Upon seeing the words “The First Christmas” your mind is probably conjuring images of Mary and baby Jesus and the shepherds. The imagery is iconic, isn’t it? Whether the result of a careful reading of Luke 2, or exposure to nativity sets of all kinds, pretty much everyone knows what is meant by “The First Christmas.”
For many of us, however, The First Christmas has a second meaning: The First Christmas Without __________.
And though that meaning is bound to only one particular day in a person’s life, it carries with it the emotional weight of an entire lifetime. It carries with it the memories of all the other days – the birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings, 4th of Julys, graduations – shared with someone who’s gone.
My “First Christmas Without” came in 1999, seven months after the death of my father, Larry Hillyer. With it coming over half a year after my dad lost his battle with stomach cancer, I had already experienced a few firsts without him, so I knew the day would bring with it certain challenges.
My mom and I had not been able to go to the family 4th of July event earlier that year, though we’d tried. Indeed, the pain of The First July 4th without him was hard to stomach, so much so that we turned around halfway to the party and went home to mourn. We were in no state for celebration that day, and I assumed Christmas would be much the same – if not magnified in emotional intensity.
I assumed we’d be miserable.
But that’s not what happened on December 25, 1999. As I sat at the kitchen table with my mom, both of us eating Mexican pizzas, I smiled. Christmas had never looked like that - just me and my mom eating nontraditional Christmas food – and that was okay.
As the sun poured through the windows and my mom asked me to pass the salsa, I realized we were okay.
I realized that even though everything had changed …
even though life as we knew it was over …
even though there would still be “firsts” to come …
there was still hope.
And that hope was bigger than the pain of one single day. It was bigger than the pain of seven months since my dad had died. Indeed, it was bigger than the pain of the six months he suffered before passing away on May 18, 1999.
As a fifteen-year-old, I couldn’t articulate why I felt that hope. I knew God was involved in some way, and that was good enough for me. As a thirty-four-year-old, however, I can more confidently state where my hope originated. The hope that comforted me and my mother that Christmas – the same hope that will comfort many others dealing with “First Christmases Without” – came from what most people think of when they hear the words “The First Christmas.”
My hope came from Christ.
Because God loved me, and my dad, and my mom, and Joseph, and Mary, and Paul, and Judas Iscariot, and you (the person reading this blog), He came to Earth in order to save us from sin and death. The two things that most separate us from the people we care about (i.e., sin and death) are precisely what He came to redeem.
So even though I felt the sadness that comes from earthly death; I knew deep down that my faith was in something greater than that.
My faith was in The One who doesn’t change. My faith was in The One who conquered death!
For anyone reading this post and dreading the pain of “The First Christmas Without”, I encourage you to meditate upon the following words, which (much more eloquently) state what I’ve been trying to say in this post:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” - 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV)
As you prepare for your First Christmas Without, know that even though it hurts, and though outwardly you may be wasting away, God is renewing you with the same power that not only brought life on the First Christmas, but also triumphed over death.