkerchiefs. But I knew hos much Mamma had loved Jesus and loved Christmas, how she’d loved seeing the little ones sitting around the tree singing “Away in a Manger.” I remembered how she’d always beamed as her younger sons, Stan and Charlie, took turns emceeing our large family Christmas party. They would throw in a line about how Santa had been delayed by a heavy snow, but could still possibly come. She was as thrilled as the children when a real live Santa Claus came walking in our big front door with a pack on his back. It would have been a tremendous sorrow to her if she knew she’d laid a shadow forever over our Christmas spirit. So, I kept singing. We all did. And the joy of the Lord came to us even in the midst of grief.
Now, years later, I can sing more joyfully than ever. For there are even more memories–memories of Mamma’s sweet concern for us to the very last, of her dreams for each little great-grandchild, of her love of life. I remember vividly my husband’s tenderness throughout that dreadful, sweet time and my children’s thoughtfulness. William pulled on his dad’s boots and went out in a cold dawn to help his cousins dig Mamma’s grave in our family cemetery, all of them wanting her place of rest to be personally and perfectly right. Julie reminded me, “Grandmother’s happy now and not hurting anymore. She’s singing with the angels. And you’re just going to have to learn how to make those good green beans she always cooked for us.”
Yes, true joy comes during our darkest hours. True joy shines through our grief in an unexplainable way. The Christ of Christmas knew sorrow greater than any of us can begin to conceive. But He offers Joy that is eternal.
Almighty God, thank You for being there for me in great joy and in sorrow. Thank You for bringing joy out of sorrow and showing me rainbows in my tears. Make me a blessing, Lord, to others who mourn. Amen.
Ideas for you to write in your Christmas journal:
Have you experienced grief at Christmastime? Write about it, if only a few words.
What are some of the voices you hear in your mind when “Joy to the World” is sung?
Write a prayer from your heart to His.
This “Pens and Needles” entry adapted from Christmas Carols in my Heart by Brenda Knight Graham