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Bittersweet wonder: The down side of Christmas


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David Mills - published on 12/27/17

Christmas always has a downside: We’d eaten well. Everyone felt happy. Then I thought of my mother losing her mind.

My mother, standing in our kitchen talking to her two oldest grandchildren, said, “You’re a lot alike. Are you related?” This was about ten Christmases ago. They looked at each other, and laughed a dismayed laugh. Our eldest said, “We’re your grandchildren, grandma.” She nodded. She accepted it as she accepted every fact at that point in her decline.

It was the Christmas she’d gone from being forgetful to having forgotten. She had to be watched — kept away from the stove, continually comforted when she panicked, accompanied at all times, as we discovered when she walked out of a store after agreeing to stay in the card section. She had been a great writer of cards and we thought browsing would keep her happy for a while as we all went each to our favorite section. She said she’d stay there. Less than five minutes later she left. Our son found her half an hour later wandering around a cold parking garage, having decided she had to meet us at the car.

The whole week she and my sister were with us went like that. It’s a gloomy memory to have on Christmas day, but I remembered it as I sat in the corner of the living room watching our youngest three sitting on the floor playing Scrabble. Our eldest had called from Africa where she works with Catholic Relief Services. We’d eaten well. We’d built a fire. Everyone felt happy. Then I thought of my mother losing her mind.

There’s an ambiguity in Christmas. It points in opposite directions.

The ambiguity of Christmas

More and more people seem to feel this. Last week I was asked to edit two articles on what one writer called the “bittersweet” holy day. Others bring in the Cross when they write about the Nativity in a way I don’t remember so many doing in the past.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just know too many older people who’ve gotten to the age when a twinge in the knee feels like an intimation of mortality. But in my unscientific observation, of conversations and Facebook posts, young people notice it as well. Several posted on their Facebook page a quote from Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. He points to the end of the Annunciation, when Gabriel leaves Mary.

“The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger — in which her whole life is changed — comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments — from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind, right up to the night of the Cross.”

Not an obvious Christmas meditation, unless your own life pushes you to think of the Cross when you think of in the infant in the manger. Benedict’s seems to have.

Pope Francis touched on this in his Urbi et Orbi message this year. “The power of this Child, Son of God and Son of Mary, is not the power of this world, based on might and wealth,” he said. “It is the power of love. … It is the power which gives new birth, pardons faults, reconciles enemies, and transforms evil into good. It is the power of God. This power of love led Jesus Christ to strip himself of his glory and become man; it led him to give his life on the Cross.”

And of course, so many people suffer Christmas sorrows, suffering that Christmas make worse. Mothers grieving miscarriages and the children they lost, fathers separated by divorce from their children, children (even adults) who’ve lost their parents, men and women watching someone they love dying, people who’ve seen friendships crushed, people who’d driven away their family and friends, men and women who have no one to care for and no one to care for them.

People who feel God doesn’t love them or can’t love them. People so hurt by the Church they can’t enter the building to get the sacraments they crave. And people who have memories like mine.

An intruding sorrow

Not the cheeriest Christmas message, I know. Not the message I felt at the Christmas Eve Mass. But one that intruded itself the next day as I watched my children. Christmas does point in opposite directions: to our joys and to our sorrows, to Christ-now-with-us and to Christ dying from torture.

Two directions, but also two stages in our redemption. Francis ends the words I quoted with “it led him to give his life on the Cross, and to rise from the dead.” You can’t tell suffering people just to look to the Resurrection, as if it were easy for them to feel that things will all work out in the end. But it will. God will not abandon us, has not abandoned us. Look at that child in the manger. He’s the man who will bring back my mother’s memory. She’ll know her grandchildren once again, and they her.

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