It all started with the plumbing a week before Christmas. As I walked into my office waiting room, I see my client standing looking up at the ceiling. The washer above was overflowing onto the first floor. With kids imminently arriving home from grad school, I am confronted with clogged drains. What about showers? What about laundry? Will the tree ever even make it into the equation? Both my home and my office now in instantaneous chaos. I could feel my body reacting to the stress. Yet in the back of my mind I also knew that this was minor compared to other people’s situations (or even other situations I have experienced myself). Indeed, the plumber was undergoing his own stress with his father having been rushed to the hospital for surgery.
I began to recall past Christmas stresses: when our daughter at two years old was attacked by our dog; soon after on Christmas eve our infant son struggled to breathe as a result of a severe case of croup; or the Thanksgiving and Christmas when we were all in a daze coping with my mother’s diagnosis of “brain tumor.”
I recalled too my work with trauma survivors—those confronted with all the many losses in Katrina, for example. I thought about families suffering all over the world—the people who face the trials and terrors of poverty and war every day.
My minor plumbing stressor reminded me of how our environment impacts us right down to the cellular level. I could feel the tension in my body and worked on calming myself. Not living on the mountain top, I didn’t always succeed. I did give myself credit for witnessing and noticing my emotional state and its subsequent changes.
Well the holes in the ceiling and wall of my office are still with us, but the plumbing repairs became a most welcome Christmas surprise. At a deeper level, however, Christmas became a poignant remembrance of past and present. My own personal version of “A Christmas Carol”, perhaps. Because of the chaos precipitated by the plumbing some of our traditions were disrupted. No one was attached to how it “should be” so we really did seem to stay open to outcome. The result for me was a profound sense of the bittersweet that this time of year makes figural: we really are pressing against the dark to birth new Light. Memories coalesce at this juxtaposition of light and dark. As I celebrated with the family and friends that were with us, I recalled the family and friends that were not.
Attending Christmas morning Mass at the North Philadelphia church where a friend has been pastor for many years deepened my recollections. This is a place where the forgotten are remembered, where suburbanites mingle with the people of the city, where prayers are offered for the corners of the world so often neglected or dismissed in more affluent neighborhoods—Haiti, El Salvador, North Philly itself.
So, yes, that service brought home the confluence of remembrances all the more. Perhaps Joy to the World is not so much about being “complacently happy” as it is about the embrace of the bittersweetness of life, the remembrance of the cycle of death in life, the dark that emboldens the Light. Perhaps if we didn’t run away so much into our busy-ness, this joyful embrace might lead us to peace in ourselves, and eventually in the world.