Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 22, 2003
Embrace Christmas in spite of the pain
Decorate your tree, plan your dinner and allow hope into your heart
By FR. THOMAS RYAN
Special to the WCR
At the beginning of Advent I received a message from a friend whose husband committed suicide seven years ago. "I haven't really engaged in our traditional family customs in celebrating Christmas since then," she said. "There's been a kind of tacit understanding among the family to that effect when the season rolls around. The memories are too painful."
But now there's a grandchild, and this year will be different. "I'm taking out the nativity set and decorating a tree," she wrote.
There are surely many who have their own versions of the inner dialogue around the question of "to decorate or not to decorate?" An increasing number of people live alone and very likely ask themselves, "Why am I doing this? No one will see it, and I don't need it."
But we do need it. Whether anyone else will see it is beside the point. We have to do these things to remind ourselves that the hope is real.
Jesus really did come. It's not just a legend or a dream. It really happened.
Keep it alive
And so we keep the memory and its meaning alive by having a crŠche scene and a tree, by buying gifts and going to midnight Mass, and having a real Christmas dinner with friends or family.
The greatest service the Church can render the world is to tell the world its true story. And the chapters of that story are "Creation," "Fall," "Promise," "Prophecy," "Incarnation," "Redemption," "Sanctification," "The Reign of God."
Each baptized believer is entrusted with that story and commissioned to keep it alive and to pass it on.
My friend will be doing that this Christmas with her children and grandchild.
It's not unusual in the days surrounding Christmas to think of those who have died. For some families, it's the only time of the year when most or all of the family gathers, so the holiday season is a rich repository of family history and fond memories of happy times around the table or the tree, events in which mom or dad played central roles distributing the gifts or carving the turkey.
In the various feasts of the Advent and Christmas seasons, there is the steadying presence of a woman of faith.
Her feasts of Immaculate Conception, Guadalupe and the fourth Sunday of Advent are important milestones on the journey to Christmas.
She is always present, if only as a figure in the background, as in Luke's mention of "the child with his mother."
Then, she is celebrated again on Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God; and she is of course there along with Joseph and Jesus on the feast of the Holy Family.
And on Epiphany she is present for the coming of the magi.
We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth, but she did. She would have been in her middle or late 40's when her son suffered a violent death. Each year after that, Mary celebrated the birthday of Jesus - Christmas - without her husband, and without her son. She is there, at the heart of the communion of saints with her own compassionate heart, ready to understand the admixture of joy and sorrow that marks the Christmas season for many. She spent many years pondering the mystery of presence and absence in her own life.
In keeping faith with the festival of Christmas, we are doing more than recalling a historical event. We are keeping the hope and the meaning alive of that event. We are celebrating that from the moment of his birth until the end of time, Jesus is always with us, encouraging us, forgiving us, loving us, guiding us.
Fight the sads
The precipice of discouragement is never far.
There is more than enough in the past hundred years alone to plummet the human spirit into the pit of despair: two world wars; regional conflicts in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland; the rise of global terrorism; the whittling away of long respected laws and social codes; the AIDS epidemic; the increasing incidence of drug and alcohol addiction and of suicide; the growing gap between rich and poor.
"But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more," wrote Paul to the Romans.
Feelings come and go, but the facts of faith remain stable and sure: God has entered time, become small enough to be enclosed in a child's body and limited to one place.
"God became what we are so that we might become what God is," St. Irenaeus said in the first century. And 20 centuries later, that light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The hope is real, but needs to be constantly nourished.
So set up the crŠche, plug in the lights and tell the story to the next generation.
(Fr. Thomas Ryan, csp. directs the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in New York City.)