Through the years
We all will be together
If the fates allow
So hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
(From “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” first sung by Judy Garland, 1943)
Some years, Christmas comes in a major key like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Some Christmases, like this one, come in a minor key, like Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Sometimes, it is light that points toward the sacred. Sometimes what is transcendent, is revealed in the dark. On a Saint Patrick’s Day afternoon, more than thirty years ago, I stood in the sacred dark. After bad went to worse following my grandma’s heart surgery, the beeping, whirring, sucking sounds of the ICU machines fell silent. After fifty-five years of marriage, my grandpa, like Job, could find no words to express the enormity of this experience. Instead, like the most fervent monk, with all of the longing that the human heart can bear to hold, he simply chanted the same sacred word over, and over again, “Mom…Mom…Mom….” His would have been the first lips to pronounce that name, as their child’s head, then shoulders, and little torso emerged into the world. In that ancient, sacred liturgy, she would have responded with his new name: “Dad.” Fifty years later, I stood next to him at a different ancient, sacred liturgy, at a different threshold—the gateway to that other world—as he bid her goodbye. Sometimes what is most sacred is revealed in the dark.
What is being revealed to you these days? For some, this pandemic has a surrealistic quality. It’s as if a bureaucrat’s office holds an ominous tote board that registers a hard to comprehend, rolling death toll. For others, there is nothing surrealistic about it at all. It’s quite personal. At a minimum, for all of us, this pandemic has stripped things down and laid them bare. What is sacred and meaningful has been revealed more by subtraction than addition.
Broadcasters, and speakers struggle for words to sum up this pandemic experience. “These unprecedented times,” is the phrase I hear most frequently. The simultaneous nature of this thing may be new for most of us, but not our ancestors, and not cultures that lack healthcare. There is certainly nothing “unprecedented” or new about loss or disruption. Something I have found time and again is that death or loss provides an opportunity to assess what is most important. It also reveals a hidden superpower within us. Here is how one hospice professional puts it.
Beyond fear and isolation, maybe this is what the pandemic holds for us: the understanding that living in the face of death can set off a cascade of realization and appreciation. Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks. Reveling in love is one sure way to see through and beyond yourself to the wider world, where immortality lives. A pretty brilliant system, really, showing you who you are (limited) and all that you’re a part of (vast). As a connecting force, love makes a person much more resistant to obliteration.
A Beginner’s Guide to the End: A Practical Guide for Living Life and Facing Death (2019) B.J. Miller. Simon & Schuster.
There is a hidden power that exists within each of us that manifests in times of death and loss. At times, that superpower functions like osteoblasts that naturally layer bone tissue at the site of a break. I can recall that moment when my stoic father-in-law finally accepted that his wife’s injury would be fatal. I watched him submit to a fifteen-person-strong amoeba of children, and grandchildren enfolding him in a hug that would serve as a base-layer for future healing. Several years later, transformed by hundreds of acts of love and service, he knows how to say, “I love you,” while delivering an authentic embrace, a skill unknown in him before the breaking and the mending.
Perhaps the opportunity embedded in this moment is to intentionally exercise that most fully human power that we possess: the power to love. When things are stripped down, and stripped away, what is most precious is revealed. There is a brutality knit into our human existence that will eventually come for all of us. There is also a profoundly protective power knit into each one of us as well: the ability to vulnerably open ourselves to love and service. And research indicates that, when we meet that kind of vulnerability in someone else, responding to it with authentic expressions of love and service benefits our own resilience and well-being.
For those with a spiritual perspective, incarnating this power that flows through us, is the meaning of this holiday season as it comes to us in the darkness of a minor key.