Christmas with an Empty Chair
When the Holiday Just Isn’t the Same
My grandfather is no longer here for Christmas.
I scarcely remember one without him, and yet now his absence is becoming the new normal. We no longer gather in his living room to read Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth, sing “Joy to the World,” open presents together, or eat the Christmas dinner he prepared. His chair, once so full of fondness, infectious laughter, and gentlemanly repose, now sits silent, full of memories.
A new sensation now dines with me during my favorite time of year. As the dining table crowds with new faces, new grins, and new babies, nostalgias of past Christmases unfold in the background. Here, more than at any other place or time, days past and days present meet. Here I behold fresh holiday scenes with old eyes. So much is the same, and so much is different.
Loss has made me older.
I look around the table at the bright eyes of the children, and see a joy unburdened. The Christmas they have known is the same today. They can’t see what their parents see. They cannot detect the soft-glowing faces or hear the unspeaking voices. To them, chairs aren’t empty, they’re yet to be filled. They don’t know the ache in our celebration, the wounds that never fully heal.
I now know Christmas as my grandfather had for years — as a mixture of gladness and grief, gratitude and regret, Christmas now and Christmas then. I could not discern the others who dined with us around the table from another life ago — parents, friends, his beloved wife. I never realized his Christmases filled with more than just that single Christmas. I now see the unspoken dimension. I better understand that weathered smile, brimming fuller, yet sadder than once before.
Suffice it to say, Christmases these days aren’t quite the same.
Out with the Old?
With this new experience of Christmas with an empty chair, comes certain threats and temptations.
Jesus once warned about sewing a piece of new cloth onto an old garment; or putting new wine into old wineskins. The wineskins might burst, he taught; the cloth might tear. But here we are. In the mind of the man or woman who has lost, the new is patched with the old; new wine pours into old family wineskins.
Perhaps you can relate. The pressure of sitting and eating and singing where he or she once sat and ate and sang can tear at the heart. You may have lost more than a grandfather. The strain of grief you feel around the holidays nearly concusses. The spouse whose name inscribed upon the ornament is no longer here. One stocking is missing. The beloved child you watched run down the stairs Christmas morning has not made it down for some years now. Christmas, this side of heaven, will never be the same.
I do not pretend to know such depths of despair. But I do know twin temptations that greet those of us who have lost someone. I hope that naming them might help you this Christmas.
Past Swallows Present
The first temptation is to the variety of grief that kidnaps us from life today. This bottomless ache comes when we begin to stare and stare at the empty chair. The grief overwhelms all gladness; the past swallows the present. The good that arrives is not the good that once was, so all current cause for happiness becomes spoiled or forgotten.
This is to step beyond the healthy grief and remembrance of our losses. It poisons the heart by entertaining the question the wise man bids us not to: “Say not,” he warns, “‘Why were the former days better than these?” For, he continues, “it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). This grief poisons the what is with the what used to be. It hinders the ability to go on.
Grief threatens to lock us in dark cellars of the past, keeping us from enjoying the child playing on the floor or the new faces around the table.
Second is the temptation to bow to the over-the-shoulder guilt bearing down on us. Lewis captures this in A Grief Observed:
There’s no denying that in some sense I “feel better,” and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. (53)
“The empty chair can threaten to overwhelm all joy in this Christmas or shame us for feeling any joy this Christmas.”
This temptation sees the empty chair frowning at us. “Why aren’t you sadder? How can Christmas still be merry? Didn’t you love him?” The memory, not remaining in its proper place, looms over our shoulder, patrolling our happiness in the present. This shame is a sickness that tempts us to hate wellness.
So, the empty chair can threaten to overwhelm all joy in this Christmas or shame us for feeling any joy this Christmas — both must be resisted.
Melt the Clouds of Sadness
So what do we do? There the empty chair sits.
Fighting both temptations, I need to remind myself: Christmas is not about family around a dinner table, but about Jesus. And Jesus has promised that for his people — for my grandfather — to be absent from the Christmas table is to be present with him.
I ask myself, Should I wish my grandfather back? Would I, if it stood within my power, recall him from that feast, reunite his soul with his ailing body — reclaim him to sickness, loneliness, sin — summon him from the heaven of Christ himself to a shadowy celebration of Christ on earth?
Somedays I half-consider it.
But I know that if I could speak to him now, he wishes me there. The empty chair heaven longs to see filled is not around our Christmas dinner, but the empty chairs still surrounding Christ. Our places are set already. Better life, real life, true life, lasting life lies in that world. That empty chair of our loved ones departed is not merely a reminder of loss, but a pointer to coming gain.
“That empty chair of our loved ones departed is not merely a reminder of loss, but a pointer to coming gain.”
This place of shadows and darkness, sin and Satan, grief and death, is no place yet for that Happy Reunion. The dull Christmas stab reminds me that life is not what it should be, but it can also remind me life is not what it will soon be for all who believe.
Jesus will come in a Second Advent. He will make all things new. Christmases with empty chairs are numbered; these too shall soon pass. And the greatest chair that shall be occupied, the one that shall restore all things, and bring real joy to the world, is Jesus Christ, the baby once born in Bethlehem, now King that rules the universe. He shall sit and eat with us at his eternal supper of the Lamb.
And until then, while we travel through Christmases present and future, I pray for myself and for you,
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!