We need comfort because suffering is a part of life, and we can receive joy, because God is in it with us.
Christmas can be a desperately sad time of year.
Perhaps it your first Christmas without a loved one. Perhaps memories of happier Christmases set up a jarring contrast to your current loneliness, bringing forward memories of past mistakes.
“Christmas cheer” can seem hollow and empty for anyone who is ill, suffering from financial setbacks, and family difficulties. (Please see the note below on clinical depression, an illness which should not be ignored.)**
There is loads of advice out there about combating the holiday blues, from simply acknowledging that it is hard for you, reaching out to trusted friends, and serving others, to getting out into the sunshine, exercise, and sleep! But is there more to it than that?
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
We don’t often associate the Beatitudes with Christmas time, but for those who are feeling less than joyful, this one seems to hold out a promise: there may be a light in the darkness.
“The people in darkness have seen a great light.”
So let’s try to expand our view of Christmas by catching a tiny glimpse of the time and culture surrounding the birth of Jesus. Was it really calm and bright?
Formerly a great nation, you see your homeland controlled by invaders who cruelly suppress any attempt to throw off their power. Herod, the ruler in charge, is an absolute madman, cruel and anxious to find favor with the Romans.
You are burdened with heavy taxes to finance his overly ambitious building projects and carry the additional burden of an overextended list of religious regulations. If you are poor or afflicted in any way, you are shunned by your own people, seen as having committed some hidden evil for which you are being punished.
Life is harsh and unforgiving.
You know a saviour has been promised. With longing and a pain in your heart you question: When will he come? Has Yahweh abandoned us?
Tidings of great joy
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”
This proclamation by an angel of the Lord was news that the nearby shepherds were longing to hear. It was worthy of leaving their sheep to the perils of the night.
What did they find? A baby lying in a manger, just as they had been told. Surely this was an extraordinary sign! What kind of savior and Lord would be born in such lowly circumstances? But we are told that they rejoiced in all they had seen and heard.
The wood of the manger; the wood of the Cross
Jesus first gazed on the world He created from the rough wood of a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes fit for a pauper. He had already suffered rejection (no room in any of the inns), deprivation (born in a manger in the “piercing cold”), and was about to suffer persecution and alienation (fleeing to Egypt until Herod’s death).
In His adult life, the rejection and persecution resurfaced, from the scorn of the people of his hometown of Nazareth, the hatred and vengeance of the Pharisees, the betrayal of a trusted friend and disciple, the cowardice of a Roman official, to His death on the rough wood of the cross. He knew all of this suffering was to come, and He experienced it in His humanity more intensely than any of us can imagine.
Jesus prayed that His suffering would be taken away
He didn’t pretend it was going to be easy—He sweat blood remember? He asked for the “cup” of suffering to be taken from Him, yet He embraced it all the same: “Not my will but Yours be done.”
So is that it? Just a stiff upper lip and bear it? Or perhaps worse, “accepting God’s will” while believing that He is unforgiving or vengeful or doesn’t care about you? Maybe suffering has made you wonder if He even exists.
A way out
In his book, Turn My Mourning into Dancing, renowned priest, teacher, and author, Henri Nouwen, suggests that the process of healing can only begin by squarely facing our suffering. He says that too often we view our pains as temporary interruptions, as annoyances that must be eradicated and rejected. Or another possibility is that hidden sufferings can paralyze us in shame and guilt. Keeping them in the dark, we try desperately to hide from the pain of confronting them.
Nouwen gently offers the following advice:
“...the way through suffering is not to deny it, but to live fully in the midst of it.”
He was shown this by encountering the very real suffering in the lives of the mentally and physically handicapped members of Daybreak, a L’Arche community where he spent the last years of his life. He recalls that it was their witness of deprivation and loss along with their celebration of life’s joys that allowed him to see his own (very real) suffering in a new light: “whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes, all of creation.”
By seeing our suffering in a larger context, we become participants in the great cosmic battle against evil. He said, “Our little lives participate in something larger.”
How memory helps to integrate suffering with joy
Not only do we not suffer alone or uselessly, Nouwen suggests that memory is the means to understand how our “mourning can be turned into dancing.” He describes how obsessing over the past means trying to relive and fix it, but true memory brings the past into the present so that we can see it in a new context.
He reminds us that the Israelites were always remembering their past, recalling the many painful events that eventually led them to Jerusalem, seeing in retrospect how God was guiding them all along. For us too, reflecting on our past can allow us to “see how God has brought good even from impossible situations.” In other words, God is faithful. He is with us.
How can we cooperate with this movement of grace?
A hard balance
One of the marks of a Christian is supposed to be joy, and yet it seems impossible to be joyful when we are impaled upon our pain.
In the Nativity narrative we are told, in the midst of all of the rejection, deprivation, fear and hardship, Mary and Joseph were comforted by the shepherds who came to see the babe so gloriously announced by angels and then by the Magi who came bearing gifts fit for a king. We are told that Mary was able to “treasure these things and ponder them in her heart.”
But the Holy Family still had to flee into Egypt!
Because none of us is free from the very real woundedness of our humanity—from the reality and piercing pain of suffering—the gift of joy, this special grace, must be asked for, prayed for, sought.**
Then you can look upon the gifts and embrace your losses, treasuring them both, pondering them in your heart, convinced as you are of God’s faithful love for you.
You are not alone.
In your seeking, may you be comforted AND in the finding may you be filled with joy.
“ ...pruning is no mere punishment, but preparation.” -Henri Nouwen
**Clinical depression is a real illness that may need integrated healing approaches—medication, psychotherapy, along with spiritual and psychological counseling. Dr. Aaron Kheriaty’s Catholic Guide to Depression is a good resource, or you can listen to this interview.
There is no shame in reaching out to others if darkness is overwhelming you or if hope for change looks like a tiny far-off point of light. Or perhaps you know someone who appears to be in that dark and lonely place.
In an emergency in which you or someone you know is suicidal, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room. For a list of warning signs of suicide, you can go here , but there are other lists you can find on the internet.