Among the most hope-filled experiences of my life was hearing my child’s first little trumpet of a cry. With the birth of a baby, an array of possibility and potential has come through us and into its own beautiful, autonomous existence. As we open the precious gift of new life, we are filled with joy and hope. How much more hope is offered to us then, when the child being born is The Child of the Most High God?
The Lord’s Nativity – no matter what state of mind, body, or soul I find myself in – always brings me hope. In good times, this hope overflows into joyous celebration. In harder times, I may merely detect a glimmer of light. But it remains hope nonetheless, replete with the possibility of some future, fuller fulfillment.
Thinking back to my early childhood years, Christmas was filled with wonder and joy. One of my earliest memories is of our tinsel-laden Christmas tree aglow with colorful lights and ornaments. I remember a rustic nativity scene hand crafted by my dad. I spent many lengthy periods examining the figurines within it. Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus were the central figures, and the wise men, shepherds, and even animals all surrounded the holy family with reverence. An angel was fastened to the front peak of the thatch-looking roof. The scene was quiet and small like me; but it imprinted a message so warm, deep and vast into my soul: The Christ Child was so little, and yet He was so central.
One of my most treasured Christmas memories is as a five year old. I can picture the details vividly – including the dress I wore to Christmas Eve Divine Liturgy that my mother let me choose for myself. I recall the tree in my yiayia’s house that had eclectic ornaments with hand-painted, detailed scenes of snow-covered houses and holly leaves. I can almost taste the lemony, savory Petakia (our familial reference to Kefthethes) bursting with flavor as I bit into them and broke the fast.
It was a custom in my father’s extended family to attend midnight Liturgy and then gather at his parents’ house immediately following, to celebrate the great Nativity Feast together. Grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, siblings, and cousins abounding in numbers and joy, came together and celebrated the birth of Christ. I don’t remember any of the physical presents I received – though there were plenty of them. What I remember most is the deep joy of knowing I belonged: I belonged to a loving, large, culturally-rich family, I belonged to a celebration of life, I belonged to my church and all the people who came together there to pray, I belonged to Baby Jesus who kept making His appearance in Nativity scenes in every home and place I went. Talk about hope running over!
There were less joyful Christmas celebrations over the years, for sure. Some were wrought with self-focus, insecurity, and emptiness. I went through the motions of attending church services and family gatherings, but the pure childhood delight had become tarnished by painful life events and my searching for meaning in this life, without searching for real Life. Even then, though distanced from Christ, I still knew the Light existed, because I began to realize I was in want of it. I didn’t think I deserved God’s goodness, but I knew it was…
One Nativity season as a young woman I met my parents for Christmas Eve Liturgy. My life circumstances were dim at the time and I couldn’t see a way out of them. The church service was peaceful, and I felt deeply grateful to be with my parents. When it was over, I watched my concerned parents waving as I drove away from their love and back toward my broken life. I wished I could go back to them and my family of old. The Christmas lights on the homes I passed shone with their witness of another, enduring Light. Jesus Christ was born. No matter what my external circumstances, that would not change.
Many Christmases followed and brought with them new opportunities for growth. On one in particular, my husband and I had planned to make the 2-hour drive to spend with our family following morning Divine Liturgy. We had a busy holiday season with planning church events, dealing with our child’s health issues, and preparing for large gift exchanges. The presents were wrapped, and all our things were packed. One by one however, my husband and I became squeamish and overcome with a horrible stomach bug. My son was somehow miraculously spared.
Though I felt disappointed that we wouldn’t be celebrating in the physical presence of our extended family, I can say it was one of the most serene Christmases we have ever shared. No feasting or family members abounded. We each lay on the couches in our living room listening to my son’s Baby Mozart music streaming from his iPad, gazing at the large, softly falling snowflakes outside our picture window.
Lying there sick and weak, cut off from holiday hustle and bustle, I connected even more to the experience of another Family who also had been separated from family festivities that first Christmas. Far from their home, the Holy Family made do with the humble resources God provided. No room for them in the inn but not without hope, for a shepherd’s cave sheltered them. No warm blankets or bed in which to lay a newborn baby; nevertheless not without swaddling cloths and a hay-filled manger to warm Him. Extended family wanting - both Mary and Joseph’s own parents had long since passed away – yet not without company when shepherds were ushered in by angels, and kings were led to them by a Star.
There in the quiet, rustic shelter far from the bustling, census-laden Bethlehem, lay Baby Jesus. He was small and vulnerable. Consistent with how He revealed Himself in the gospel narratives, He entered the scene of our life circumstances humbly. Hope seems to come with humility. Sometimes it takes sickness to quiet us down enough to experience calm and peace. Sometimes it takes being away from our community to realize the great gift of belonging.
So, fellow pilgrim of life, do not lose heart if you are missing and longing for family to celebrate life with. Just follow His Star, and you will find a Holy Family. Do not give up if you get sidetracked and become isolated, for deep within you something is telling your soul that there is a Light and a love waiting to be embraced and nurtured. Do not fear that you don’t belong to the celebration of life: keep striving to do what it takes to survive and in the fullness of time, like the shepherds, you will be invited by a host of angelic powers proclaiming “good tidings of comfort and joy” that will cause you to proclaim that indeed “He is the Christ!” Do not be troubled if doubts assail you as they did Joseph, for God will send His angels to reaffirm His truth and show you where to go for safety. Do not despair when you fear insignificance, pain, sickness or even death, because you belong to the One Who came to share in all these hardships with you. He has made suffering a pathway to eternal life.
There is no problem too big that He cannot overcome, no sin too heinous that He cannot forgive, no pain so great that is immune to His comfort. He has not left us alone, nor will He ever leave us alone. He is Emmanuel, “God with us,” and no matter what life’s circumstances, that will not change.
Presvytera Melanie DiStefano is the Resource Coordinator of the GOA Center for Family Care