The first Christmas after my father passed away, I remember sitting in my parents’ home on Christmas eve, wanting to have some time alone to think about my dad. Being the father of a young family myself, it had a been a day full of frantic activity getting ready for Christmas. Christmas music was playing, sweet and savory aromas of cooking and baking were wafting from the kitchen, and our children were chasing each other throughout the house. So many signs of life surrounded me. Yet, I could not shake the reality of a profound absence. My father was not there.
I decided to go for a walk. It was a cold December evening and a thin layer of frost covered the sidewalks. With each step there was a crunch and crackle that came from the ground. As I walked I wanted to speak thoughts about my dad that I had not said, but I just did not know how to say the words. I wanted to talk to my dad. I wanted him to be there with me. Without thinking, I began speaking in a quiet voice to my dad. “I miss you, Dad.” I continued. “I bet that if you were home right now, you would probably be out here walking with me, hey?” Then it just flowed naturally. “Dad, you would be so happy if you were here. You would love seeing all the kids. And I know you would look after the hot apple cider!”
I realize this might sound strange, but this was part of processing my father’s loss. I walked and talked to my dad for another twenty minutes before heading home. Minutes before I walked onto my parents’ street I decided to be quiet. There was not a sound in the air, except for my footsteps. Yet, what I heard shocked me. As each one of my steps touched the icy ground, my footsteps sounded strangely like my father’s footsteps. In the pace and frequency of each footfall I could actually hear the sound of my father walking. Without knowing it, my pace of walking reflected the way my father walked. In hearing my footsteps, I was again reminded of my father’s absence.
Later that evening I attended a Christmas eve service with my mom and sister. We listened to different passages of Scripture surrounding the birth of Christ. One person read from Matthew’s gospel:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and
Bear a son,
And they shall call his name
Immanuel (which means, God with us).”(1)
In that moment, I was struck by two realities: the loss of my father’s presence and the mysterious, yet very real, presence of God. Christian theology, writes theologian Alister McGrath, uses the term “mystery” to denote the vastness of God. “[A] mystery is not something that is contradicted by reason, but something that exceeds reason’s capacity to discern and describe.”(2) I felt the loss of my father deeply that evening. But I was reminded that one of the most precious and beautiful gifts of Christmas is the story of God coming to us. He comes to us and he does not leave us.
This will be the third Christmas my family and I will celebrate without my dad. I will be thinking of him a lot and thinking of him fondly. Still today I carry with me so much of who my dad was. Since his passing, I have realized that I even walk the same way as he did.
The wonderful hope of Christianity tells me that I will see my father again. But more, it assures me that the God of Christianity is one who walks with us now in our pain and in our struggle. The words from the hymn In the Garden speak of this truth:
I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
Christmas tells me that there is strength and healing to be found in Immanuel, God with us. He is with us and he is with us each step of the way.
Nathan Betts is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Matthew 1:23.
(2) Alister McGrath, “On Truth, Mystery and the Limits of Human Understanding,” ABC Religion & Ethics, 12 November 2016.