a blazing star, angelic choirs, God with us as a human infant
For some, Christmas is
the loneliest, most painful, despairing time of the
year. For many of us, Christmas is
a mixture of enjoyment, stress, exhaustion,
and guilt. What meaning do these conflicting pictures have for us and our well-being?
In the words of John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among
us". That the Creator of the universe should choose to descend to Earth and
enter history as a human baby is amazing indeed! No wonder there were celestial
singers, startled shepherds, and dedicated wise men guided by the brightest star
ever seen. That God loves us so much is difficult for us to comprehend. So we
have internalized this truth mostly in the sentimentalized form presented by Christmas
pageants, choir cantatas, carol singing, and gift giving. At the best times of
our lives, Christmas means homecomings, family gatherings, excited children, tables
groaning with food: Moments in time when the usual routines of work and life pause
for togetherness, celebrations, and love.
But no one lives at the peak
all the time. The descent to the valley is extremely painful. Empty places at
the family table, devastating illness, broken relationships, poverty and want,
whatever has broken our lives makes a mockery of Christmas celebrations. The pageants
and carols serve only to remind us of our loneliness, pain, and isolation. If
this is how we feel, however, we are missing a central point of the Christmas
story. "The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome
it", John 1:5. The original Christmas story features an unwed, pregnant teenager
who travelled with her betrothed for three days on a donkey, away from home and
support, to give birth, not in a hospital, home, or palace, but in a stable. Now
there is darkness for you. (Clearly God is not an obstetrician or He would have
arranged things differently!) God chose to come into the darkness to show us that
He is with us through our darkest times.
In the middle ground where most
of us live most of our lives, Christmas frequently is a romanticized fiction promoted
by retailers and advertisers. We must buy the newest toys for the children, wear
the latest fashions, decorate our houses, and entertain lavishly. Our efforts
to live up to these unrealistic images can leave us cranky, exhausted, and guilt-ridden
that somehow we have not managed to provide for our families the kind of Christmas
we remember as children. We need to consider that this version of Christmas is
far removed from God's original intention. When the things that we do to celebrate
"God with us" get in the way of our enjoying God's presence, then we
need to reconsider our priorities.
What meaning does all this have for
our well-being? Our brains turn the way we experience life into a host of chemicals
that affect all parts of our bodies, for good or ill. When we think of "killer
illnesses", heart attacks, strokes, and cancer come quickly to mind. The
less obvious but equally deadly killers are loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness.
We can't change our situations, but perhaps we can change our perceptions somewhat.
When life is good, we need to celebrate rather than taking things for granted.
When life is disastrous, we can cling to the hope that Mary and Joseph had as
they journeyed into the unknown darkness; the hope that God is with us, even if
we can't sense His presence at this point. When we are on the Christmas treadmill,
we can set aside a little time to identify what is really important to us and
get rid of some of the nonessentials. Wherever we are at this point, we can remember
that we are valued, loved human beings meant to live in relation with God and
each other. In the darkest night, keep faith that you will see the Star of Bethlehem,
if not right now, then in the foreseeable future. It took the Wise Men a while
E. Black, Parish Nurse