The story of Christmas is large and fresh and incomprehensible. How could God become flesh as a defenseless baby born in an animal stall in Bethlehem?
How could such hopeless circumstances – God pitching his meager tent among us 2,000 years ago – still create such hope?
We will see many people at Mass this weekend whom we probably have not have seen in a year or so. And, that’s OK. They are here, their shadows once again darkening the doors of our church, because the Christ story of incarnation and resurrection – the story of our salvation – cannot be extinguished.
Even as strangers or as searchers, they are witnesses to hope. The Christ story still makes a difference.
At the time of Christ’s birth, shepherds were important for only a few things. Perhaps their most important task was caring for their flocks so diligently that a motherlode of spotless lambs could be produced for the Passover sacrifice, which would carry a premium price to sustain themselves and their families.
And yet, the Bible says, God granted to shepherds, the least among us, the privilege of announcing the salvation story.
Christmas is a time of connection, both with God and with God’s creation, especially our human family. It is a time to recall – literally, re-call – the shepherds’ message that God had become a family member.
Msgr. Allen Roy, 88, the retired pastor of Holy Spirit Church in Algiers, has wrestled with how properly to rank the Christmas-Easter mysteries.
“I myself haven’t been able to determine what impresses me more – is it God’s incarnation or God’s resurrection, or is it the two of them working together?” Msgr. Roy said. “The mere fact that God did not hesitate coming among us as the most defenseless infant in the world is incredible. This is also the God who came to show us the way and who rose from the dead.”
Christmas brims with mystery and love. It also can expose the wounds in our lives that have never healed and need the balm of Gilead.
In his ministry as a pastor, Msgr. Roy found joy and despair living side-by-side during the Christmas season. The joy of family harmony was evident in the smiles of parents and their young children.
However, the real world never loosens its grip. It might be the family learning to cope with divorce or death. It could be the loneliness experienced by an elderly parishioner or the recognition of dreams, unfulfilled, that create unbearable crosses.
Sometimes it is the loss of relatives or friends or the loss of capabilities. Msgr. Roy says his younger brother, 84, built an incredibly successful welding company in New Roads, Louisiana, but after double-bypass surgery, he has had to relegate himself to chatting with customers over the
“It kills him,” Msgr. Roy said. “He’s up in the front with air conditioning, but he feels like he ought to be back working in the shop. If he’s not sitting at the welding table with his gloves on his hands and his shield on his face, then he’s not working.”
The Christmas holidays can make stressful situations even more stressful, says Malise Harold, director of Catholic Counseling Service, by exacerbating financial difficulties or the dysfunction that might already exist within the family.
The death of a loved one can cause a change in the Christmas routine. Family wounds can be reopened as families gather and interact with each other.
Harold says in addition to Scripture and the sacraments, the church offers grace to those in despair through its fertile theological tradition, which can be surprisingly simple. St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century, offered five “remedies” for sorrow or sadness. They are so down to earth they might be the foundation for a 21st century reality TV show.
➤ 1. Grant yourself a pleasure. “A licit one, of course,” Harold said. “St. Thomas said, ‘All pleasure assuages pain.’ It may sound like a silly thing, but the idea is that dark chocolate is an anti-depressant. Allow yourself to enjoy a nice meal or a good drink within moderation. It’s a very Catholic thing.”
➤ 2. Weeping. “The more we keep a hurtful thing contained, the more we focus on it,” Harold said. “I think of it as a glass of water, where everything is contained. If you allow the water to spill out on the floor, it becomes a very thin layer and it can become more manageable.”
➤ 3. The consolation of friends. “St. Thomas says to go sit with your friend and share that sorrow,” she said. “There’s danger in isolation and turning in to ourselves.”
➤ 4. The contemplation of truth. “This is where we bring prayer and the contemplation of the mysteries of our faith into things,” Harold said. “We can look at Jesus in the nativity scene and contemplate what he did for us. That can be a great source of consolation.”
➤ 5. Baths and sleep. “This is so down to earth,” Harold said. “We’re a body and soul composite. A warm bath and sleep can relieve a weary body. It’s so nice to think that these simple things are part of the patrimony of our faith.”
Just as the shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night, Harold says Christian charity impels us to stay awake and reach out to our relatives, friends and coworkers who may be struggling to sing, “Joy to the World.” Msgr. Roy agrees.
“I always like to tell people to come to the crèche scene and come to the Eucharist – together – to get an experience of God,” Msgr. Roy said. “This is not just the nativity of the movies. This engenders in us a reason to hope and to realize that the world is not all perfect and shiny, but this is the world that God has created, and we have a part to play in that.”
Peter Finney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.