The holidays are supposed to be a time of loved ones and good tidings and cheer, right? Sure. The reality is that pain and loss and struggle do still find us. Between the lights and songs and cider and presents, this season can be a time to wrestle with the some of the sorrows and pain of our lives.
The reality is not always shiny and bright
Many people don’t know that I come from a family of preachers and that in addition to my psychology training, I have a graduate degree in theology. While the way that I think about and practice faith has changed a lot over the years, there was a time during which I was pursuing ordination through the Presbyterian church. I was part of a preaching team for several years and one year I was tasked with preaching on the third Sunday of Advent. For those who aren’t familiar with what Advent is, it’s a time when the church counts down the Sundays before Christmas. Each Sunday of Advent has its own theme and meaning. The third Sunday is known as Mary’s Sunday–a day for Christians to reflect on Mary’s role in the Christmas story and the joy she felt in giving birth to Jesus.
A few days before I was set to preach about Mary, motherhood, and joy, the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting took place. How could I even begin to preach about joy and motherhood in the face of a tragedy in which so many families lost their children? How could I attempt to reconcile the juxtaposition of love and joy with the knowledge that our children can be taken from us? How can the Christmas season possibly be relevant to a world of slaughtered children?
As I sat with this tragedy, I kept returning to Michelangelo’s Pieta. It’s a sculpture of a young-looking Mary with the dead adult body of Jesus draped across her lap. Her face is serene, slightly bowed, one hand is open toward heaven. The sculpture seems to be asynchronous. You could easily substitute the broken adult body for a swaddled infant.
As I prepared that sermon, I began to think about what it might be like to be given a child that you know will die. To place your love and hope into another person knowing that he is not yours to keep. Mary didn’t quite know her son’s fate when she welcomed him into her arms. But she seemed to have a keen sense that he wasn’t really hers.
And so it is with all of us who open ourselves up to loving another. Perhaps we don’t think about it–or don’t want to think about it. But, risk and love go hand in hand. Daring to bring a child into the world, daring to fall in love…those are acts of radical hope that almost always result in heartaches big or small. When we love another, our heart begins to exist outside of our body. And that is a huge risk because the ones we love are not ours.
The Pieta became my image of a different Christmas story–a young, beautiful woman, humbly holding the remnants of all she hoped for and loved. The sculpture is about loss and suffering, and deep love. The kind of pain and love experienced by hearts all over the world–from Sandy Hook to Syria to Yemen to the halls of the finest hospitals in the world.
As I go on in my life and career, my Christmases become more about holding space for the fear, struggles and pain that won’t go away simply because it’s December 1st and Trader Joe’s has shifted to its holiday playlist.
Maybe you’re an entrepreneur and you’re dealing with the stress of a bad quarter, or a business that is failing. Maybe you’re watching bitcoin tumble and the stock market tank. Maybe the word cancer has entered your family, or maybe you’ve lost a loved one this year. Or a pregnancy. Maybe you’ve come from a family that didn’t love you well, or was abusive. Maybe you or someone you love is tangled in the net of mental illness or addition.
Like Michelangelo’s Mary, can we hold these hurting, fearful parts of us with open hands and a calm, authentic heart? Can we treat our pain with tenderness, even as we enter this season of supposed joy?
Because pain and joy are not mutually exclusive.
Love in the midst of darkness
We just passed the Winter Solstice–the shortest day of the year with just 8 ½ to 9 hours of sunlight in much of the midwest. Here in Minnesota, it’s dark and cold. We wake up in darkness and we head home after work or school in darkness. It’s a time of year when everything seems more quiet, more sleepy.
I have this memory of being at church on Christmas Eve as a child. All of the lights would be out except for one candle at the front of the church. We would sing Silent Night as we slowly passed the flame of the candle to individual candles each person was holding. You would see this wave of light fill what had previously been a very dark room. It’s one of my favorite memories from being a kid.
Since living in Minnesota, I’ve been reminded of that Christmas Eve tradition when I look out at the lake by our house. Every once in a while, in the dead of winter and the dark of night, there will be one brave person out on the middle of the lake ice fishing. You know they’re out there because in the middle of an otherwise incredibly dark expanse of ice, you can see one light–a flashlight, maybe a lantern–glowing in the distance.
The light is so striking because of all the darkness around it. This idea has become a central theme for the holidays for me. This watching light show up in otherwise dark places.
A simple reminder of how meaningful that little flicker of hope, of love can be. It is a radical act to show up for each other when we feel shrouded in darkness. Suffering and loss are unavoidable parts of life, and if we can approach these difficulties with a bit more honesty, with more intention, a bit more light, we can make the darkness feel a little less overwhelming.
As we head into last few days of this Christmas season, no matter what pain you carry, I hope you can find a flicker of joy. Somewhere in the spaces within you that feel most dark, I hope you can find a corner of light. The decision to love, the decision to turn toward joy–they’re not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it’s a gritty, inelegant act of courage to find a Merry Christmas.
May you find what your heart most seeks.