Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas: Fragmentation and Wholeness

I've been thinking about Advent and Christmas for awhile, but the thoughts below finally crystallized as my own version, or response, to this post in Blue Eyed Ennis.  One of the things I enjoy about blogging is the ways in which unexpected conversations take place across time and geography ~ Blue Eyed Ennis quotes Dating God ( a recent and favorite discovery of mine), which quotes Thomas Merton, who says, 

"The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance." (See Blue Eyed Ennis for the entire and quite wonderful essay.)

My contribution to the conversation:

I could just - not. I could just not do religion.   I could have left seminary.  I could have finished my degree and decided to take on only work in which Christmas was not a feature.  Something academic, perhaps.  I could revert to the stance of my family of origin, which has generally been that life without faith is much easier than life with.

I did some bizarre things during the sleepless nights that became my lot after Josh died.  One evening, I spent hours and hours online reading everything I could find about the response by people of religious faith to death from suicide.

In one sense, it didn't matter.  Had I found nothing but condemnations of suicide victims to hell, I would have walked away from the church with nary a second glance.

In another sense, it did matter.  I heard nothing other than words of comfort from those in my life connected with both  Jewish and Christian religions, and I was well aware of mental illness as a factor in suicide, but I had been teaching history, and studying world religions and religious history, for years.  I wanted to trace the history of the religious response; how had it changed since the Middle Ages so that rabbis and priests alike could offer words of reassurance to me? What was going to make it possible for my own pastor to preach a funeral sermon affirming the resurrection of the dead?

When our children were young, and then older, Christmas was a magical time.  Family magic, as we created and followed a plethora of traditions that filled our lives with humor and joy. Friend magic, as we participated in the events others hosted and opened our own doors to a dinner for as many as ten or twelve families celebrating both Christmas and Hanukah.  And yes, a  sense of religious magic, in Services of Lessons and Carols and watching Amahl and the Night Visitors and helping to produce The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and Christmas Eves filled with music and candles and a sense of the Holy among us.

All gone.

Like so many families whose children have died, we turned our backs on all that we had known and created and treasured, unable to bear the associated anguish, and traded snow for palm trees without a glance backward.

Each year, the ground shifts a bit, and the path widens.  Or changes.

This year, we'll be at home.  Worship services for me to lead on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and today we decided that in the afternoon we will join our friends for the annual dinner that migrated elsewhere when we headed for Key West.  I expect it to be a fairly difficult couple of days, with my own feelings somewhat mitigated by the requirement that I put many others ahead of myself.

But something else is changing as well.

It seems that when the beloved traditions are no longer tenable, when they become cherished memories no longer manageable, there are two choices.  I could turn my back on all of it.  (That first year, we came up with Baghdad and Pakistan as potential destinations, so eager were we to escape Christmas.)

Or . . .

I could focus more deeply than ever on the reality behind the traditions.  As wonderful as they are, or were ~ the lights, the gingerbread, the candles, the crafts, the trees, the baking, the presents, the music, the togetherness ~ they all serve as a front for the reality:

The embodied presence among us of a God who comes to save us, a God whose love is so great that it sweeps all of us into one great embrace, a God who sends a son to live and suffer as we do to ensure that, in the end, we will live but suffer no more.

Advent is a time in which it seems that my personal experience of loss knows no bounds. For me, personally, the cultural holiday glitz is the equivalent of 40 days in the wilderness.  But if Christmas is, indeed, the first step toward Easter, then it is also the day on which we should register our desperate, agonizing losses as those of perishable bodies that will be changed in the twinkling of an eye.  We will be changed, because death will be swallowed up in the victory of the small and vulnerable Christmas infant.

Christmas seems very possible when I look at it that way.

Image: Mary in the Storm by Patricia Brintle, a friend of a friend and  my favorite artist tonight.


  1. Robin, as I read this I was very moved.
    Your personal decision to even consider a Christmas gathering is a courageous and timely one. I am really glad you have been able to consider it. I got a Christmas card the other day describing how a weary Mary and a worried Joseph set out for Bethlehem. But on that special night they were transformed.
    Cliches abound at this time of the year I know, but your last sentence really does embody what life is all about, not just at Christmas, but every day !

  2. This is a beautiful post, Robin. In the embrace and acceptance of loss and pain you actually embody a deep and abiding hope. The kind of hope I see in the Scriptures.

  3. "But if Christmas is, indeed, the first step toward Easter, then it is also the day on which we should register our desperate, agonizing losses as those of perishable bodies that will be changed in the twinkling of an eye."

    Pure poetry.
    Love you, my friend.