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Healing Peace

It's time for a true confession: this year and last Christmas season, Julie and I have sort of binge-watched Hallmark Christmas movies. Seriously, I’m a sucker for a happy ending, true love, and the wonder and magic of Christmas bringing people together.

(For the full video version, click here.)

The realist in me knows that life doesn’t always work this way. Not everyone is happy at Christmas time. Not all stories have a happy ending. Not all families are womnderful.And, some Scrooges and Grinches are never reformed.

While it is a myth that there are more suicides during the holiday season, it is still true that many people approach the holidays with a sense of dread. And many more of us have moments that are less than joyful. What brings us down at Christmas time? Grief and loss top the list. And that includes loss of health, ability, relationships, roles, security, and probably more. Unrealized expectations is probably a close second, and despite the fact that we essentially bring this upon ourselves, we're often crushed when people and events don't live up to our high hopes. Then we can add loneliness, change, family tension, busyness, commercialism and the ghosts of Christmases past to the list.

When we’re struggling with these things, it’s hard to hear Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, because we feel like that doesn’t apply to us. Sometimes it feels easier to pull away from others, from life, from God, than be slapped in the face with something we feel we can’t have.

The author of Psalm 25 (and I prefer the interpretaton by Nan Merrill in her book Psalms for Praying) lifts up human struggles and emotional turmoil beautifully, and then implores the Essence of Life to help them heal. This Psalm is a cry to Love, to the Heart within my Heart, to feel worthy and unafraid. The Psalmist says, open my heart, teach me, lead me so that I might know wholeness and be light, and they ask forgiveness for the times they turned away from God and chose to walk alone. Hear part of this Psalm again:

Turn to me, O Holy One, and envelop me with your love, for I am lonely and oppressed.
Relieve the blocks in my heart that keep me separated from You;
See all the darkness within me; fill it with your healing light.
Look at my pain and all my fears; they shut out love and life.
Protect me and free me;
Let me not live as unworthy,
For I would make my home in You.
May integrity and wholeness fill me as I dwell with You, O Loving Presence.

Jan L. Richardson echoes these sentiments in her prayer for the beginning of Advent.  She says, free me from fear, doubt and ridicule. Comfort me, bless me, strengthen me. “With your embrace of all of me heal me and set me to motion.”

While we yearn for healing, we can also be afraid to be vulnerable and ashamed to ask for help, love or companionship. Sometimes in the midst of pain we send mixed signals and don’t quite know what we want. We beckon people closer with one hand, deeply longing to be heard and held, to find some balm for our pain. Yet at the same time we hold the other arm straight out and keep everyone at a safe distance.

I’ve always believed that Christmas is a magical, mystical time. Within the calm of the darkness, the blanket of snow that wraps a hush over the world, in the warmth of a fire, the glow of Christmas lights, and the innocence and hope of a child, there exists a deep Christmas peace that is healing if we will open our hearts to it, if we will allow ourselves to be vulnerable and drop that arm we’re holding people off with.  

Healing can't begin until we risk letting the Spirit and others enter in. As John Shea has said, we have to put ourselves in the way of Christmas (kind of adds a new twist to "Grandma got run over by a reindeer"). When we put ourselves in the way of Christmas, we open to a connection with the Divine and others.

I don’t expect thsi to make everything instantly perfect, but I do believe that in opening up the painful edges of our lives, they can be softened and we can glimpse light where there perhaps was none before.

Jeffrey Holland tells this story... on the evening of December 23, 1976, Jeffrey's father underwent surgery. The surgery was successful, but near the conclusion of it he suffered a major heart attack. Eight hours later, he suffered another one. By the time the family finally got to see him, wired and tubed and gray and unconscious, it was mid-morning on December 24, Christmas Eve.

“Magnificent time,” Jeffrey muttered to no one in particular. 

At the hospital Jeffrey sat and walked and read and walked and looked in on Dad and walked. Dad would not, in fact, recover from all this. Perhaps everyone knew that, but the nursing staff were kind to Jeffrey and gave him free access to his dad and to the entire hospital. A couple of nurses wore Santa Claus hats, and all the nursing stations were decorated for the season. During the course of the evening Jeffrey pretty much checked them all out, and sure enough, on every floor it was Christmas.

Somewhere in the early hours of the morning he was feeling pretty sorry for himself. “Why does it have to be like this?” he thought. “Why does it have to be on Christmas Eve?” Lying under that oxygen tent was the most generous man he had ever known . . . and by some seemingly cruel turn of cardiac fate it was Christmas morning and he was in the process of dying.

Then and there, at 2 or 3 a.m. in a very quiet hospital, immersed as Jeffrey was in sorrow and perhaps a bit too much self-pity, he received a small, personal, prepackaged revelation, a tiny Christmas declaration that was as powerful as any he have ever received.

In the midst of mumbling about the very timing in all of this, he heard the clear, unbroken cry of a baby.

It startled him. He had long since ceased paying attention to where he was wandering that night, and only then did he realize he was near the maternity ward. God could not have sent a more penetrating wake up call.

“Jeff, my boy,” God seemed to say with that baby’s cry, "We can’t separate the birth in Bethlehem from the ministry and the message of that man he grew into. We can’t forget about the struggling peasants he preached hope to, or the outcast he loved, or the poor he sought to free from oppression, or the women he treated as equals. We can’t separate the baby boy from the man who was rejected in his hometown and executed by the powers-that-be. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain, loss, and deprivation, but Christmas is joyful precisely because life does hold those moments for us and they aren't the last word.”

For Jeff that cry of a child put all things into perspective and opened his heart for a moment to encompass all parts of life. In that opening he was able to feel differently. He said to himself, “If you have to lose your dad, what more comforting time than the Christmas season?”

There will always be sad experiences, terribly wrenching experiences, with difficult moments for years and years to come. But the child in Bethlehem reminds us that there is birth and new life, too. There is a rising after the falling. There is life and hope always.

Love & Light,