Most wonderful time of the year

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

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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.  

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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.

a life to the fullest type of December

“I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  – John 10:10b

Merry Christmas! God is with us!  And, this God who is with us- Baby Jesus- has given us the greatest gift of all: life! I believe that life abundant means that life is packed full with all bliss and burdens being human offers.

This December, my Advent and now-Christmas spirit kept switching channels.   Due to the circumstances of my life and the events of our world, my inner-spaces and accompanying emotions flitted around like a spinning top.  Really, I was on a journey through the valleys and peaks of life; there truly was a lot of the Jesus-named “life to the fullest” stuff.

December began with a week long awaiting for the birth of my new nephew.  The first major life peak I dealt with was nervous anticipation unlike any I had ever felt before.  The beautiful baby boy arrived on the 7th.  Ecstatic joy, gratitude and awe came right with him.  Plus, that same day, I also learned that a darling little girl who I love has leukemia. My heart broke with sadness.

More life: my work load snowballed, it was mid-quarter at the school where I work.  Grades were due again.  Enter heightened stress and exhaustion.  After my grades were submitted and I sighed with relief, the layers of life became more meshed. The fun of Christmas was nearing but the harsh reality of suffering and tragedy still hung heavy.

Mid-month, I was like most humans: horrified and depressed about the news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.  I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to scream and compel everyone to throw guns away and pour their money and energy toward compassion and mental health.  I wanted to wrap my new nephew in my imagined fairytale safety cloak so that no gun could ever come within a mile of him.  Never before had a felt so protective yet full of grief.

Instead, I had to do what many of us did: pray a lot, cry a little, and then push my fire-y feelings into my daily grind; the regular hard labor for Gospel peace and justice.  Meanwhile, in my classroom and around the high school, everyone seemed to be getting antsy because Christmas was getting closer.  I wondered if we were numb or ignoring suffering, or just eager to be joyful and celebrate the Nativity.  Around the school we ate too much sugar, started singing carols and decorated as if our lives depended on it.

Where I live, the sisters and I sang and danced to carols on the radio, laughed and played games, baked cookies, made homemade candies, whipped up a feast, and exchanged gifts with much joy.   The jolliness of the Christmas spirit had somehow had found its way into our hearts despite our consciousness of the expanse of human suffering.

I was merry too, as I drove off to be with my family for my new nephew’s baptism and Christmas celebrations. Fa-la-la-la-la-ling I went into Midwestern snows with a trunk packed with gifts and freshly made Christmas goodies.   The radio didn’t stay stuck on the cheery Christmas carols, however.

With horror, I listened to how the national debate on gun violence had evolved one week from the Sandy Hook massacre. No longer were we talking about mental health, our violent culture and the need to change our gun laws.  No instead, to my disgust, I was hearing the proposal for more guns, security and a suggestion that teachers should be armed.  I was so angry I thought I would be sick.  So then, onward to Christmas and baptismal feasts and joy did I go, slightly stained with the awfulness of cynicism and sarcasm because of the direction that the national gun debate turned.

The baptism and Christmas celebrations were beautiful and blessed, of course.  I was honored to become a godmother again. I sang Christmas hymns to the new baby.  I cherished every second I had with the living masterpiece that somehow, miraculously was made up many of the same genes that I am.  My family stuffed our bodies with wonderful farm food and then burned off the calories by laughing so hard our sides hurt. And, of course, the prayerful liturgy was deep and peaceful.  As we meditated on Christ’s coming to change and empower us, I felt God embrace the wideness of the fullness life.  The Christmas happenings and the Holy Spirit provided a deep consolation.

So, now I am back to La Crosse with my community, still feasting in the calm and beauty of Christmas. And, this Christmas is going to last a while.  You see, this year I am going to engage in a Christmas Every Day experiment.  This was announced in the La Crosse paper yesterday.

Yesterday was also the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The fun and excitement of my Christmas Every Day experiment announcement, was squished between my prayer for all the thousands of children who die everyday from unjust causes throughout the world.  I started to understand what I was getting myself into.

Living Christmas Every Day will mean that I will awkwardly flop around as I try to do what all of us are called to do.  I shall celebrate that our God is with us through all things, especially in the suffering and pain.

Christmas Every Day means that as I will be more intentional about living the Christmas spirit than I am normally.  And, that Christmas spirit that I’ll be living with isn’t all sweet and good.  In fact, the story of Christ’s coming itself includes great violence and horror.

Christmas Every Day means that I shall carry all of what is true, good and hard about being human.  My constant fun celebrating shall be colored with the wholeness of what life is and how God is with us, especially in the raw hurt.

Yes, Merry Christmas, may it be a real Christmas too, a celebration conscious that life to the fullest is packed with joy and pain together.

"holy infant" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“holy infant” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA