By Claire McGrath
With Christmas only a few days away, in my family, it’s crunch time (and I’m guessing we aren’t the only ones). It’s time to buy last minute gifts (or, if you’re like me, start your Christmas shopping), finish sending out Christmas cards, put the last of the decorations up, and make sure that everything is prepared for the big day. Christmas is a time of celebration, peace, togetherness, and joy. However, it can be hard to feel the happiness and light-heartedness of the season when as we sit in our cozy living rooms, Christmas tree glowing and a fire warming us, we turn on the news to be bombarded with images of continuing riots in Ferguson, innocent schoolchildren being murdered in the Middle East, and cops in New York being brutally assassinated. How can we celebrate peace when we live in a world so divided by racism, violence, and hatred? How can we feel joyful when there is suffering within our own families, or in our own hearts?
It’s difficult to reconcile the celebration of Christmas with all of the horrific tragedies that create such intense heartache for so many. We may feel guilty about participating in festivities while so many are hurting, or we may feel too much heaviness in our own hearts to join in the carefree attitude we refer to as “Christmas spirit.” We may be torn between acknowledging the suffering going on around us, whether that be in the Middle East, the US, or in our own home, or simply putting our recognition of these tragedies on hold, and temporarily blocking it out until the Christmas season is over.
As tempting as it is to take a break from fully recognizing and comprehending all of the pain and suffering that goes on around us, compassion is not something that we can put on hold. The root words of compassion mean “to suffer together.” If we want to live lives of compassion, as our faith calls us to, then we must be willing to enter into the depths of brokenness that exist in our world and in our own hearts. We must be unafraid to open our hearts to feeling the pain of those who surround us, and to fully experiencing or own pain. This is not easy, and it isn’t always pleasant. So, we are brought back to our original question: How can we simultaneously live compassionately in a world full of suffering while preparing for such a great celebration as Christmas?
I think that when we consider Christmas as it is portrayed by popular culture, reconciling these two conflicting approaches is impossible. The Christmas that is popularized by our culture is one that delights in decorations, trees, gifts, Santa Claus, carols, and Christmas movies. Now, I love all of these aspects of Christmas, and I’m not suggesting that we give them up. The problem lies in the fact that too often, we let the meaning of Christmas stop there. The joy of Christmas goes no deeper than the happiness of receiving presents or decorating the tree—it hovers at the surface of joy. Of course, you often hear plenty of buzzwords and phrases getting tossed around this time of year, like “peace” and “family” and “the reason for the season.” But as often as we use these words, do they really mean something to us?
According to this superficial conception of joy, we must choose to set aside all of the suffering around us and enjoy a month of blissful ignorance, or we must give up all of our Christmas cheer and be immersed in despair for the state of the world around us. However, when we look beyond this notion of what joy is, and really get to the heart of its meaning, we can embrace both compassion, which requires us to acknowledge suffering, and the happiness of the season. After all, our joy is rooted not in gifts and decorations and Santa, but in the knowledge that God sent his son to our messed up, broken, divided world to teach us what hope is. Feeling joyful in the wake of so many terrible events seems paradoxical, but we must remember that we have embraced a faith full of paradoxes. Jesus saved us from our sinfulness when he appeared to be at his weakest, stripped of everything and hanging on a cross. The embodiment of pure goodness, Jesus spent most of his time on earth in the homes of the most notorious sinners. He chose Peter, who denied him three times and was constantly proving his unworthiness, to be the rock upon which he built the entire church. God sent the savior of the world to earth in the form of a baby born to a poor family. We are told to have hope even in the times of most intense suffering. We are called to have faith in what we cannot see.
We can only appreciate the full meaning of the word joy in light of all of these paradoxes. Joy is not the absence of sadness, pain, or suffering. It is fully comprehending and embracing suffering, but simultaneously having hope, which allows us to feel a sense of underlying, sustainable happiness that stems from our faith in God’s power to make something beautiful out of suffering. When we focus so much on the superficial aspects of Christmas, we allow joy to become degraded to a transient emotion. But joy is something much more powerful—it is a state of being. It means that even as we fully experience the pain and suffering in our own hearts and in the hearts of others, we are sustained by the hope that God gave us when he sent an infant born in a stable to heal a broken world.