Please pray with me. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Our opening hymn is one of 18 Christmas hymns that Charles Wesley wrote and Charles Wesley and his brother John had a particular purpose in these Christmas hymns. They didn’t want to tell a story as if it were historical. They wanted it to be personal. They wanted you and me to enter the story and to see ourselves in it. To make it personal. That really is the framing for the service tonight—Blue Christmas—recognizing that the pain and the loss and the grieving that so many people are going through, particularly in this season, is personal. As Canon Duncan, my colleague, said at the beginning of the service, part of our purpose tonight is to gather together as community to pray, to lift one another up and to find ourselves situated in the story.

So much has happened in the past year. As I was reflecting on the service last year, for starters, none of you were here. It was a virtual service. If you can even go back a year ago, you’ll remember that December was the deadliest month of COVID-19 since the pandemic had begun. We thought it was a staggering number that 330,000 plus people had died. Here we stand today, with vaccines, which were only on the horizon a year ago, marking the grim statistic that over 800,000 people have died of this disease. Tomorrow night, this Cathedral will, once again, ring our Bourdon Bell to mourn and to mark that fact. The bell will ring 800 times, one time to represent 1000 people. It will take us over 80 minutes.

We have experienced much together with many different sorts of losses and grieving, sometimes in community, but too often alone. So, part of what we remember tonight is that as followers of Christ, we believe we’re never truly alone. Our gospel lesson, if you listen carefully to it, is an invitation to not be alone, no matter what you’re going through. “Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” It’s Jesus’ invitation to you and to me to come to Jesus, to lay our burdens, our sorrows, our struggles at Jesus’ feet. If we believe the Scriptures, and if we remember the experiences in our own lives, it’s no longer a theoretical or an intellectual exercise. It’s a personal journey. Those times in our lives, when God seemed as near as our next breath, that’s what we go back to because bidden or unbidden, God is here.

In their book On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler make the point that “Grief is real because loss is real.” In quoting C.S. Lewis, who after his beloved spouse died, said, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” When we love deeply, we grieve deeply. It’s about relationship. So, part of what we want to offer this evening is to make this journey personal for you.

As they say about preachers, you can’t share what you don’t have. As I was praying in the early hours of this morning about this service and about this homily, it came powerfully to me in prayer to share something of my own story—one of my stories, when Jesus was so present to me in a challenging time of my life. I hope I heard God correctly and if I can just help one person, that’s affirmation enough.

Almost 20 years ago, at this time of year, I discovered I had breast cancer. No one in my family had had it. It came out of the blue. As you might imagine, there’s nothing quite like facing your own mortality that causes one to focus, and in my case, to pray even more deeply. I was so beautifully supported by my husband John, my family, my friends, my church community. So, I had that support, but going through surgery and then radiation treatment, it was important to me to feel Jesus and God’s presence tangibly, as well. I was so fortunate because it was caught early.

I made it a practice when I was receiving radiation treatment—in my case, I would be radiated twice each day—that during the first dose of radiation, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer through that dose. When we moved on to the second dose, I prayed the 23rd Psalm. That fourth verse became truly personal to me. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

The more I prayed, the more I knew that I was not alone, that God was so present to me. I knew that no matter what happened, I was going to be okay because God was with me, and God would walk through that valley with me. As the psalmist said, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Tonight, if you find yourself in one of those challenging places, remember Christ’s invitation to come, bring those burdens to Jesus—to a God who loved us enough to take on flesh and to dwell among us so we would never be alone, and our lives would never be the same.

On this night as we pray together and we share the meal of Christ together, I want to leave you with one image that has meant so much to me, and I hope it will to you. It’s an altar piece in the smallest chapel in this cathedral. One floor below us, is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. For those of you who are worshiping with us online, my friends have pulled up an image of that chapel. For those of you worshiping with us in person, I’ll describe it to you. The altar piece depicts Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He is pulling close to his body a little lamb; his little legs are sort of limp as if the lamb can’t stand on its own four feet.

That’s the point. There are times in our lives when it seems as if we can’t stand on our own feet. Remember that Christ is there always prepared to pull you close, to hold you, to bring you close to that loving, life-giving heart whose love surpasses all understanding. When you are feeling alone and afraid, go there. Remember that you are loved, that you are precious in God’s sight, and that God is always as near as your next breath. Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”  May it be so for you and for me. Amen.


The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope