How can Christians celebrate when the worst happens?
“Your child is dead.”
Two different families I know each started 2016 receiving that news on New Year’s Day. It is in that context, and out of respect for their grief and horror, that I view with greater skepticism than usual the typical fare offered at the start of a new year: “How to Make This New Year the Best Ever!”
For the folks I have in mind, 2016 cannot be the best of anything, and one can’t help but wonder if they will ever have a truly happy new year again. From now on, as each new year begins, and so many other people will be nursing hangovers or making hopeful resolutions, these families will mark another painful anniversary.
We understandably shy away from such thoughts of death and loss; if we face them full on and without relief, the fragility and uncertainty of life can weigh upon us with crippling or crushing effect. During the Christmas holidays, I observed my little nieces responding with wide-eyed wonder and delight to the festive rituals of Church and family. I tried to see it all through their eyes, but my vision was obscured. Better said — my vision of their delight was overshadowed — in this case by a recent brush with death just a few days before Christmas.
I received word that a friend of many years died unexpectedly. He died alone. That news impaled me upon a perennial paradox. We celebrate the exaltation of human flesh as the divine Son becomes the son of Mary born in Bethlehem. And at the same time we must shudder at the human condition, which seems always stalked by sickness, loneliness and death. A truly Christian Christmas, then, must delight and marvel at the innocence of the divine Child and his Mother; at the same time, it must tremble in a shattering awe to see that we are loved so much by God that he takes upon himself the limits and losses that every human must endure. That’s a difficult lesson to express to children at any time, but especially as they are decorating the Christmas tree and arranging the figures about the manger scene. But in God’s own time, I suspect, they will inevitably be taught that lesson.
I do not want to discard or deny the honest joys of Christmas nor the genuine human need for a fresh start that is offered by a new year. At the same time, I cannot forget (nor do I really want to) the grief of the two families I spoke of earlier; nor do I want to use my present comfort as a means to blind myself to the very real dangers and calamities that are galloping across the world stage even as I write this. If the Gospel we proclaim is to be more than just wishful thinking or delusions of perpetual comfort, we must find a way to proclaim two apparently conflicting truths at once. On the one hand, because of the Incarnation of Christ, human life and flesh have a dignity and destiny that the pagans could not imagine and the moderns could not understand. We must rejoice over the liberation and adoption that Jesus Christ won for us with his Blood. At the same time, we must keep before us always the realities of sickness and death, which are but two reminders that this earthly life is not our home — it is instead a “valley of tears” that can become a pathway to something greater.
Isn’t it all just too difficult? Is it not a mad wish to think we can rejoice even when we have suffered loss? Is it not proof of our callousness that we can laugh while others mourn? How can an observant and honest person not become a pessimist?
I had been asking myself these questions in recent days when I stumbled upon a passage from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man: “Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.”
Real joy, real celebration — these are not stubborn acts of the will. They cannot be forced, at least not for long. All the goods of the world will inevitably either fall short or run out. Christian joy and celebration are rooted in the recognition that God offers us proof again and again that we are loved sinners and that as his adopted children, no power on earth, not even death, can have final authority over us. We may live this life now, even in times of darkness and grief, holding fast to Christ, who will — if only we let him—carry us to our Father’s house, where already a banquet is prepared for us.
These days, I bring to mind the promise that the mercies of the Lord do not come to an end, they are new every morning. The Lord will provide for those who hope in him (Lamentations 3:22–24). As this new year begins, let’s dry one another’s tears, encourage each other to count our blessings and walk one more day together closer to the Lord.
When I write next, I will speak of the power of pilgrimage. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.