catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 25 :: 2009.12.25 — 2010.01.07


Suffering the hap-happiest season

A Facebook message that I received a few days ago ended with these words: “Peace to all of you in the strange, blessed, transparent, dysfunctional/enriching, open-wound-like, full-of-redemptive-possibilities next few days.”  This was a much more complex Christmas greeting than “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays,” and it echoed something I’ve been reflecting on this season.

At their best, Advent and Christmas can be joyful, hopeful times.  At least, that’s the way we North American Christians tend to celebrate.  We remember the mysterious story of a child being born to reveal the salvation of the world — a light shines in the darkness!  Joy to the world!  However, since Christmas seems to be the most globally commercialized holiday of all time and suffering doesn’t sell, we often end up failing to recognize or ritualize the painful side of the story.  Jesus was born in a location with questionable sanitation and no anesthesia — a bloody, painful, messy affair — into the life of a refugee that led to torture and death.  On the other end of the story, the resurrection is also good news, but good news with blood: Jesus didn’t leap from the tomb perfectly restored, but bearing the wounds of death.  Neither did he flip the cosmic switch to a perfect post-cross reality, but he welcomed his followers into an already-but-not-yet journey on which our experiences of suffering and joy, all tangled up together, bind us to one another and to Christ our head.

I do genuinely hope that all people are able to experience true joy in this season of celebration.  However, I think we need to guard against a desperate grasping after seasonal happiness that ends up marginalizing friends and family members who can’t hide their suffering behind a wad of tinsel or drown it out with five golden rings. Hurt and pain are not contradictory to the Christmas season, but right in line with an aspect of the story we tend to ignore if and when we are able to.  Emmanuel is “God with us,” not just in our times of certainty and purpose, but also in our times of need, frustration, sorrow and confusion.  That’s part of the fullness of the good news: that it comes not just for those who have it all together, but also (and maybe especially poignantly) for those who really, really don’t.

This Christmas season, my husband and I know people who are wandering in valleys of vocational malaise, people who have lost children, people who have lost homes, people who are in extremely difficult marriages and church families, people who are struggling with chronic pain.  Sorrow doesn’t seem to know it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.

Rather than forcing ourselves and everyone around us to achieve some sort of sugar-buzzed euphoria within the small box of our Perfect Day, we might consider how our Advent and Christmas rituals could open up to acknowledge our brokenness, as well as our hope.  Taking the full twelve days of the liturgical season of Christmas to purchase, make and deliver gifts might help relieve the temptation to go into consumer hyper-drive before the 25th, creating more time for others.  Honoring the darkest night of the year on the winter solstice can offer an opportunity to surrender regrets and burdens while expressing longing for the light.  We might try adopting friends we suspect are lonely as full participants in our family celebrations or checking in on family members who are hurting with a willingness to stop and listen, not rush off to the next item on the holiday to-do list.

There seems to be more than enough suffering to go around, even at Christmas time.  People who are in pain don’t need to hear, “Get well soon (so I don’t have to empathize on my holiday)!” but probably something more like, “Life stinks right now and it might continue to stink for a while, but God’s slogging through it with you — and so am I in whatever way you need.”  God is with us and we are with each other — companions on a journey that covers some rough terrain through an uncharted wilderness, even while we are surprised with sights more beautiful than we could have ever imagined. 

Not just in that stable long ago, but everywhere and in all things: a new creation is being born and everything is groaning with the pains of birth.  While we strain against each other, coddling our personal pains and joys, our noise is just chaos, but in groaning together, a dissonant song emerges from our shared longing: “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.”

your comments

comments powered by Disqus