Dec. 18, 2015 Friday: 3rd Week of Advent C
Twas the fight before Christmas : A survival guide to a fairly happy holiday
We've all seen the Hallmark version: the loving, happy, laughing family gathered around the Christmas tree.
Then there's real life.
Father John Cusick, director of young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago, remembers the relative who, every year, tried to goad him into a political argument during Christmas dinner. One year he took the bait and the conversation got heated. Later he went home, took a deep breath, and thought: "What a way to ruin a holiday."
How to ruin the holiday-there are so many ways, from the comedic to the close-to-pathological. We've all been there.
There's the furnace that expires just when the guests arrive.
The ache of missing loved ones who've died, or up-and-gone, or the question of whose turn it is to spend the holidays with the in-laws.
Throughout the Advent and Christmas season, Catholics deal with both what's supposed to be-at least in our imaginations-and what really exists in our families, our jobs, our culture, and our parishes.
"We all have this idea of the holiday as a family gathering, this Norman Rockwell kind of scene," says Patrick V. Dean, director of Grief Education Services for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Cemeteries and founder of the Wisconsin Grief Education Center. "It's a nice visual and it exists, but it's not everybody's story. One could argue that it's almost a minority position-that in all communities and all families, a majority of them have stresses and conflicts."
Jesus was born into a family that had its own Christmas drama of sorts-an unmarried pregnant woman, a long hard trip, and a no vacancy sign at the local motel. He was born into a broken world. For that reason some suggest that Christmas is exactly the time to live out in our own imperfect families the kind of reconciliation that God offers to us. Our efforts to make the best of our messy family celebrations could be one way of bringing Christ's spirit into the world.
Phil Fox Rose's family is all over the place-geographically, spiritually, and politically. His parents left the Mormon church; his father became atheist and his mother "kind of vague" about religion. Of their six children, one is Mormon, one an evangelical Protestant, one attends a liberal Protestant church, two are unaffiliated, and Rose, a 48-year-old writer from New York, became Catholic.
"We're very scattered," Rose says-and most of the time, the East and West Coast sides of the family do not get together.
When they do, Rose has learned not to bring up issues such as national elections or universal health care-or if it does come up, to "gently suggest that the other side isn't evil." He tries to be a healing force-and to suggest holiday gatherings at least for the siblings who live closer together.
That doesn't always happen. But like a lot of people who have close connections with their "families of choice"-friends, close co-workers, and neighbors-Rose has made his own traditions. He often celebrates Christmas with a blend of Presbyterians, Buddhists, and Jews, who have become a second family to him.
Rose, who is divorced, says he understands the stress that single people with scattered families can feel during Christmas. He has friends "who are really kind of irritable at the holidays, almost angry at the fact that the focus is on families coming together. It's kind of rubbing it in their face that they don't have one."
Father Larry Rice, the Newman Center's director, had the sense that Christmas is a struggle for lots of folks-for lots of reasons.
"We really want to reach out to people who are feeling alienated from the church or disconnected from society, and try to bring them some healing," Rice says. "I wanted to do something that was really going to be about welcoming people who have a hard time with the holidays."
The idea is to celebrate the Incarnation, but in a quieter, more subdued way.
"You really don't have to do ‘Joy to the World' at every Mass," Rice says. "We do the more quiet, reflective Christmas songs. We start the liturgy by simply welcoming people, acknowledging that not everybody feels great about Christmas. We invite people to bring with them whatever they're going through and whatever they're struggling with, and to know that all of that is welcome."
Rice preaches a homily about the core meaning of Christmas. "Christ [became] one of us here on the ground and [lived] through all the struggles we live with," he says. "All of our human experience is redeemed, even the difficult parts. Jesus is there to acknowledge and heal whatever is within us that's broken, and to be with us in all our struggles."
From the altar, Rice can look across the crowd and see people crying.
The first year, after the Mass had ended, a woman came up to Rice with tears streaming down her face. "It was the first time she didn't feel out of place at Christmas in 25 years," he says. "I thought, ‘What has she been carrying around for 25 years that was so horrible?' I never found out."