Ministry has taught me that the season of Christmas is, for many in my pews, a season of great sadness. The familiar forms greet us—lights, trees, songs, gifts, church services—but loved ones who made these times so special do not. We remember the good and our hearts are warmed, but we cannot help but also remember our loss.
Those who mourn may sense an unspoken pressure to move on and enjoy the holidays. But I think that the advice given to those who mourn to “just try to enjoy this time of year” is like asking someone with a broken leg to walk normally as if they weren’t in pain. In the little I’ve learned about love and loss it seems to me that it is better to remember and grieve than to forget and pretend. We don’t need cheap advice to “move on” and “just try to enjoy” another Christmas season. We cannot forget those we love. We will always walk with this limp.
What we yearn for and need is real hope. So, a more honest and helpful question as we remember our loss might be, Where can we find true comfort? And, Where can we find real hope?
I find an answer in the preface to the great exodus story (not a typical “Christmas story”, I know). The Israelites are slaves in Egypt where a new king who does not know Joseph sits on the throne. Early in this book one wonders, What do these Israelites know about God? If you think about it, all they have is a Bible that consists of a single book: Genesis. Most likely they don’t have all fifty chapters that our Genesis comprises. Instead, they likely only have an odd assortment of rumored scraps of partial legends about a strange god: a god looking at the stars with Abraham, this same god and Isaac, this deity wrestling with Jacob, etc. What could they have possibly known about God? Honestly, probably not much. So, it is interesting that when they cry out in pain, the text simply says, “they cry out”. It doesn’t even say “they cried out to God.” Perhaps God is last thing on their minds.
Nevertheless, God hears their cries. That means that God hears deep within his own heart what is in his children’s hearts. He remembers, and his remembering means that God knows, and that God will act. As we know, the rest is history: God delivers his people with a mighty hand.
But, I want to back up and ask, What causes God to remember in the first place? It isn’t the people’s memory. After all, if this is hundreds of years later after Joseph and everything we read about in Genesis then who is left who could have remembered God’s promises? Who still has the signed contracts filed away so as to hold God accountable to what he said to the patriarchs? The answer, of course, is no one. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their immediate families have long been gone.
But it doesn’t matter, because what causes God to remember and to act is not the people’s memory of God’s covenant, it is God’s own memory of God’s covenant. God doesn’t need reminded, coaxed, guilted, or pressured by any outside force. He remembers because he does not forget. He is faithful to his own promises. He is faithful to the people he loves.
For us, what this means in the first place is that you are not the only one who remembers your loss. God remembers, as he always does. He remembers his people—those who are living and those who have passed on. He remembers the grief of his children. He hears their pain, he remembers, he knows, he acts. This was true in a great instance in the exodus, but it is also true in all the small instances of our lives.
And it means, in the second place that God does not and will not forget the promises he made in Christ to you or to your loved ones. Years after the exodus, God’s great memory proved true again, when early on a Sunday, even when the disciples were scattered and all had forgotten Jesus’s words about the resurrection, God did not forget. God heard his Son’s cries on the cross and, even as he slept in the grave on Saturday, God remembered.
Perhaps your loss happened just earlier this year, or perhaps it was years ago, or decades ago in your childhood. Regardless of when it occurred, it may be that you carry that loss on the front of your mind and right on the top of your heart. It may also be that this Christmas season no one will seem to take notice, and no one will ask or remember. But the good news is God does. We can find comfort and hope in the great memory of God. Rest assured that if you remember a loss, then God remembers it, too. And if you know the gospel and God's promises in Christ, God remembers them, too.
Years from now when I am forgotten, and no one is left who remembers my name or the names of any of the people I have loved—my family, my church, my friends—there may be no one left to remind God of his promises in Christ to us, no one left to hold God accountable to his promise to raise us from our sleep, to wipe away our tears, and to be with us as our God forever. Be that as it may, it is all right. Because Holy Scripture assures us God does not forget. The exodus and the empty tomb are evidence to us that even if all others forget, God will remember. God will not forget.