As I recover from a mild virus, I look forward to having more pep for holiday events. But I also think about things that traditionally have no place in the usual lexicon of this season. I think about birth, divine and metaphorical, physical birth into this world as well as spiritual rejuvenation. But lest you think I am writing only of jolly times, I will state right now that this includes references to suffering, even death. This season has to make room for both; this is our world, our lives.
The reality other than the shined up one is that not everyone is having a merry time preparing for feasting and gift sharing. Not that we can avoid this. The news recounts more massacres. There is a stream of headlines alerting us to missing children, assaulted students, murdered families, racism and violence, kidnapped officials, tortured journalists, ransomed professionals. It is nearly impossible to avoid the horrors visiting human beings every minute of each day unless we separate ourselves from the digital and print barrage of global news. And while we want to be responsible citizens–be aware and engaged, active rather than apathetic –we also may, at times, step back from the unceasing losses. But we should not forget.
There are less headline-grabbing crises people will endure as the next weeks gain momentum. People who battle physical and emotional challenges might not be gazing at a twinkling tree, decorating cookies or kneading traditional breads. Nor wrapping special gifts for ones they love. There are those for whom all this celebrating grates and leaves raw. Too many will lose another battle with addictions; holiday revelries can offer a smorgasboard of temptations. There are those who feel that all they want is to avoid reminders of how much pleasure others share when they awaken and go to sleep with a ponderous gloom so heavy it cannot be carried further. Those who are in no position to even call home.
I want to remember these, sometimes neighbors who I may never truly know. A stranger on the street with collar turned up, hat pulled down, rushing past. A homeless man who drinks and sleeps across the street at the church. Those about undone by their family’s troubles. Someone who is losing the battle with terminal illness, soon to be moving beyond the excruciating limitations of flesh. And all those loved by the beloved who are stunned with grief, or will be.
Christmas is supposed to be a time to sing praises and capture good times. We come together to recall, I hope, just why we gather in faith and anticipation of better times as one year blends into the next. We make it more or less than just another December 25th by what value we place on our interactions with others rather than the value of material goods. Love, we assert, is what makes it all worth it, whether human or Divine. And so it is.
So tonight I fall on my knees in remembrance of those who may not know such love. Or who will be leaving it behind as death ends their travails. Who cry out without a reassuring answer returned. Men and women who face a wall too massive to scale alone. Children who weep at the sound of the wind, who cannot find their way to a single comfort. May we find in our hearts room for the ones who need miracles, those for whom time is unravelling, this life relinquished.
Decades ago when times were tough another Christmas loomed. I had no anticipation other than of more strife. Work was scarce, my children had needs not adequately met, and my life felt like it was dwindling, able to fit into the palm of my empty hand. There were moments I imagined I could just disappear into thin air, so little did I feel I counted in the scheme of things. I dreamed of simple relief. Struggled to make sense of the perilous turn of events.
One day, as my children and I whiled the time away, there was a knock at the door. Cautious, I peered out at two strangers who had in their arms two bags and a Christmas tree. As I opened the door, they introduced themselves from the church I had attended a couple of times. They had, they said, gifts for Christmas.
The children came forward, curious. I stood awkwardly, embarrassed, wanting more than anything to reassure them and refuse. But anyone could see the apartment was dark and bare. The children were thrilled by the thought of treats. And real, good food. They didn’t bother to inquire after us or to chat about things that mattered little. They didn’t act holy. Or condescending. They set down their packages and small fake tree and ornaments, then wished us goodwill. Then left before I could utter more than a quiet thank you.
Overwhelmed, I tried to blink back tears of shame mixed with gratitude as we put away the food. Then we set up the little tree and placed small presents around its base. The shiny bulbs gleamed in the light that crept through half-closed curtains. It hurt that I had failed. The gift-bearers’ kindness and cheer were stronger and lingered. I held onto a modicum of my dignity plus a spark of hope.
Yes, I’m glad Christmas is coming once more. The old yet still amazing news is about the Light illuminating Darkness. And what is claiming my thoughts is that if I can practice mercy every day, I should get better at it. That I cannot and will not forget those who can be too easily forgotten. Living a human life is an uneven thing, a fragile endeavor made stronger by sharing its sorrows as well as its beauty and mysteries. May we unearth our wealth of caring, then give it away. And I pray: May God’s Peace, even the barest tender breath of peace, abide wherever most needed this day and night. And each that follows.