The Empty Seat at the Table

How Christmas Speaks to Our Grief

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Guest Contributor

One of the chairs will be empty at our family’s Christmas meal this year.

A husband will celebrate the holidays without his wife for the first time in thirty years. A son will face his first Christmas without Mom at the table. Memories of a friend’s cherished voice will fill the stillness between our conversations. Those nearest to our hearts are made most conspicuous by their absence.

There is something sacred in gathering around a table. Some of the best parts of life are shared over meals. During the holiday season, we travel the country and cross the globe to take our seat. It may be the one place and time we’re able to share treasured moments with the people we adore.

And so, when a cold, empty seat takes the place of someone we love, we feel the weight of their absence profoundly. The chasm left behind threatens to swallow us alive.

Curse in the Air

How can you sing about “tidings of comfort and joy” when someone who brought such joy to your life is no longer there to share it? How do you relish the Christmas cheer when the laughter of a loved one has been silenced? At times like these, the proverb rings painfully true, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (Proverbs 14:13).

When there’s an empty seat at the table, we’re reminded of the undeniable, inescapable reality that something is horribly wrong with this world. A curse hangs in the air, and all of us have tasted its poison. Death lurks around every corner; the taint of sin stains our very souls. The universe crumbles under the weight of its own rebellion, and God — Giver of all life, our consummate joy — seems so very far away.

We used to walk with him in the garden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8). But ever since we sought to dethrone God’s authority in our lives, chasing after the enticement of forbidden fruits, chairs have gone empty at the table of every household on earth. Ours is a damned and dying world, hopelessly unable to restore itself to God.

Another Empty Chair

On Christmas, however, we remember another empty seat. The eternal Son of God stepped down from heaven’s throne to walk among us once again.

Without casting off or diminishing his divinity, Jesus Christ entered history as human, an infant, swaddled in rags and laid in a feeding trough. For three decades, he lived the nondescript life of an everyday laborer, kneeling next to the carpenter’s bench and wiping sweat from his brow. Once he began his public ministry, the Maker of the universe gave priority of place to the table of sinners.

Jesus brought wine to the head table at a wedding in Cana to prove the Bridegroom had finally come to claim his beloved (John 2:1–12). He multiplied bread at a Galilean picnic to declare himself the “true bread from heaven” — life-giving nourishment for world-weary souls (John 6:32, 35). Christ took his seat with tax collectors, prostitutes, and Pharisees so that all may find welcome at the Lord’s Table. He broke bread with the friends who would forsake him to show that his table is a place of forgiveness for the repentant, of redemption for the unworthy, and that no one is too far gone (Luke 22:14–30).

All it cost Jesus was his life — a greater ransom than we will ever know.

Costly Welcome

Christmas is the story of how Jesus became the “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3) so we might receive “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). It’s the story of creation’s King who stepped down from the throne of glory, trading his holy regalia for beggars’ rags, so we may approach the mercy seat of God clothed in Christ’s righteous robe.

The manger of Christmas sets the stage for the cross, as the perfect Judge of men descended from his bench to sit condemned in our place. God lifted his gavel of unfailing justice — and the nails were driven into Jesus’s hands. He absorbed the penalty of sin and put death to death, swallowing up the grave in victory (1 Corinthians 15:53–54).

Jesus surrendered his very self to reconcile sinners to a holy God, a welcome of infinite cost into the eternal banquet hall of his kingdom. There, the Lamb will feast forever with his church, the Bride he has redeemed (Revelation 19:7). At his table, no seat will ever go unfilled.

King’s Table

When we see the seat left empty at our Christmas meal, it is right for our hearts to ache. But those who are in Christ do not grieve without hope, as the rest of the world does (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Even in sorrow we can rejoice, because we place our bedrock confidence in knowing death doesn’t get the last word. When the empty seat seems too much to bear, we cling to the hope of heaven’s table.

Every holiday gathering reminds us that our Lord calls us to another sacred meal. As we laugh with those around us and weep for those who are gone, we look to the day when all the blood-bought people of God will gather around the table prepared by the Carpenter’s hand. There at the banquet of grace, all eyes will be fixed upon our Host. In our joy’s eternal increase, we will gaze with wonder at the King who left his throne to give us a seat at the table: our Savior, our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ our Lord.

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
     you have loosed my sackcloth
     and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
     O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (Psalm 30:11–12)