Christmas is for the Lonely

By Pastor, and Stephen Leader, Jeff Carlson

“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Luke 5:16

My partner Joe has been working in Honolulu for over two years. The separation hasn’t been easy for either of us. It’s especially hard at holiday times. The emotions I’ve felt have ranged from anger to grief to hope and then back through the cycle again, but the underlying feeling is one of loneliness. Joe left on a Sunday morning in September, 2016. We said good-bye on the curb in front of our building as he left for O’Hare and I left for church. During worship I wept during the hymns, and I’m not a weeper. Going home after church I walked into an apartment that would be empty until Christmas. All I could feel was his absence - his spot on the couch, the vacated closet racks, his empty pillow - each of them a lonely space. In retrospect, I wish I had sought out a Stephen Minister to talk to.

I knew that I could never fill the emptiness of his absence, so I decided to own it and live inside of it. I began to sit on his side of the couch. I hung my clothes on his side of the closet. I slept on his side of the bed. Rather than looking passively every day at empty spaces, I got inside of them and claimed them. At Totenfest we read that quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer about losing someone we love: “It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill the gap, but keeps it empty, so that our communion with another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.” There is truth to that, I suppose. Perhaps God doesn’t fill the gap, but I’ve found that by intentionally living inside of the gap - rather than gazing into its emptiness - I feel closer to Joe, closer to God and I’ve gained some power over the void.

The Gospels speak of Jesus repeatedly withdrawing to lonely places to pray. That’s where Jesus apparently found his closest communion with God - in empty, lonely places. At Christmas, Christ enters our world and comes into our lonely place. The gift of Emmanuel is the gift of “God with us." God might not fill the gap; but in the manger of Bethlehem, God climbed right along with us into the gap and has never left us alone.