And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
Christmas is hard this year. I fully expected it would be, but I didn’t know how hard.
If you have been following these “Notes,” then you know that my daughter Anna died five months ago. This season is hard, obviously, because I miss her, miss having Christmas with her, miss giving her just that special something, and miss receiving one of her creative gifts.”
I have so many tender memories of sharing Christmas with Anna. I remember the first year she put an ornament on the tree. I remember the year she laid out a glass of milk and some cookies under the tree for Santa but then ate half of them because she knew Santa would want to share. I remember the years that she would stand next to me at the front doors of the church, greeting and saying goodbye to people. I remember the year when she got up to wish me a Merry Christmas after I got home from the Midnight Mass and how she fell asleep on the couch while I unwound with a “wee dram.”
After being a priest for almost 40 years, I know that I’m not the only one who has had, or who is now having, a hard Christmas. If you have recently lost a loved one, this year may be hard. If you, or someone you love, now has COVID, or if you or they are struggling to recover from this terrible virus, this year may be hard. If you have been divorced this year, or any year for that matter, and you are exhausted, even resentful, about having to shuttle your children back and forth, this year may be hard. If you have lost your job, or if you anticipate that you will soon be losing your work, this year may be hard. If you suspect that this may be your last Christmas and the pain of letting go of this life and saying goodbye to your nearest and dearest is squeezing your heart, this season may be hard.
One of the reasons why our losses, challenges, worries, and needs often feel so poignant, sad, or tender during this season is that we’re hoping we may just have the “perfect Christmas” this year. Maybe this will be the year when our losses will be restored, when our fears will be vanquished, when all that is broken in our life will be mended, when everyone gets exactly the right present, and when we see that all is well, that love is abundant, and that peace prevails. When we imperfect people fall into the fantasy that we can pull off the perfect Christmas, we set ourselves up for a heap of disappointment.
The Christmas story tells us that Mary had to place the baby Jesus into a manger (an animal’s feeding trough) that was in a stable or cave. I choose to believe the story as it’s given to us—I don’t fuss or worry or question any of the details. I also choose to see that this story is a metaphor that speaks directly to our own relationship with Jesus. Is there room in the inn of our hearts, our souls, our lives for Jesus to be born again in us right here and right now?
As I was going from memory to memory about Anna, I realized my grief wasn’t leaving much room for Jesus. Pain, grief, anger, resentments, worries, anxieties—these emotions, and many more—can close out any joy, hope, and peace we need and desire. We can get so preoccupied, so driven, so lost in all that isn’t right with us or the world that we don’t even hear Jesus knocking at the door, hoping and waiting for us to invite Him in. We’re working at cross-purposes when we try to make a perfect Christmas for Jesus when all He desires is for imperfect us to give Him enough room so that He can be born again in us.
As I was struggling with missing Anna while also wanting to celebrate Christmas this year and in the years ahead, a way forward was given to me. It’s perhaps a simple move in print, though hard to put into practice. When I went from only missing Anna to also including being thankful for her—thankful I had been her dad, thankful she had been my daughter, thankful for all the difference she made while alive, thankful for her inimitable personality—my heart began to expand, and with an expanded heart, Jesus found more room to give me some peace, some solace, some joy, some hope, and some new-birth.
If, for whatever reason, you are finding this season hard for you to even contemplate, much less celebrate, I would invite you to look at your whole life, look at all the people who have ever loved you or who now love you, look at all the gifts and abilities and possibilities you have been given, look at just this day, and look at the beauty, bounty, and blessings all around you through the eyes of faith, and give thanks. Give thanks like your life depends upon it, which, of course, it does. Give thanks so deeply and fervently that you provide Jesus all the room He needs to be born again in you.
If we leave room for Him, He will come. When He comes, we will know that Christmas isn’t a day, isn’t a memory, isn’t some piece of fancy, but perhaps the most real thing in our lives here and in our lives to come.
- Would you say that there is room in your life for Jesus to come and for Christmas to really be real for you?
- If not, what would help you? Gratitude is making it possible for Christmas to have some celebration this year. Would working on gratitude be helpful for you?
- Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. What do you think Jesus would like to receive from you?