Most wonderful time of the year

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  

woman-lights-snow-christmas
Image courtesy pixabay.com

Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.

Maybe these or any number of other things has knocked the wind of you and left you wondering how you will make it through the coming days. Instead of joining in the angels’ exultant song of jubilation, your heart resonates more with “O Come O Come Emmanuel’s” plaintive words of mourning in lonely exile.

If this is you, I’m sorry. Whatever your struggle is, it’s legitimate, and whatever hard feelings it elicits – anxiety, grief, anger or sadness – are real. You’re not Ebenezer Scrooge because you’re unable to marshal the inner resources for holiday cheer this year, you’re just human. Even when you try to focus on the positive and what you’re thankful for instead of what you’ve lost, there is no short-circuiting grief. More and more churches acknowledge this reality and now offer “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” liturgies as spaces of prayer and pastoral care for those who struggle.   

As I’ve been accompanying some loved ones who find this season challenging, it seems the general message offered in mainstream culture, “Be joyful and happy! Holidays are filled with magic and delight!” only serves to highlight the chasm between what they wished they were feeling with what they actually are. It is salt in the wound not only to grieve a loss but then to be fed a steady diet of idealized images of the picture-perfect holiday. The crooning singers advising “let your heart be light” because “from now on your troubles will be out of sight” don’t help matters much.

If you’re living in the uncomfortable gap between the ideal and the real, take heart: this perfect holiday tableau of cheerful families in matching pajamas, gathered around a huge turkey or the Christmas tree, is the invention of marketers trying to sell us stuff. That’s how advertising works: it offers an attractive ideal that we invariably fall short of and then pitches a product or service with the promise that we, too, can achieve that ideal. The commercialization is the cultural water we swim in, so it is hard to separate that American capitalist spin from the Gospel truth of the Feast of the Incarnation. But it’s worth dissecting the cultural overlay from the scriptural narrative – especially if you’re not feeling “merry and bright” this holiday season.

If it is any consolation, if we excavate the original Christmas story out from under the accumulated layers of advertising content, it’s plain to see that the first Christmas would not make a feel-good Hallmark movie. When the culture offers images of jolly Santa and his flying reindeer, or affluent families with toothpaste-commercial smiles opening piles of perfectly wrapped gifts, the Gospels offer the story of Emmanuel, God with us, poor and weak.  

mary-baby-jesus-joseph-donkey
Image courtesy jesus-passion.com

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were vulnerable and faced great uncertainty as Jews living under brutal imperial occupiers. It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t tension in the family when Mary announced she was pregnant outside of marriage, especially when Mosaic law prescribed she should be stoned. Mary and Joseph weren’t wealthy (as evidenced by their offering in the temple) and lived under heavy taxation (which is why they traveled to Bethlehem for the census). There was no room at the inn for them, and then they fled to Egypt as refugees because of Herod’s ruthless decree to slaughter children. The Lukan author reminds us that when the Christ child was presented in the temple, Mary was told a sword would pierce her heart. Myrrh, one of the gifts of the Magi, was used for embalming and prefigures death.

There is darkness and tumult to this story; however, in churches or culture in general, it doesn’t get much air time in popular depictions of Christmas. Though I understand adapting the narrative to make it kid-friendly, it is a pastoral disservice to make the Christmas story too sanitized and saccharine. Yes, there is rejoicing, new life and good news. And it comes in the midst of the messiness, fear, uncertainty, loss and oppression that maybe resonates with you if you’re not in a head space to sing “be of good cheer!” Christmas is about the birth of God coming in the middle of a lot of turmoil and pain.

The cleaned-up scene in church sanctuary creches or in pastel tones on Christmas cards distances us from the more complicated truth. God was born as a baby into a messy, broken, chaotic world. From a scriptural standpoint, the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with our American cultural clichés and everything to do with the miracle of a light shining in the darkness that is not overcome. Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was killed for his opposition to the Nazis, wrote that “the early Church viewed Christmas as the feast of the great howl of those whose lives have been upended, shaken – the birth is not a romantic wonder, it’s a chancy rescue mission from the borders.”

So if it doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year – take heart that you are not alone. The birth of the Christ child is not supposed to be “a romantic wonder.” Let’s turn off the TV with its constant flash of idealized images of holiday cheer and close the glossy pages of catalogues peddling a pictures of prosperity and glee. And let’s turn back to the original story of this “chancy rescue mission” of how God chose to enter the world as a vulnerable newborn in the midst of great uncertainty and turmoil.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Rhonda-Miska-red-shirt
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

Rhonda Miska is an apostolic novice with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. After having served as a Jesuit Volunteer, in parish ministry and at retreat/spirituality centers, she is currently in ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Sister Rhonda knows Sister Julia through Giving Voice, a group of Catholic sisters under the age of 50. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.

