For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven ... a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)
The holiday season is a time (we hear from the endless advertising) to laugh, to sing, to entertain, to dance, to revel in the wonderfulness of it all. It’s the hap-hap-happiest time of the year. It’s a season that’s supposed to overflow with one side of the Ecclesiastes equation — to be a time when all of the good things are rolled into one.
But the author of Ecclesiastes offers a different vision: that the seasons of our lives are most often a mixture of both. That it’s not always possible to have the joyous neatly separated from the sorrowful, that in this life, the beautiful and the painful often go hand-in-hand.
I think there’s wisdom in Ecclesiastes for us no matter what time of year it is. But especially at this celebratory time of year, the message in these verses seems particularly important.
So I’m interested in thinking about what happens when we acknowledge the holiday season as a time where both joy and sorrow are present. I’m interested in considering the holiday season as a time for lament and a time for hope.
I have to admit that before 2008 I wasn’t nearly as aware of or interested in the practice of lament. By lament, I mean the expression of sadness, grief, mourning that comes from experiencing the shadow sides of life.
But right in the middle of the most wonderful time of that year, right when silver bells were ringing, I was diagnosed with incurable stage IV cancer, days after my 42nd birthday.
Rather than decorating a tree at home, I was living at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, spending my days being wheeled through the halls from one scan to another, one radiation treatment to another.
I’m a professor, which means I’m a professional talker of sorts, and it was jarring for me to go from living in an abundance of words to a space where words were hard to come by.
In those early December days after the diagnosis, those who loved me understood the severity of my condition better than I did. They wept, and I remained wordless, unsure about how breast cancer could break two of my vertebrae, about why and how breast cancer had spread to a dozen places in my bones. In a season that’s dedicated to celebrating, we found ourselves in a season of sorrow, of mourning — of lament.
One of the gifts of our religious traditions is that they offer us words for the times when words grow scarce. While words from the psalms — such as Psalm 23 — became even more important to me during those dark December days, I slowly grew more aware of the words offered up in the psalms that focus on the experience of lament. Psalms like Psalm 22, full of words Jesus used when he cried out from the cross: “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” The psalmist continues: “I cry out and you are silent; Do not be far from me for trouble is near.”
We often think of the words of the psalms as focused on praise and thanksgiving, words that offer comfort to those who sorrow — and all of those things are true. But it is also true that 40 percent of the 150 psalms in the Bible — that’s 60 psalms — are dedicated to lament. They are full of cries of anguish, of brokenness, of the absence of God. We don’t talk about this enough — that cries of lament are cries from within the experience of faith. Expressions of lament are present throughout the Bible, but especially in the psalms. The psalms are prayers and hymns that are meant to be used by those who are enduring a season of sorrow.
As is the case for anyone who endures a traumatic event — the world looked different to me after my cancer diagnosis. My very first public outing after being released from the hospital was to attend a Santa Lucia choir performance sponsored by the American Swedish Institute. Both of my daughters — ages 12 and 9 at the time — were in the choir. This centuries-old practice of singing into the darkness suddenly looked different to me, too: The story of Santa Lucia’s suffering and martyrdom made itself felt as we gathered in that downtown cathedral.
At the darkest time of the year, we remember the life of a saint whose life was marked by hardship. We gather into a space alight with candles and singing, a ritual that holds the season of sorrow together with the season of hope.
On that dark Dec. 13 in 2008, I wondered if it was the last time I would see my girls sing in a Lucia performance. I felt with aching clarity the power of the young voices singing the dark away, even as the darkness seemed to be at its most powerful.
At its worst, deep, prolonged suffering can overwhelm; it can crush; it can rob us of the ability to see the season as anything more than a time dominated by awfulness. During those early days of December 2008, it often felt that there was simply no way I could endure the cancer that had been ushered into my life and into the lives of those I love the most.
But as I continue to be granted more time to figure out how to live with advanced-stage cancer, I have grown more aware of how this season of joy is very often, also, a season of sorrow for so, so many. It’s a time to mourn lost health or a time to grieve because one who is beloved to us will be absent at this year’s holiday gatherings.
Framed in a religious context, the season leading up to Christmas is called Advent, which is a time of watching, of waiting, a time spent in darkness hoping for light. And while Christmas is commonly understood as a time to celebrate, a number of hymns of the season don’t want us to forget that this day when Christians celebrate God becoming flesh cannot be separated from the later parts of the story — the parts where God made flesh undergoes suffering and death.
All of this may sound like I’m counseling against laughing and dancing and singing and celebrating during the season of glistening snow and holiday cheer. But that’s not my point at all. I must confess that this is actually my favorite time of year, a time where I’d love to be dancing and laughing, and embracing all that is good.
It’s just that moving into the land of the unwell has made it much more difficult for me to ignore the amount of sadness that also often accompanies this time of year. And just as the wise author of Ecclesiastes attests, it’s rarely a time just for mourning or just for celebrating. Most often, it’s a time for both.
And having now had nine years to mark the date of my life changing by virtue of a cancer diagnosis, I have realized that acknowledging and making space for the times to mourn actually makes more space for the times to laugh and the times to hope.
As is the case for virtually all of the lament psalms as well, the time for lament helps propel us toward a time to hope. Psalm 22, which begins with such intense sorrow and anguish, ends with words of hope. The psalmist declares that one day, the poor will eat and be satisfied, that the Lord will listen to our cries for help.
One of the gifts we can give each other at this season of light illuminating darkness is to acknowledge and make space for the occasions for lament not only in our own lives but in the lives of others. I worry that many of us feel pressure to only talk about or make room for the happy aspects of the season. But when we acknowledge it’s also a season of lament, I have found, we can more fully enter into the joyous occasions, because there’s room enough in the season for both.
Deanna A. Thompson is a professor of religion at Hamline University. (www.hopingformore.com; www.facebook.com/DeannaAThompson)