Most of us have long been enamored with the Dr. Seuss story How The Grinch Stole Christmas. He’s such a mean one, that Mr. Grinch, he believes if he just strips everything away, Christmas will be no more. He takes the gifts, the decorations, the roast beast and even the candy. Cindy Lou Who with her innocence and wonder can’t even melt that cold heart of his. When the people of Whoville wake up on Christmas morning and sing joyfully despite their losses, the Grinch’s heart is transformed. In religious language, he has an epiphany, an awakening, a light bulb moment, a metanoia. He changes, right then and right there.
This year it is not the Grinch at work to steal Christmas, it’s a virus. It has stolen our peace of mind, our traditions, our celebrations, our worship services. It has changed our gatherings, our shopping and cast shadows on our cherished family time, parties and even singing. We are scared to let our little ones sit on Santa’s lap. We can decorate our homes but who will see them? We can bake our Christmas treats but who will eat them? We can give gifts but mostly have to miss being there to see them received. If we do gather with anyone at all, it is with fear and a real life sense of risk. How excruciating painful is that?
On top of that, many come into this season weary from fighting this illness, wounded in spirit, in bank accounts, exhausted from having to work differently, grieving a loved one or a mountain of lost trips, celebrations, graduations, weddings and even funerals. The food lines are growing, the need ever increasing, the mental battles harder and harder to fight, especially as winter grows darker and colder.
Years ago, I worked as a hospital chaplain in a large trauma hospital. By the time the holidays rolled around, I was familiar with the overnight on-call chaplain’s work there. At that time it meant wearing a pager and being called to every death, every crisis, every major ER happening. The chaplain team had a sleep room but we rarely slept. Even if I rested for a minute, I’d still be listening for the CareFlite helicopter to take off from the hospital roof and come back with another patient in a bad way. I always tried to tell myself maybe they were just running an errand or refueling. They never were.
When Christmas rolled around, the chaplains drew straws to see who would work the Christmas Eve/Christmas day shift. I had never missed Christmas with my family and I prayed it would not be me. But, it was. I cried for days before that at what I would miss, what I would lose, what I would never get back again in terms of that year’s celebration. I tried to think of ways to get out of it.
In the end I showed up on Christmas Eve afternoon, feeling extremely sorry for myself. I told myself, maybe it will be a quiet night. It wasn’t. It was the same as always: death, accidents and hours in the ER facing unfathomable things with families.
I’d been trained that my job was not to fix anything, not to give any pat answers or theological platitudes. My job was presence. My job was to be a representative of God in the room in all these horrible situations.
That night, family after family told me, in the midst of their own pain and grief, how awful my job was. How sad that you have to be here, in this mess, on Christmas. Part of me agreed with them, then I realized that was the whole point…Emmanuel, God with us. God, or a weary representative, present in the room.
I still remember driving away from the hospital on that Christmas afternoon, so tired, having missed the entire holiday with my family. That’s when it dawned on me, I’d just had the most Christmas-y Christmas ever. A sense of God-with-us permeated every tear, every prayer, every scene of chaos and grief. God was with us as people said goodbye to family members and as healthcare workers worked around the clock like they always do. Wow, God was with us without presents, roast beast, singing or Santa.
I don’t know what you are feeling this Christmas about how your life has changed this year. I can’t know what all you’ve lost or how your heart and mind are holding up. I don’t know if you are lamenting this holiday season or if you are feeling rage at how Grinch-like this virus is. I don’t know if you are crying over stacked up issues as Christmas inches closer. We’ve all lost some treasured loves in this time, from people, to peace of mind, to life as we knew it. It has not been easy for one single person.
As outstanding as he was in his evilness, the Grinch couldn’t steal Christmas. As widespread and harmful as this virus is, it can’t steal Christmas either. Even an overnight chaplain’s shift in a trauma hospital couldn’t change the God-with-us-no-matter-what reality of Christmas.
Remember, Dolly Parton’s song?
Lord, it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let sorrow bring me way down.
The lyrics came from a time in American history when many families could only afford to give penny candy to their children at Christmas. It feels like that this year in so many ways.
What kind of Christmas will you have? A hard candy one? A sorrowful one? An angry at the Grinch or the virus or whoever stole something from you this year Christmas?
I get it. I’m right there with you, kicking and screaming about how life has changed.
At the very same time I trust with my whole heart in the message our God has been whispering to us for over 2,000 years: I am with you. I am with you. I am with you, no matter what. No one or nothing can steal that.
Dr. Cindy Ryan is a pastor, wife, mother of three, breast cancer survivor, Mosa to Keller, Pace and River. Go to http://www.drcindyryanblog.com to read more blogs, find out about the Jesus Calling Weekly Prayer Call she co-hosts on Tuesdays at 7 a.m. CST or to sign up for the monthly Inner Circle Top Ten List. Sign up by December 31 for the January email, Cindy’s Top Ten for How to Persevere with Hope in 2021.