Porters, Posadas and our Advent invitation

“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.

“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.

“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”

As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”

St. Conrad of Parzham Photo credit: catholic.org
St. Conrad of Parzham (Photo credit: www.catholic.org)

I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? Why would the Church choose to lift up and honor the holiness of those who spent their lives as doorkeepers?

The unexpectedly large number of porter saints is a testament to how central hospitality is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The refrain repeated over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures is to remember that since we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we are to welcome strangers now. And Scripture reminds us continually that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God. Abraham entertaining angels unaware in Genesis. Cleopas and his companion inviting the stranger on the Emmaus road in for a meal, only to discover Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus insisting to his bewildered followers that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Him.

This truth is made visible during the Advent season when Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics act out the Gospel through the practice of Las Posadas (literally, “the inns”). For nine consecutive nights, we gather to re-enact the journey of Joseph and Mary asking for shelter in Bethlehem. It is a deeply incarnational practice which literally challenges us to stand in the shoes of travel-weary Mary and Joseph, or to stand in the shoes of those in relative warmth and safety indoors that have to respond to their request.

Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net
Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net

“In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter,” a group sings in Spanish outside a locked door. “My beloved wife can travel no further.”

After being turned away several times, the door is opened and the group representing the Holy Family is welcomed in joyfully. “Enter, holy pilgrims,” is the jubilant refrain of those inside as they offer hospitality to the stranger – who is Christ.

During the years I worked in Hispanic parish ministry, I celebrated Las Posadas with a primarily Mexican and Central American immigrant community. During the shortest days of the year, we gathered in the dark, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together against the cold which worked its way through our wool hats and fleecy gloves. We passed a flickering flame from taper candle to taper candle, cupping our hands to carefully guard the small flame from the December wind, the warm glow lighting our faces as we processed. My breath came out in white, cloudy puffs as I sang the familiar words of the lilting melody. And then, the open door, the sung words of welcome, the warmth and light of the parish hall, the inviting scent of steaming pots of pozole and hot chocolate, the smiling faces of friends.

Tragically, in the past weeks since the election, we have seen a heart-breaking, disturbing rash of hate crimes, many directed at immigrants, especially those from Latin America or the Middle East.

In the face of our current political and social reality, the witness of porter saints like St. Conrad and the Las Posadas tradition offer an urgent challenge and poignant invitation for Christ-followers not only to open doors and keep a safe distance, but to open ourselves to conversion through encountering the stranger. To see the stranger as a blessing, not a burden. To believe we may catch a glimpse of our God if we dare to unlatch the lock, turn the doorknob, and step onto the threshold to greet those who knock.

This advent, through my work as a Spanish-language legal interpreter, I have glimpsed God through “Catalina,” a plucky, bright-eyed fifteen-year-old Central American girl. She spoke with a straight-forward, quiet confidence as she described leaving her home in the rural highlands, traveling through Mexico on buses, and entering the United States to reunite with family here.

“I wasn’t scared,” I said, interpreting Catalina’s words from Spanish to English for the immigration lawyer. “I prayed for God to be my guide. Every time I got on a bus, I would pray for God to protect me. And my prayers were answered.”

At the end of the legal consultation appointment, Catalina thanked me and clasped my hand, her bright brown eyes locking on mine with a sudden, shy seriousness.

“God is with you,” she said.

Perhaps unwittingly, this immigrant teenager girl spoke the name of God that we chant, sing, and meditate upon during these Advent days of hoping and waiting: Emmanuel. God is with us.

Catalina’s unexpected blessing challenges me to grow in trust and reminds me of the many ways my heart has been expanded through encountering the stranger on the threshold of an open door.

St. Conrad, and all you porter saints, pray for us that we, too, may open doors and make room for the coming of Emmanuel.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Rhonda-Miska-red-shirt
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

This week’s guest blogger is Rhonda Miska. Like Sister Julia, this Messy Jesus Rabble Rouser is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a member of Giving Voice. She is a candidate with the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters and freelance writer who teaches religious studies at Clarke University in Dubuque (in the fine state of Iowa – Sister Julia’s home state!). She studied at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and her past ministries include congregation-based community organizing, coordinating a winter shelter for people who are homeless, accompanying migrant children in legal proceedings, and living in a community with adults with special needs. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.