A few years ago, I was in the throes of deconstruction when Christmas came around. Life was messy – my beliefs were changing so rapidly it felt as though I was running to catch up, always out of breath and never quite there. My marriage at the time was in shambles and all the Christian advice in the world wasn’t enough to fix it. I daily endured abuse from the person who had made vows to me and my faith wasn’t providing much of what I needed in the midst of that – promises turned up empty and doctrines were shallow and woefully disconnected from the complexity of my very real life.
It was Christmas Eve, and the pain and darkness and confusion was tangible as I sat in the cheerily-decorated living room of my abuser, in a charming New England house that I had been locked out of in the snow on occasion and had cried many gut wrenching tears inside of. But it was also a house where I had a jumbled mix of happy coming-of-age memories that made it hard to walk away that Christmas, even though I knew the hope of a loving marriage was long gone.
It was in that living room that Pope Francis’ annual Christmas Eve homily came up on the television. Through my numbness, I noticed something about his words felt different from disappointing church sermons. They were fresh, alive. They carried power, breath, life. A stirring of warmth welled up slowly and spread throughout my weary body. Little tingles of joy sparked a growing awareness of being connected to something bigger, something magical and mystical that existed beyond my suffering. THIS. This is the Christianity that I had known up close and personal; bumping into little pockets of it here and there in a manipulative and controlling megachurch. Surrounded with it for a short time in a very healing Christian college community that believed in me, empowered me and radically shaped my sense of calling in the world. This is the Christianity I knew I had seen and felt, but again and again American Evangelicalism was committed to gaslighting me into thinking I had only imagined it; that what they had to offer was the real deal instead. But THIS, this is the faith that I was still clinging to shreds of. The faith that I couldn’t quite shake even when I was disenchanted with God and angry at the church. This was the reason I couldn’t quite bring myself to drop the label “Christian” even when nothing in my life was recognizably so. This was why I still believed in God when I was met with stone cold silence. This was the Christianity that existed before White Men co-opted it. Before it was institutionalized. Before Constantine, Augustine and Joel Osteen twisted it into weapons of violence and tools of power and influence – as men often do with anything they can get their hands on.
I don’t regularly practice Christian rituals these days. That isn’t an intentional decision. Instead, I’m resting. I’m being. I’m focusing on me. Dropping the guilt and pressure. Accepting myself as I am. I don’t currently have a safe progressive faith community, although I’ve found a few wonderful ones since that night. I miss communal rhythms that ground us and bring pause to busyness, reconnecting us to divinity. I miss church, but I’m also not ready to look for another one yet. My faith is more subtle and passive now, but always there. It’s more of a presence, a light, an energy inside of me. A spiritual guidance that is with me every day and fills the essence of my soul – it makes me who I am.
These words I’m about to share with you are what I wrote with shaking hands that Christmas Eve in 2017, Pope Francis’ voice still ringing in my head. These words embody the spirituality that gently nudged me through hell and out the other side; they give structure to the sense of peace that carried me through.
The homily that inspired my writing is part of The 2017 Christmas Eve Mass at The Vatican and it can be found on YouTube and across the internet, as can Pope Francis’ other annual Christmas homilies. I highly recommend them.
* I don’t believe that God’s pronouns are inherently male, and I often use feminine or neutral pronouns for God. However, using masculine pronouns served my storytelling in this particular piece on the specific night I wrote this. In no way do I believe that God is male or limited by male pronouns.
12/24/17: A Christmas Reflection inspired by the Christmas story, and Pope Francis’ Christmas Eve homily
In the darkest time of the season, we celebrate that the light has come. At the end year, we celebrate new beginnings made possible and anticipate what is now but not yet.
We celebrate the birth of a child, and even more so, what he stood for as an adult. We meditate on how that rocked a nation and changed our world.
We reflect on how the birth of the Christ child set the precedent for the upside-down Kingdom of God. We ponder how God chose to reveal himself to us not as a mighty warrior on a white horse, but in the form of a humble baby who would one day ride a donkey.
We consider how God chose a poor unwed teenage girl, the most vulnerable in a patriarchal society; a girl living in the countryside, not at the religious and political center of the nation. It was her voice that was heard and recorded, it was she who was chosen to be lifted up and honored as she brought forth life for a dying world.
We recall that Mary and Joseph were turned away because there was no room in the inn, and we recognize that we are called to make sure that no one ever feels like there is no room for them.
We are baffled at a God who would first announce his coming to the lowest of the low, the poor shepherds, outcasts in society. We are gladdened that they would be the first to witness such a momentous event.
We are encouraged, that as the angels declared to the shepherds “Fear Not!” we need not be afraid in a world that is dark and oppressive, and we are emboldened to also be messengers of that same comfort and hope.
We are surprised that it was the wise men from the East, the foreigners, those who practiced another religion, those who were disliked by “God’s people” – they were the ones who understood the signs of the times and earnestly sought God at great lengths and incredible cost. It was they who undertook a long perilous journey to quench their spiritual hunger, while the local religious elite missed God’s coming altogether. We learn that it is those who seek God who find him, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they know or believe.
We are inspired; for as the Spirit of God was encountered in an unassuming baby lying in a barn’s feeding trough on a dark night, we know that we too can find God in unexpected places and that He is not far from each one of us.
We are heartened as we learn that God reveals himself in ways that each of us can recognize and understand, just as he came in the form of a human being to walk and talk with us, participate in our culture and speak our language.
At Christmas we are challenged to eagerly choose into a Kingdom where kings stoop low to give gifts out of their abundance, and the needy are filled up. Where the rich and the poor, the prestigious and the lowly, the citizens and the foreigners – just like the wise men and shepherds – each celebrate as they are drawn together by the Spirit that unites us all.
We are warned that Christ’s message is not a comfy one. It disrupted the status quo and enraged kings and emperors until they sought the child’s life. We are reverent as we recognize that if we bring the same message it will often be met with resistance. We accept it will be difficult, inconvenient and costly.
We are humbled as we remember that the Christ child and his family fled for their lives to a distant land. We are convicted, knowing that our Christ was a refugee, an illegal alien, and if we claim to be his followers we must care for the refugees and immigrants among us.
We are taken aback, even disturbed, by the Christmas story, for if we read it right, we see it is not just a cute tale about a birthday party for Jesus long ago. It is a story that turned the powers of the day on their heads and empowered the oppressed. It is a story that calls us to lay down our privilege and our rights. It is a story of great joy and freedom and hope. It is a story where the least likely are chosen as the heroes and where people who have nothing else in common come together. It is a story of light and life but it is not an easy one, for above all, it is a story that invites us to respond and calls us to be bearers of this same gift to the world, to bring heaven to earth as our Christ did.