A Christmas Story: Divine Pain

The war on Christmas is here. By now you’ve heard this infamous and nonexistent war referenced at least once. The fact that holiday cards say ‘happy holidays’ or ‘seasons greetings’ instead of Merry Christmas is somehow evidence that Christmas is under attack. This war is so well-known that it became a campaign promise during the 2016 election.

Truth be told, there is a war on Christmas. At least there was, but it was lost long ago. Capitalism won, and as a result, we’ve been led to believe that Christmas is about the joy, that comes through gift giving. You’ll be shocked to hear this, but that isn’t the original message of Christmas.  

I know what you’re thinking. “Ben, I’ve already watched ElfA Christmas Story and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I think I know the true meaning of Christmas.” I get it. The “true meaning of Christmas” motif is as ubiquitous as the war on Christmas itself. However, the Christmas message I’m referring to isn’t mentioned in our favorite holiday songs, movies or even the Bible.  

At its root, the Christmas story is one of sudden joy and hidden pain. The joy is a result of God’s manifested presence through Jesus, but Jesus couldn’t have arrived without Mary’s pain. The details of Mary’s pregnancy and delivery are omitted from the Christian tradition. We have sterilized Christmas so that it is soft, sweet and mystical.   

There is no record of Mary’s flesh being ripped open or her screams piercing the otherwise quiet night air. Neither the blood that covered Jesus, nor the sweat that drenched Mary are depicted in any nativity scene, but the absence of those details does not detract from their importance. There was joy on that first Christmas, but it wasn’t possible without pain.  

What’s true in childbirth is often true in other aspects of life as well. Pain can be a signal that we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do. I felt that signal strongly during December of 2009.  

Flashback Alert: (I’ve found that looking to the side and tilting my head at a slight angle really adds to the flashback experience. Join me). 

I’m sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s living room watching tv with my younger brother. There are four chairs, two along each wall. As usual, my grandma is in the chair to my left. She’s making small talk with my girlfriend, Brooke, who is sitting across from her. I’m leaning against the chair behind me and watching my brother as he laughs at whatever is happening on tv. For a moment everything feels right. I’m spending time with people I love. No stress. No pressure. Just quality time. The moment evaporates as I remember that there is someone else in the room: my biological mom.  

She is sitting in the chair across from me, and as I look up to see her smiling and talking with Brooke, the normalcy and peace I felt moments ago vanish. It feels as though I’m living in an alternate reality. My past has encroached upon my present and the merger is disorienting. Refusing to pretend anything is awkward, I talk with my mom and occasionally even laugh as we both try our best to pretend this is normal. Internally, I’m fighting desperately to hold off the upheaval that is taking place. The visit ends, but as I drive home the real work begins.  

I soon feel the undercurrents of anger, betrayal, and rejection move through me like a boiling river. I’m so overwhelmed that I can’t process what I’m feeling; I just know it feels terrible. The pressure that was used to bottle up my emotions for a decade now fuels the explosion happening in my chest. I feel everything and yet nothing. It’s all jumbled together, one emotion wound up in the next forming knot after intense knot in my chest.

I shut down and push people away. My parents, my girlfriend, and anyone else that wants to be around me meets a wall of resistance. There is no reason for me to celebrate; no excuse to be thankful this Christmas. I just want to be angry, and my God am I angry.   

As I look back on that week in 2009, I recall being triggered because I realized I couldn’t escape from the past. I assumed I could put it behind me. I did my best to live a happy life without being defined by what had happened to me. I didn’t want to remember the pain I felt when my mom left. I didn’t want to remember the anger I felt when we were placed in foster care. I sure as hell didn’t want to remember the fear I felt when I was around my step-dad. I honestly thought I was over it all, but in one fell swoop, I was undone by a past I thought I could bury.  

It was by far the worst holiday I’ve had in the last twenty years.  As painful as that moment was, I know I needed it. I needed to have my wounds reopened so they could heal properly. I needed to be reminded that my work wasn’t done. Most of all, I needed to be reminded that I can’t outrun ghosts. My past will always win that race.W

Have you ever tried to get over your past by simply moving on? It can feel easier to pretend we’re ok than to carefully examine the invisible scars we carry but what is easy is not always beneficial.

I invite you to an intentional awareness this Christmas and New Year. Take note of the feelings, situations or memories you’ve been trying to avoid. Give them the space they’re asking for. I’m not asking you to wake up every day and think about all the things that are wrong with your life. Rather, I’m suggesting you carve out intentional pockets of time to let the feelings you’re uncomfortable with exist without trying to get rid of them. If you give your hurt the space it needs, it’s less likely to encroach upon your joy.

For example, I’m making space to grieve my dad. The process isn’t spectacular. I take a moment every day or every other day to sit still, breathe deeply and be aware of the sorrow that sits like a softball in my chest. I hold it gently and with reverence because it too has a purpose. I’m not trying to feel better. I’m not trying to lessen the grief. I’m just noticing it and letting it be. After a few moments of this holding, knowing and breathing, I let go and continue with my day. It’s simple but effective.

Find a practice that works for you. Maybe it will incorporate exercise, music or meditation. As long as you’re making time to be present, you’re doing it right.  

The war on Christmas may be over on a national level, but in your own life and with your own family, you can still mount a resistance. As we move closer to Christmas, imagine that Jesus’ birth wasn’t announced by angels, but rather by the anguished screams of Mary forcing new life into the world. 

Hold the discomfort and exuberance of this holiday season just as she did, and look for moments when pain is calling you into your deeper purpose. 

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3 thoughts on “A Christmas Story: Divine Pain

  1. Yes, we don’t like to look at the ugly details do we. “Let’s just get to the good part”, we say. But, the good part wouldn’t come without the pain. Dammit!

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  2. Thanks Ben!! I always thought the story was a bit “glossy” too. This year the radio is giving me many moments to remember my Dad. He used to sing this Hawaiian Christmas song in July during after Mass drives for ice cream! Music has always been the best healer for me. And inspiring, personal writing and sermons like yours which show me that exposing vulnerability is precious and good to share – an eloquent bear hug 🤗.
    Will follow your blog and your book and will miss your presence and kind support. 😍🙏🏻
    “Rejoice in your Salvation” my brother and stay your course!!!

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  3. There is a lot here to chew and digest. It is making me think. What purpose has pain played in my life. Also, what does healing look like, feels like? Is there some pain that never totally heals and just becomes a part of who you are? Do you embrace that pain then and not see it as the “enemy” which keeps you from expperiencing joy. Can pain and joy co-exist? Can you make peace with your pain? These are just some thoughts.

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