One Christmas season, my family faced moving out of a home we loved and saying goodbye to our very sick cat. Even while I could still listen to my sweet cat’s breathing, I ached knowing I would soon be without him. The night before our house went up for sale, my spouse and I stayed up fixing things. By 1am, I was saying, “Who, pray tell, has time to decorate while they pack? What if we come home and find Leo dead? What if the kids find him?” And because I’m never dramatic, I said, “It’s going to be the worst Christmas ever!”

My husband shrugged and said, “One of them has to be.” Those six words shook me awake. Of course some Christmases would be sad. Why was I expecting myself to spin this sludge into gold? Did I really need to make magic out of the dismal affair Christmas was determined to be? Apparently I’m not capable of (or responsible for) resuscitating Christmas.

Maybe your holidays are looking bleak. We’re worn by things we can’t control, which is frustrating and scary. This makes us cranky sometimes and rarely, only once a week or so, slightly murderous. And rightly so if big things are happening. Is your family ripped in half? Are you letting go of a dream? Are you admitting you carry a lot of pain in your heart even though the wounding was long ago? Do you feel sad because your body is struggling against a disease? Have you lost someone you never thought you’d have to be without?

As our rotten Christmas unfolded, it turned out to be a mixed bag, as most things are. I’d given up forcing it to be amazing, and then it kind of was. There were sweet moments and quiet moments. Also sad, sad moments. Snow fell. Tears fell.

I’d given up forcing it to be amazing, and then it kind of was.

My kids surprised me with an ugly little tree, which was far from what I was missing, but their desire to make things nicer for me lit me up inside. I carried my cat in the softest blanket to the vet and carried the empty blanket home. The pain reverberated through me with such heat, I touched the truth of how vast love actually is. And while it burned me, I managed to wonder, between the pulses of pain, how one heart feels this much and doesn’t stop. There was a white hot knowing I was alive, love is real, and real is more powerful than any magic.

Love takes us in and causes us the most joy and (because of evil) the most pain. Love is the experience we left behind in Eden and baby Jesus invited us back to. Love is always present, even or especially in the Christmases of empty chairs and closed caskets and packed up houses.

Love takes us back in, over and over. Falling in love and saying goodbye. Connecting and letting go. Reuniting and distancing. Love is there for all of it, and by love, I mean God, Who is love. Love watched us go at the beginning and put a candle in the window. Love will take us home in the end, opening the door wide. In the meantime, Jesus came to visit, delivering an invitation to get swept up in the epic love God does in the universe, even on this planet with so much darkness. No matter how dark your Christmas looks from here, I pray you let Love in and find it is the only reason to live, the only candle to guide you.