Healed of Christmases Past–the cure is in plain view

Here is my December column for the Catholic Free Press.

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It’s here. The Christmas season. How does this make you feel?

Is it excitement as in days of old when you were a child?

Or, is it long to-do lists that never end? Shopping till we drop? Noise and chaos and endless obligations that make us tired and cranky while all the while we are told to be “merry?”

Is it dread, trying to stretch limited financial resources to fulfill gift obligations? Is it regret, frustration and guilt that we cannot buy what we wish for our loved ones?

Is it loneliness? Are we missing someone, loved ones who have died or moved away? Do we feel empty, sad or bitter?

Miguel Fraga, Flickr Creative Commons
Miguel Fraga, Flickr Creative Commons

The Christmas season evokes powerful memories and emotions, magnifying every joy as well as all the hurt, disappointment and loss we have experienced in our lives. Our reaction to any unattended and festering wounds will be visited upon everyone around us, especially those we love.

Tucked away in the midst of all this is a liturgical season often overlooked: Advent. It is the antithesis of a chaotic, noisy commercial Christmas; a soothing and sanguine contrast to a season clouded by wounds and losses. Advent does not look mournfully to the past; it draws our attention to a hopeful future while being firmly rooted in the here and now.

Jorbasa Fotografie 4. Advent 2011, Flickr Creative Commons
Jorbasa Fotografie 4. Advent 2011, Flickr Creative Commons

Advent features the key players of our faith: Mary, Joseph and of course, Jesus Christ. It features some of the most moving and poetic passages from the Bible–prophesies of old heralding the coming of the Messiah as the shoot of Jesse, filled with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and of strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord (from Isaiah 11).

Barta IV Jesus Joseph Mary, Flickr Creative Commons
Barta IV Jesus Joseph Mary, Flickr Creative Commons

It documents the greatest act of obedience in history when a young virgin accepts the invitation from God to bear his Son. That obedience is not an onerous “do not” but a joyful “I do!” as evidenced by Mary’s rushing to the side of her kinswoman Elizabeth (thought barren yet pregnant) and spontaneously praising God with her and the babes in their wombs in the exquisite prayer of the Magnificat.

It illustrates sublime acts of trust, surrender, generosity and courage in Joseph who fully embraces the responsibility of taking Mary to be his wife despite the fact that she is carrying a child not his own. Going against the grain of longstanding tradition and enduring the naysayers, he knows there is a bigger picture to consider: Mary’s child is God’s Son. And he makes room for them.

So how does all of this help to sooth frazzled nerves, heal the wounds of Christmases past and fill empty and grieving hearts?

I can’t say how specifically. I only know that each year as I focus on Advent and turn away from a commercial Christmas, I have felt that soothing, that healing. My empty heart is filled.

I still grieve for loved ones. I still struggle with squeezing out the last dollar. I still battle with a heart that is small (although it is growing). I only know that the other day when I went to the Christmas Tree shop to finish off a gift basket for church, I felt serene, even enjoying the experience. To me, the Christmas Tree shop is the quintessential representation of a frazzled, noisy, chaotic commercial Christmas. And yet I felt deep contentment.

It’s the fruit of Advents past, reflecting on the readings, listening to the music, and looking to Mary and Joseph as the examples. Philippians 4:8 sums it up perfectly: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (NIV)

Immersion into the refuge of Advent has healed my Christmas.

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The most precious of gifts: listening

I created a video for this post with a musical backdrop and images to inspire you. You can read the text below:

Recently I wrote a post about dealing with the noise, busyness and general chaos of the Christmas season. Our involvement in the many worthwhile activities of decorating, cooking, entertaining, party-hopping, buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, volunteering our time and treasure to charities, and spending time with our families can make our heads spin. I proposed that a renewed focus on the season of Advent, with its call to simplicity and quiet, would make a wonderful antidote.

Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons
Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons

A reader responded with an unexpected comment: “I have the opposite problem. I would love a bit of noise and chaos at Christmas.” Jay described her situation of caring for a homebound mother and a disabled husband, with other family members living too far away to visit. Suddenly my assumption that a quiet Christmas was best for everyone felt arbitrary. “Quiet” can assume many forms, including loneliness and isolation.

I immediately wrote back to Jay, attempting to offer some consolation; I wanted to do something to mitigate her circumstance. In the writing I realized that I too understood the ramifications of a Christmas “gone quiet.” My own family circle has grown noticeably smaller over the years with my parents gone and my sister, brother-in-law and nephews scattered across the country. Although the circumstances were different, Jay and I ended up sharing a common problem.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström, Flickr Creative Commons
1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström, Flickr Creative Commons

Jay responded to my letter, opening up about her situation. Because of her husband’s disability, it is nearly impossible for them to visit friends. In fact, in order to see her mother on Christmas day, she has to leave him behind. She waxed nostalgic on the past, writing, “we had such a lovely time with the cousins and aunts and uncles when I was a child, and when we lived closer by.” She wrote of longing to help others, of getting a tree only to leave it unadorned and of the futility of buying gifts when no one really needed anything. She gently berated herself in her longing for Christmases past full of Santa Claus, gifts and overeating; as a teacher in the Methodist church she is keenly aware of the true meaning of the day.

However, as we continued to write back and forth, I noticed her mood quickly shifting from laments to gratitude. Jay began recounting her blessings, most notably the love she has for her husband and mother. I could feel the warmth of that love coming across the Atlantic from her home in Ipswich, England to mine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. It was then that I began to understand the power behind listening.

I had entered into the correspondence assuming my usual role of problem solver; I was going to make everything better! It soon became clear however that I was meant to be a friend; to listen to and acknowledge another person’s life story. It was not about me solving a problem and looking like a hero; it was about Jay needing someone to be fully present, listening with mind and heart. Paying attention to her life rather than mine required humility.

Yet, once I surrendered to the idea, I could see God’s grace unfolding. The focus of our letters changed from melancholic remembrances to gratitude for the blessings we both enjoy. Gratitude fueled action with Jay vowing to get into the spirit by attending a couple of get-together lunches and taking in a local concert of carols presented by her town’s brass band. I, in turn, volunteered to join a band of Christmas carolers in our parish, and inquired about taking communion to nursing home residents. Jay and I are exchanging gifts through the mail. Listening has turned strangers into friends.

Virginia McMillan cuddled up cats, Flickr Creative Commons
Virginia McMillan cuddled up cats, Flickr Creative Commons

Our correspondences caused me to examine myself: why do I insist on giving people what I would not want for myself? When I share my heart with someone, I don’t want judgment or unsolicited advice or easy answers. Many problems cannot be solved but rather, must be endured. I just want a sympathetic ear. Doesn’t it make sense then that sometimes my family and friends, neighbors and even strangers just want someone to accept where they are at that very moment and sit close by, saying nothing?

I experienced this recently as another friend shared with me the pain of watching her best friend slip away behind the fog of dementia. I empathized, recalling my mother’s mental deterioration and personality change, but decided that it was best just to let her talk. We ended our conversation in silence, looking at each other with misty eyes.

Jay taught me how to do that.

If I were to sit on Santa’s knee, I would say: “St. Nicholas, please ask the Lord to help me grow in grace as a good listener.”

For listening is one of the most precious gifts we can give to each other.

Note: It turns out Jay and I have something else in common–Foster Dad John’s Critter Room!

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