Photo: Eileen Benthal

We spent the other day in NYC and never stopped at Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree. Since my daughter Jo was a young child, we’ve always combined medical appointments in NYC that were scheduled around the holidays with some Christmas fun.

But this time, we were just too tired after early-morning medical appointments. The day started with a 5 a.m. drive on the LIE. By early afternoon Jo and I were done with NYC, exhausted and happy to be headed home.

Last year’s visits included three hospitalizations and surgeries between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The one benefit to being hospitalized at Christmas — especially in Manhattan — is the beautiful decorations in and outside the hospital.

The rooftop and window decorations that dot the Manhattan skyline during the holidays are especially festive, even when viewing them from a hospital room.

But it wasn’t until Jo was released from the hospital on Christmas Day that we drove up 34th and over to visit the Rockefeller Center tree. It was a drive-by view, complete with streaming Christmas music on the car radio. Jo, just days past her last brain surgery, hardly cared. But it made me feel better to shine a little light into a crazy holiday season.

This year, I scheduled these follow-up appointments, hoping to make it a two-day event to enjoy some NYC holiday excursions by staying overnight. But the rise in COVID numbers caused me to pause, even though we are all vaccinated and up to date on our booster shots as well.

We are tired of living life with the shadow of a pandemic still looming on the horizon. Summer days and warm breezes combined with vaccinations gave us some reprieve. But as our indoor activity level increased and the COVID numbers rise, we’ve had to weigh the risks and benefits of each interaction and event.

The morning we were heading to NYC, I woke before dawn to prepare for the trip. Even when leaving the house early, I need to take time for reflection and prayer.

In the silence, I sat in front of my dimly lit manger, sipping my coffee and reading my bible as my eyes fell on Psalm 46: 5, a great encouragement to begin the very long day.

“God is within her, she will not fall;

God will help her at the break of day.”

Here I sat, in a slightly cushioned wooden chair that once belonged to my Irish grandma. I call it my prayer chair — it’s over 100 years old. I imagine Nanny sitting in this comfortable chair while praying the Morning Psalms and reciting the mysteries of the rosary as she clasped her beads.

Repeating the verse in my head, I noticed the details of this manger which donned the make-shift altar in my bedroom. The manger is also a family treasure, one that I remember from my own childhood. It was the same manger my mom inherited from her family growing up.

The vintage figurines were made in Italy and placed in a simple triangular stable with a hole at the top made to hold a light. We placed a small light bulb in the hole so it gave the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem shining down on the holy scene.

Sitting in the dark, in Nanny’s chair, meditating on this Advent scene, my eyes were drawn to the wall behind the creche. There in the shadows, the makeshift star of Bethlehem illuminated not only the empty manger but also the olive wood crucifix which hangs on the wall behind the creche.

The empty manger and the cross are both signs of birth and death that come together in the person of Jesus Christ. We want to see just the manger and the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph and imagine angels singing and shepherds and kings visiting in wonder. But still, the cross looms on the horizon as a sign of grief and of hope.

I wonder if Mary, as scripture tells us, “pondered all things in her heart” (Luke 2:19), was at once joyous and anxious over the details of her son’s birth as she recalled the prophetic scriptures which told of a messiah who would one day suffer and die.

Aren’t our celebrations of Christmas just the same: combined with joy and grief? How many of us who have lost loved ones, especially in the past two years of strife and pandemic isolation, find ourselves trying to decorate and plan for Christmas joy while inside our hearts are grieving?

We are often caught between grief and joy, solace and pain. Suffering overshadows our celebrations like the cross which seems to eclipse our view and expectation of the manger at Christmas.

Recently I had a chat with Santa Claus, not necessarily of the North Pole, but the one who is Jo’s favorite by far. We were conversing about our family traditions and decorating. Even the twinkle in Santa’s eye gave way to a tear as he remembered his wife who passed away.

The conversation reminded me that grief doesn’t take a holiday at Christmas. Pain and sorrows do not vanish with glitter and shine of brightly colored decorations and twinkling lights sparkling on the tree.

Christmas is all about light shining in the darkness. The darkness doesn’t disappear in the presence of light. We light our Christmas trees, (and at our house the whole backyard farm), to illuminate and pierce the darkness with the presence of light. If there were no darkness, we would not notice the light.

The Gospel of John provides a more reflective or theological testament to the life of Jesus. John’s account of the Incarnation doesn’t mention the journey to Bethlehem. It focuses on Jesus as the light who permeates the darkness in our lives and in our world.

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Pope Francis wrote his first encyclical about the light of faith in June 2013.

It reads like a poignant Christmas message.

Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. – Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei n. 57.

The message of Christmas is about God shining light into our darkness as Emmanuel. God is with us as a light to illuminate the darkness, as a presence to be with us in our joys and sorrows.

The crosses in our lives don’t disappear as we set up our mangers at Christmas- but they are lightened by the presence of the God who loves and gives us light here and now and for all eternity.

Grief and the joy of Christmas coincide in the same way life and death are with us every day.

We like to think that Christmas is only about joy and peace and much celebration. But the waves of sadness we try to push away in favor of Christmas cheer are really here to remind us that we need to make time for grief- even at Christmas.

We need to take some time then, to grieve the losses in our lives — especially at Christmas.

Light a candle for a loved one gone too soon. Speak of them at our tables and lay a wreath on a grave. Take time to grieve the sadness of struggles we currently face and let the light of Christmas — Emmanuel — walk beside us in our pain.

Jesus was born in a manger so that He could die for us on the cross. Remembering that truth at Christmas doesn’t take away the joy; it gives eternal hope.

May the light of the world illuminate the darkness and walk with us in our grief — this Christmas season and beyond.

Come, Emmanuel.

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Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen