“Sorrowful, but always rejoicing…” Why does this phrase seem so strange to contemporary believers – particularly Evangelicals?
It would seem that especially around this time of year, the cult of nostalgic happiness rears its ugly head, and everyone, no matter your situation, is expected to smile and be “chipper” – after all, it’s Christmas! (Actually, it’s Advent – historically, a season of penitence and fasting as the Church prepares for the commemoration of the glorious Incarnation of our Lord; the season of Christmas begins on December 25th in the Western calendar).
Our favorite movies this time of year lead us to believe that at Christmastime, everything is magical… and everything works out in the end. I think of the ending of one of my favorite “Christmas movies”, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life!” I’m not too worried about spoilers; the movie has been syndicated for the last several decades – if you haven’t seen it yet, the responsibility is on you. At the end of the movie, George Bailey, our hero, learns the lesson that “no man is a failure if he has friends”. All of the townsfolk of Bedford Falls come together and donate the money George needs to, basically, keep him from going to prison and to keep the ol’ “Building and Loan” from going under. Everyone is cheerful. The chronically stupid Clarence gets his wings. Everything works out.
But, what if it hadn’t? What if George Bailey had gone to prison? What if his friends had abandoned him to the long arm of the law? What if, as we see throughout the movie, George hadn’t “cast his bread upon the waters”, earning friends through his kindly actions? What if, after all the lesson-learning intervention by a biblically unrecognizable “angel”, George had been sent off, Potter won, and the Bailey kids had to grow up without a dad? Some of you reading this are probably cringing as you do so.
You see, real life isn’t like “It’s a Wonderful Life!” Perhaps it has grown cliché to say “people don’t always get a Hollywood ending”; perhaps, but it is a cliché we need to learn full well. We don’t live in the consummated reality of the Kingdom fully come, “on earth as it is in Heaven.” If we did, why would Jesus tell us to pray for it? No, for most people – and I’m using the correct superlative – things are hard, and that doesn’t change just because it’s Christmastime on the Church calendar. Does the chronic cancer patient get a pass for Christmas Day? Does the woman who just lost her husband and now has to raise her babies without him – is she suddenly gifted with a loss of memory? Would losing those memories even be considered a gift? Are the impoverished and homeless suddenly relieved of the burdens of their poverty and homelessness because December 25th rolls around? The cult of nostalgic happiness has nothing of any real substance to give to the hurting – but Christianity does.
I’ve recently been reading through Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs. I was surprised when I came to Sermon 26 and Bernard broke off his theological exposition of the text to openly confess to the brothers that his heart was broken. Only days before, his brother, Gerard, had died – and Bernard had not shed a tear. Either through the stinging numbness of a new grief, or through a misplaced sense of ecclesial decorum, he had preached the sermon, said the prayers, and poured the dirt over Gerard’s lifeless frame, and all the while, he had shown no outward sign of grieving. And then – Sermon 26. “How long shall I keep pretense, while a hidden fire burns my sad heart, consumes me from within? A concealed fire creeps forward with full play, it rages more fiercely. I, whose life is bitterness, what have I to do with this canticle?” He continues on, informing the brothers about just how much Gerard had meant to him, not only as a brother, but also as a helper and companion in the work of the Lord. “You are aware that a loyal companion has left me alone on the pathway of life: he who was so alert to my needs, so enterprising at work, so agreeable in his ways. Who was ever so necessary to me? Who ever loved me as he?” Gerard’s death had left Bernard full of sorrow, and, saint that he was, he knew that it was dishonest to act like everything was okay when it wasn’t. He gave free reign to his sorrow in the words of this beautifully bittersweet sermon. It is a beautiful thing to hear a Doctor of the Church pour out his sorrowful heart before the throne of grace.
But, that’s precisely it, isn’t it? He comes before the throne of grace. Nowhere in all of Bernard’s sermon is there a hint of despair. Bernard communicates reality throughout – not in a hopeless cynicism, nor in a naïvely chipper singsong – but in a sorrow that still rejoices. “Flow on, flow on, my tears, so long on the point of brimming over; flow on, for he who dammed up your exit is here no longer. Let the flood-gates of my wretched head be opened, let my tears gush forth like fountains… When the Lord shall be appeased in my regard, then perhaps I shall find the grace of consolation, but without ceasing to mourn: for those who mourn shall be comforted.” There are places in Bernard’s sermon in which he openly questions why this sorrow has come upon him, and, whether rightly or wrongly, assumes that he is being somehow punished for some sin. But, even in his sorrow, and even though he thinks he is being punished, he looks to the promise of the One Who strikes. He can rejoice in the promise that his mourning, though so bitter now, will not last forever. He can take comfort that he will be comforted by the One Who forsook comfort and willingly suffered for the souls of all the elect. He can believe, because the Word took our flesh at Christmas, that those who trust in Christ and sow in tears, no matter how bitter those tears might be, will reap with shouts of joy.
You see, this is the real hope of Christmas. The Child in the manger should obliterate rather than reinforce superficiality; that Child is both the Man of Sorrows and the King of Kings. He will know the depths of darkness, pain, abandonment. He will bring salvation to His people and the Kingdom to the earth. He will endure the cross for the joy set before Him. He is our comfort in sorrow. He is our everlasting joy. He is both, simultaneously.
And the Christian hope recognizes both sorrow and joy simultaneously. If we are to live with any kind of honesty in the world, we must acknowledge with deep, profound sorrow that a world in which children are molested, people are blown up just for walking down a street, men and women are shot because of the color of their skin, and human beings overcome with despair take their own lives, is a broken and misshapen world. In this world, George Bailey goes to jail and Potter sips scotch in front of his fireplace. In this world, Gerard dies, and Bernard is left wondering why.
But, if we are to live with any kind of honesty in the world, in light of Christmas and all that Christmas means, we must acknowledge with an unshakeable rejoicing that death will one day be swallowed up in victory, every tear will be wiped away, those who mourn will be comforted, injustice will come to an end, and the empty places that gnaw us from within will be filled with the eternal joy of the consummation of everything Jesus has accomplished. In this we can rejoice, no matter how plagued with sorrow – that Jesus Who came will come again and set all things right.
Be sorrowful, but not without rejoicing in the hope of eternal joy in Christ. Be joyful, but not without sorrow for this passing, broken world. Joy does not negate sorrow, but it will outlive it. So when we meet with others who are suffering this Christmastime, let us heed the words of our brother Bernard, “…my request to every good man is that he look on me with kindness, and in a spirit of gentleness which is spiritual support to me in my lament. And I implore you, let not mere conventional respect, but your human affection, draw you to me in my sorrow.”
 Ecclesiastes 11:1
 Matthew 6:10b
 Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermon 26”, Sermons on the Song of Songs, trans. by Killian Walsh OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1983), 60.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 67.
 Psalm 126:5
 Hebrews 12:2
 Bernard, 67-68.