How to make gravy: Christmas for the lonely
If ever there was a great Australian Christmas carol, it would have to be Paul Kelly’s 1998 song “How to Make Gravy.” It takes the form of a prison inmate’s letter home to his family at Christmas.
Hello Dan, it’s Joe here, I hope you’re keeping well.
It’s the 21st of December
And now they’re ringing the last bells.
If I get good behaviour I’ll be out of here by July.
Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas Day,
Please don’t let them cry for me.
It’s not a happy Christmas song. It is the song of someone locked out of all the comforts and festivities of Christmas. When Joe starts his letter, we think he’s referring to church bells. But then it dawns on us that it’s the prison bell. No pretty jingle bells in this Christmas carol. No festive cheer. Only a profound ache of yearning and regret.
The song is a poignant reminder that for many people, Christmas is the loneliest day of the year. It is a day when broken families feel their brokenness most acutely, when prisoners feel the absence of the ones they love, when bereaved parents are confronted by the void left by the children they have lost.
Yet in such experiences of hurt and loneliness we draw close to the real heart of Christmas. After all, the first Christmas was not a particularly nice event. It took place against a backdrop of fear and oppression and a people’s desperate unfulfilled longing for justice. On Christmas, God came crying into the world, born in blood and fear and hope like every one of us.
God’s cry was united with the cry of every mother who has ever lost a child, every child who has ever been torn from their parents, every family ever broken and every man and woman ever placed behind bars or turned away from safe asylum. In the birth of Jesus, God’s cry united with the cries of all the world and with the desolate hidden cry of every human heart.
Christmas is, of course, a festival of joy. The good news of Christmas is “tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). But the joy of Christmas is much more than what our society calls happiness. It is the joy of the psalms and the prophets – a song pieced together from the fragments of a broken heart, a fragile hope rising from the ashes of despair, a cry of inconsolable trust in a God who is mysteriously present in the dark night of grief and pain. “If I make my bed in hell, you are there” (Psalm 139:8).
Jesus is the world’s true joy because he comes to the world at the place where it hurts the most. He bears away our sin. He dissolves our shame. He heals the wounded spirit. He drives away the enslaving powers. He accepts the rejected, welcomes the outcast, seeks the lost, loves whatever is unloved and forgotten. He absorbs all our grief and death into his own heart. He does not spare us from hurt but he is with us – Emmanuel – in every grief. To feel alone and still to know that God is with us is to know the joy of Christmas, a joy that is as unlikely and as miraculous as the Christmas story itself.
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