The very thought of Christmas makes my stomach lurch, and it has nothing to do with too much Christmas cake and sherry. I honestly thought I was the only person on the planet that hated Christmas. The expectation that we must all have a wonderful festive time is overwhelming. Every television advertisement paints a family scene, with 2.4 children, grandparents and a blissfully happy couple kissing under the mistletoe. It is all very well sitting here and demonizing the secular scene but neither does it seem that the church has anything more helpful to offer.
I sat recently in a familiar and famous chain of coffee establishments drinking my grande, non fat, vanilla latte with an extra shot, a pastime I have become very fond of to fight off the down sides of my medication. Whilst bouncing my beautiful daughter on my knee, I watched as people struggled by with lists and bags of gifts.
I played a game, how many smiles did I see? If I say none you will think it sad, but it is true. Not a smile was visible on anyone’s face. As I contemplated the possible value of those shopping bags, $50, $100 maybe up to $1000, I felt sick to the core. Last year, if not every year of my adult life I have battled with the shoppers to fill my bags and spoil my family and friends. I have over-spent materially and personally. To the point that I cannot remember why I bothered as I am frazzled and beat by the 24th.
I see very few up points to depression, but this year I am not going to be mentally or physically able to shop for hours for gifts. It’s going to be a very simple Christmas because that is all I can manage. And it has given me a welcomed sense of peace.
I have trawled the gospels to find a description of the incarnation that is for me free of romanticism and fully engaging the truth. No one spoke of the true birth of Christ. It is only through interpreting the story of Mary the Mother of Christ that I can glimpse a helpful meaning of the incarnation.
It was in a dark, cold cave that this teenage mother gave birth to an illegitimate child. It wasn’t romantic and beautiful like the carols would have us think. It would have been painful, messy, frightening and dangerous.
I found childbirth although amazing and incredibly powerful, a most frightening and traumatic experience and I had the back-up of modern medicine. Mary didn’t. She had no idea if she or the child she was carrying would live or die.
To hold a child in your arms that is inches from death is truly an agonizing experience—it pierces your soul. I only know this from holding my gravelly ill newborn daughter. I can only imagine what it feels like to hold an older child or dying adult child. It takes me to the cross where Mary held both physically and in her heart her dying son, whom she held in her womb for nine months, whose movements she first felt, whose breath she first saw. She watched him grow and flourish and then watched him die.
Because I find the biblical recollections of the incarnation so unhelpful I have turned to poetry, of which much of my knowledge comes from texts from songs and arias. This heart-wrenching account describes to me fully the excruciating pain of a mother who is able to draw strength from Our Lady. She describes the knowledge of Mary’s suffering but acknowledges that through Mary’s sacrifice of giving birth we are blessed with the incarnation. However it starkly reminds us that the incarnation is also the beginning of the passion.
TO OUR LADY OF SORROWS
Mary who bore upon thy breast the babe that God had given thee,
See how I beat my bosom so distressed,
And pity me.
For though didst see thy babe become a man,
Bearing thy sorrows and the world’s beside,
But mine is dead in such a little span,
And thine they crucified.
Well was it for thee though they crucified him and thy heart,
Thy labor was not vain:
But vain my hope and vain this bitter smart, my babe is dead.
- Wilfred Hinton taken from a score of Morfydd Owen
It is through Simeon’s words to Mary foretelling her agony, that for me captures the incarnation, cross and resurrection and it doesn’t make it easy. Mary and so too the reader glimpses the violence of the cross.
“Look he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed and a sword will pierce your soul too” (Luke 2. 34-35)
Christ’s incarnation is truly amazing. That God’s son was born to Mary. That he lived and survived is a miracle and that he continued to show his miracles of our faith is God-given. But being able to reflect on the suffering of the birth of Christ has helped me come to terms with the reality of Christmas, it really wasn’t beautiful but it was a miracle.
Christmas is not a happy carefree time for many of us. For many it is hard to accept the words of the carol “O Come all ye Faithful, joyful and triumphant” Because it isn’t joyful it is agonizing.
For some returning “home” to see family for Christmas is so painful. For others it is the loneliness or the loss of that special someone. For many in our neighborhood it is no different from any other day, still homeless, still working the corner, still surviving. For others it is living through illness physically or mentally. For some it is the living in a loveless or abusive relationship.
For me this Christmas is going to be an unearthly struggle. This Christmas I am going to put on a very brave face for my children. This Christmas I am going to live through it with severe depression. But I do hope that this Christmas I will at least be honest and say it feels more like the crucifixion than the incarnation.
As I write this some familiar words come to me “This is the wood of the cross on which hung the saviour of the world, come let us worship him” We sing or say it every Good Friday. Never have I linked it to the incarnation, but for me they are now intrinsically interwoven. For Mary laid the baby Jesus in a wooden manger and then he was then laid on a wooden cross.
Christ knows our pain through his birth and crucifixion. His knowledge of this can be our comfort for surely God is with us and knows our suffering.
I wrote the above words in December 2007. That Christmas became more than an un-earthly struggle, it became a fight for my life. A fight that for nine months I have fought and still have times of battle to this day.
I spent part of last Christmas in VGH, to “keep me safe” and I was not alone. But so many were and will be again.
For me as a survivor and an experiencer of my mental health condition, complex post traumatic stress disorder, I can only reiterate more, that “God is with us” in our suffering. His knowledge of pain and suffering on the cross unite us with him, not just as a empathetic observer but as a God who became someone and suffered immensely.
This act of utter reckless love surrounds us. It might not give us hope, it might not make anything better. But if you can place your trust and your pain into the arms of God - he will continue to surround you with his unfailing love.
For this is why he was made incarnate, made man and died to save us. Because of his reckless, utterly unbelievable LOVE.