"In my deepest wound, I saw your glory and it dazzled me."- Saint Augustine.
Most people assume they will automatically feel cheerful during Christmas. Not only does the Church celebrate the birth of our Saviour with joy, secular society also promotes the idea that everybody is happy during this season, bombarding us with images in the media of lighthearted people giving gifts and enjoying each other's company. In fact, there is so much pressure on people to be in good spirits during Christmas, many sink even deeper into depression when they are unable to force themselves to even crack a smile. Often, I also feel depleted and empty during the days leading up to Christmas, dismayed my emotions do not line up with my beliefs and certain there is something wrong with my spiritual life. The more I try with my own willpower to get in the Christmas spirit, the worse I feel.
God is God and I Am Not
You would think by now I would have learnt to simply wait for God to fill me with His joy in His own good time. For decades, The Holy Spirit has delighted in showing me who is really in charge of my emotions. For example, one year a friend dropped by on Boxing Day to give me a tall stack of hand knitted dishcloths. Unexpected joy bubbled up instantly when I received this simple gift from a friend who was in pain herself. Foolishly, I had tried unsuccessfully to manufacture a good mood for days. It was only when Christ took my eyes off myself as I gratefully received a sign of love from my friend that God could fill my spirit with His joy. As Father Henri Nouwen explains, "real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway to joy."
Walking in Darkness
Logically, I am often legitimately exhausted by Christmas morning but my own wounds seem even more apparent not only because I am tired but because I pray. Christ's light reveals more darkness within us as we learn to live more fully in His Presence. It is true that people are only aware of their own inner darkness when it is contrasted and revealed by the Light of God. It is important, then, to really experience and taste the reality of our own inner darkness.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. Isaiah 9:1
As Jesus said in the Gospels, only the sick need a doctor, only those who realize they are in the dark, seek the Light of Salvation. The Pharisees thought they were fine, perfect, holy even and so they did not need or even want a saviour. Instead, they hated Christ. Only those who realize they are in prison will be freed by Christ. "O Key of David, open the gates of God's eternal Kingdom; come and free the prisoners of darkness!" Over and over again, I am reminded how to accept my brokenness rather than fight it with my own strength and willpower. Only then can I discover the glory of Christ's power in me.
Stand in Prayer With Open, Empty Hands
The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2546 "Blessed are the poor in spirit."338 The Beatitudes reveal an order of happiness and grace, of beauty and peace. Jesus celebrates the joy of the poor, to whom the Kingdom already belongs:339 When we touch our wounds, accept our spiritual poverty and stand in prayer, vulnerable but waiting expectantly, then we have the capacity to receive from God. Joy is definitely not merely happiness nor is it something I can mimic on my own nor is it a something I can earn. Ironically, God often blesses me with joy when I am exhausted and feeling like a failure because joy is not dependent on my health, circumstances, or emotions. I love to control but when my safe little world shatters and I am left feeling desperate, God has an opening to fill me with His joy when I turn to Him. Then it wells up and overwhelms my emotions at unexpected times, sometimes at seemingly inappropriate times. When I first committed my life to God, I did not even know such a gift of the Spirit actually existed in reality. So, I can identify with C.S. Lewis and say with him that I was Surprised by Joy. Yet, even if I feel down on Christmas Day, I will wait on God, trusting He is in charge of all, even of my emotions for who I am to question the ways of the Almighty? After all, when I have experienced a flip from despair to joy in a blink of the eye, surely I can surmise that the state of my emotions does not reflect the state of my faith. I can wait in darkness, in peace, to be purified and transformed till He gifts me with the encouragement of joy once again.
To live as a child of the Father means I stand with empty hands before the Almighty because when I am weak and open, I have the prerequisite humility to receive from God as well as from others in the Christian community. As a mother of nine children, living with little disposable income, it was always a challenge to prepare a Christmas celebration for my kids. Our parish priest and school insisted on delivering a Christmas hamper and gifts to our house every year. Of course, I wanted to protest every year because many of the farming families in our parish and school were not well off. Yet, I knew they needed to give. I had no choice but to let go of my preferred image as a strong, spiritual mother who was completely self-sufficient and accepts her gifts with grace and gratitude. After every yearly delivery by a group of smiling parishioners, I saw quite clearly that those who gave to us were delighted and blessed by giving. I realized Henri J.M. Nouwen's statement was true, "In our own woundedness, we can become sources of life for others."
Surprised by Joy
No matter the hardships and trials we experience in this life on earth, we can choose to abandon a solitary, grim existence and embrace the indwelling presence of the Child Jesus and choose to live in Christ. When I surrender and accept the joy of the Lord, others who understand they are broken and wounded will catch spiritual joy from me. The joy of the Lord is contagious, a powerful tool of evangelization among the anawim, God's little ones. The witness of joy is all about a pure movement of the Holy Spirit and not about our own efforts to appear cheerful, articulate about our faith, perfect and holy. In fact, when I remain strong as a result of my own efforts, I cut myself off from God because it is the weak and poor who have the prerequisite humility to receive Christ's joy.
"Christmas is joy, religious joy, an inner joy of light and peace" and "speaks of tenderness and hope." Pope Francis