ANGLICAN PARISH OF ST BARNABAS, CARLISLE-RIVERVALE
THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT – 20th December, 2015
+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fifty-two years ago today, my mother died suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly. It was the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, and my brothers and I arrived home from school around 4 pm, to hear from my Dad the terrible news. I was eleven years old, and my brothers, nine and seven. With this happening just five days before Christmas, it’s fair to say that there was no “Merry” or “Happy” Christmas for us that year. My grandparents – Mum’s parents – came and stayed, until the funeral which was held on the 28th December; and I know that they tried hard with food and presents to make the whole thing a little less unpleasant for us. I do, though treasure the remembrance of being given a Dinky Toy Shell petrol tanker by the people in the hardware store across the road!
My Dad hated Christmas forever after that year, and managed to find good “religious” reasons why Christmas shouldn’t be celebrated: it was a pagan festival taken over from the Druids and the Romans; the Christmas tree was a fertility symbol worshipped by these and other pagan peoples; we don’t know what time of the year Jesus was really born, but it certainly couldn’t have been December; etc. I guess he saved a lot of money on cards and presents in his remaining fifty years of life, however
Over the ensuing years, I, too, have had some difficulty with Christmas and the celebrations surrounding it. Whenever the 20th December rolls around, I find myself becoming unhappy and a bit depressed. It usually takes me a while to realise why; and often it’s only when KT pulls me up and challenges my mood that I realize, and – to some extent – “snap out of it”.
Over the years I’ve been in ordained ministry, I have come to realise that there are many people for whom the joy and festivity of Christmas don’t sit comfortably. The empty pew at Midnight Mass; the empty place at the Christmas dinner table; the anticipated card or present from a loved one that doesn’t arrive; the name you had to cross off your Christmas card list after you’d automatically written their card; the grandchildren you won’t see this Christmas because their parents have split up: all of these bring an edge of sadness and a piercing sense of loss.
When we read the Gospel for this morning from St Luke, we are invited into a very joyful and mystical time for the cousins – Mary, very young and a few days pregnant, and the much older, previously “barren”, Elizabeth, some six months gone. Both pregnancies are undeniably miraculous, each carrying mystery and being the subject of angelic messages.
Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, is currently unable to speak because he doubted the angel’s message about the conception of the one whom we know as John the Baptist.
And Mary has been visited by the angel Gabriel with news of an upcoming – “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Mary was bold enough to ask, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’, and the angel replied, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” And Mary had replied, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
So, for these two women, there is joy and happiness and the normal apprehension about the process of giving birth and about the future of their respective children.
Now, jump forward thirty-odd years, and you have the Gospel stories of John the Baptist and Jesus meeting at the River Jordan, where Jesus asks John for baptism, and there is the interchange where John says that Jesus should baptise him, but he does what he is asked anyway.
Move forward to a little while later, and we see John imprisoned in King Herod’s dungeon at Machaerus because he prophetically challenged Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. And we see that wife get her revenge by demanding – and receiving – John’s head on a platter. Assuming Elizabeth to be still alive, we can imagine her pain and grief at the tragic loss of her so-much-desired son,
Move yet another year or two ahead, as we see Jesus nailed to a cross on the hill of Calvary. At the foot of the cross stands his mother, Mary, weeping at the humiliation and suffering of this miraculous and deeply-loved firstborn son. The old man Simeon had told her in the Temple all those years ago, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Now, let’s imagine Mary and Elizabeth at Christmas time not long after. I know, of course, that Jesus rose again from the dead. But still neither Jesus nor John would be physically present at the table to share in the turkey and plum pudding. Mary’s other children would all be there; but the sadness at the loss of two young men cut off in their prime would sometimes overwhelm their celebrations.
So, too, for many of us. If there is no such sadness in your life, please give thanks and pray for those for whom the joyous times are painful and overwhelming. If, however, you are hurting this holiday season, let me share with you some advice I read this week from an article, entitled, “Blue Christmas (What to Do When the Holidays Hurt)” (1):
Let it hurt. Make peace with your pain and allow it to come fully without alteration. Life is difficult and you aren’t okay, and you shouldn’t waste precious energy and time trying to pretend this isn’t so. Let grief and sadness do the necessary, invasive work in you that they need to do. There’s no defeat in feeling defeated right now.
Don’t hide it. Give people close to you the most authentic version of yourself you are able to give. Those deserving of you will not be pushed away by your woundedness or intimidated by your honesty. Allow people who love you to bear your burdens and sit in solidarity with you. Let them see you, not some sanitized, edited version of them you think they can handle.
Don’t be fooled by the calendar. Today is, in reality, just another day even though the trappings and the framing may make your feel otherwise. Release yourself from the expectation to have some magical Christmas conversion; some George Bailey, It’s A Wonderful Life moment. If this season finds you less than alright, be that. You don’t owe the calendar anything.
Don’t be fooled by yourself. Despite how it may feel, most of the pressure on you to be happy is usually an inside job. Since you’re the only one who truly knows the depth and scope of your sadness, and the only one who’s fully walked your road, you’re probably beating yourself up the most about this blueness that others may not even see. Don’t be complicit in your own debilitating guilt trip. Go easy on yourself.
Give yourself permission to scale back or downsize or opt out. There are times and places during the holidays where the hurt is amplified, and you may see them coming; certain gatherings, parties, people, activities. Don’t feel as though you need to do and be it all and continually put yourself in harm’s way. Balance your desire to give others normalcy now, with your very valid need to protect yourself. Step away from the fray when you need to.
Embrace this Christmas as-is. You may be overwhelmed and bruised this season, but there is still goodness to be welcomed and blessing to be claimed here, even in the pain. There will be holidays in the future when you will feel stronger and lighter, and these very difficult days are part of the road to them so accept whatever gifts they have for you. You may not fully open them for years.
And above all, know that it’s okay to be blue this Christmas.
It really is.
So be blue, but be greatly encouraged even still.
Now may the God for whose coming we wait, strengthen and encourage each of us in this time of celebration and reflection.
The Lord be with you!