Another holiday season has come and gone. A time for being with family and friends, a time to go home, hopefully a time for happiness. Hopefully, but not always. As we look back over this Christmas, we may look back at a difficult time. But however we look back at Christmas, we can still look back at a grace-filled time.
I’ll never forget the words of my novice master, Fr. Huete, on praying with the Nativity. “You need to clear away the tinsel,” he told me. “You need to clear away the tinsel to enter into this prayer on the Nativity.”
Fr. Huete explained to me that our culture has so many things associated with Christmas—family, gifts, trees with lots of tinsel—that we just think of Christmas and the Nativity in terms of joy, warmth, and family cheer.
Christmas can involve all of that, but it also has a darker side that Fr. Huete wanted me to embrace in my prayer. And embracing the darkness of Christmas, clearing away the tinsel, has been some of the best advice on prayer I’ve gotten.
In theory, we associate Christmas with happy things. The reality is a little more complicated. There is joy for many around this time, but the holiday season is also a time of loneliness and anxiety for many, with one in ten Millennials experiencing loneliness this time of year. Not everyone can be with family at Christmas, and not everyone wants to. Sometimes, family is the source of holiday stress, due to political differences, divorces, or other family divisions.
Sometimes, Christmas is rough, and it is nobody’s fault. On two separate occasions, I have had a family member in the hospital for a serious reason over the Christmas season. One lived. One didn’t.
We have so much tinsel associated with Christmas that if the season is anything less than a joy-filled family extravaganza, we can feel like a failure. This can compound the feelings of darkness.
Whatever the cause, and whether it’s a one-time thing or a regular occurrence, Christmas is not always a season of joy. But even if the Christmas is not joyful, it is no less Christmas. Christmas has been a time of mixed emotions going all the way back to the very first one.
When Ignatius asks people to pray over the Nativity in the Spiritual Exercises, there is no tinsel. There is no tree, no nostalgia, no saccharine Christmas moral at the end. Just the stark reality of hardship. His final point, worth noting in full, drives the idea home. He asks us
to see and consider what [Jesus, Mary, and Joseph] are doing, for example, making the journey and laboring that our Lord might be born in extreme poverty, and that after many labors, after hunger, thirst, heat, and cold, after insults and outrages, He might die on the Cross, and all this for me.
When Ignatius asks us to pray over the Nativity, he embraces the darkness of Christmas. It was because I was able to see that darkness as part of the reality that I was able to look back at even these Christmases and not see failure, but grace.
In recent years, we have become more aware of how much the Holy Family has in common with marginalized people. This year, a church in Massachusetts has depicted the Holy Family as a modern refugee family. In 2014, Everett Patterson created an image called “José y Maria,” showing Joseph and Mary as a pair of down-and-out kids standing by a gas station as they search for lodging. We have started to pull back the tinsel, and remember that Christmas is
about more than warm feelings.
We have cleared away the tinsel for so many others, it may be time to clear away the tinsel for ourselves. The birth of Jesus was certainly a time of joy for Mary and Joseph, but also loneliness and anxiety, far from all those they loved. This was the reality that Jesus entered into. A Christmas without tinsel, without sentimentality. But a very real and human Christmas.
If you found yourself lonely or anxious this past Christmas, go back to St. Ignatius’ prayer above and make it your own. Clear away the tinsel and remember that Jesus began his life on earth surrounded by filth and sorrow. The experience of the Holy Family on that first Christmas was every bit as human as your own. However you look back on Christmas, you are looking back at a real Christmas, a good Christmas, a Christmas where God came to be with you.
Image courtesy PublicDomainPictures.net.