I think this year may have been my favorite Christmas. Or at least one of the best in a long time. Maybe that sounds crazy or impossible in a year ravaged by a pandemic. I know there has been so much loss and heartache. I do not intend at all to dismiss that. I am no stranger to loss, and I know it can feel as though the pain has no bounds. I still feel the weight of its wreckage. It has become lighter since that dreadful day, for sure. And it has only become lighter because I have come to believe more firmly I am not carrying it alone. One can know this, of course, But this usually does not foster the actual desired effect of healing and peace. “…blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” [John 20:29] This has not been me. I know God’s promise. He tells me He is always with me. Emmanuel. God with us. He will never abandon me. Well, I cannot deny I felt abandoned when you died, dad. In my anger and confusion, I could not hear Jesus weeping with me. I thought God had left me to bear the unbearable of losing my father. To navigate this world fatherless. Today is the Feast of the Holy Family. The beautiful divine family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus give a holy model testifying the importance and sanctity of the family. How can I not help but feel slighted? I had a loving and virtuous family intact. Why, Lord? Why did You let it be ripped apart?
This was the wreckage. The unanswered question fueling the rage brewing deep in the marrow of my bones. I wrestled it. I fought it and fought it. I thought I had to beat it. To overcome the pain on my own. If only I would have looked to the example of the Holy Family sooner. Maybe I still wouldn’t have been able to see the truth right away but maybe reflecting on their lives would have saved me some labor and toil.
Adam, Mom and I drove out to grandma and grandpa’s in the afternoon Christmas day. We had a delicious dinner with THE grandma Noffsinger pumpkin pie (best there is hands down, can’t convince me otherwise) for dessert, watched some Hallmark Christmas movies, and finished the Disney puzzle gram had been working on. Let me just say Adam and I went to work on that thing. We were not going to bed until every piece was in place. The next day, the lovely Boxing day, we watched lots of soccer, of course. Mostly just hung out and enjoyed each other’s company. After ordering in some pizza and wings, it was time for the main event. I’m sure you know what that means, dad.
The beloved card game. The ultimate tradition and part of the forever legacy of gram and gramps. Most loved and hated. Depending solely on the number of wild cards you get. I must admit I still get weary before the cards get delt. I have played this game enough to know its trade secrets. This, however, is not what makes me nervous. What makes me nervous is knowing, yet still succumbing. I tell myself before we start every time that this game is about ebbs and flows. You can fly out of the gates with good hands and low scores. Lots of wild cards. Then, all the wealth and good fortune can run maddeningly dry. Poor hands with pairs instead of straights and vice versa (if you are unfamiliar with Phase 10, it is a game of ten tasks with hands of ten cards, and each phase requires a combination of a set, which is multiples of the same number, and a run, which is sequential numbers, say one, two, three, four). Just when you have spent so much care prepping your cards rightly and aptly, transforming your hand from its initial form by picking up and discarding, deciding what cards are advantageous to keep and what cards can be let go, you can be but one card away from all of these efforts being rewarded when time runs out on you. Someone else has gone out, put down the required cards and discarded the extras. This ends the hand, and you either have completed the task to move to the next phase or are stuck on the same again. All of this labor making ready to complete the task ends in a gift of high points and another attempt to start the toil over again with or without the hope of a more suitable hand of cards to complete the same task. You start from scratch once more.
This is the game, then. Enjoy your time when the cards are good and endure the frustration when the one card you need evades your grasp. Every other player seems to casually pick it up or imperviously discard it without a second thought. Boxing Day 2020 saw a promising start for me. My cards were matching the phases, and I was flowing. Gram, on the other hand, probably couldn’t have had a worse start to the game. Nothing was going right for her, until about midway through. Almost on a dime, her fortunes changed. And, of course, about this time, I couldn’t buy the cards I needed. The ebb was here. Regardless of the number of recitations to reassure myself I knew this would happen, the frustration built up anyway, and I was ready to chuck my cards and leave the table. The only thing that stayed my combustible emotions was remembering I had been here before. I had experienced this in previous games. It didn’t last then. Some way or another, it would turn around. And those few instances it didn’t, my ego was hurt, but I was okay because hope was still present. The choice to hope remained especially true in the droughts. I had to choose only to doubt my doubts, not my beliefs and to remember energy follows thought [Father Jim]. I guess something as simple as a card game can be a training ground for one’s virtue.
When gram started doing better and the frustration brought about by her previous poor hands was put into the proper light, she said something so nonchalantly that struck me.
“Patience is the key to this game. You may not know when or how it’ll turn around, but it will.”
This is a card game. There are no guarantees your cards will get better. Yet, this does not omit the possibility of things turning around. The truth is your cards can get worse. That is a very possible reality. This, still, though, does not prevent the possibility of things turning around. With the proper light, there is always hope to be found and faith to be held onto, whether or not you can see it by the cards in your hand.
It wasn’t until I discarded some of my anger and spite after your death, dad, that the wreckage became lighter. Not because my cards changed all of a sudden. You were still gone. There was no Lazarus miracle. You know what is interesting about the resurrection of Lazarus, though, is Jesus wept.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you put him?” He asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they answered. Jesus wept. [John 11:33-35]
He wept with them. Why would He weep if He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead? I can only guess at the mind of God, but my guess would be because of love.
“But what is the alternative to grief? We will lose people we love; that’s a given. The only way to avoid that is not to love at all. A life of meaning is going to involve pain. There’s no way around that pain…” [Ginny Kubitz Moyer, Blessed Is She Daily Devotional]
“Grief is the price we pay for love.”[Queen Elizabeth]
When I stopped trying to wrestle the wreckage and started sitting with the grief as quietly as I could manage, I, too, heard Jesus weeping. When I slowed the fury and toil of attempting to heal myself, Jesus could draw near to me. In His goodness and righteousness, He does not force Himself upon us. In His love, He leaves us a choice. A choice available to us if we seek it and knock. Open our hands and surrender our lives.
Grief is the price we pay for love.
He drew me in, and His tears dropped on the stinging wounds of my heart, healing my soul. With only His love, I started to allow the possibility that things could turn around. I looked again for the reminders of hope and promises of faith present the whole time, just invisible to me because I was so blinded by pain and bitterness. Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. I allowed and believed the truth, again, that even without you, dad, things would be okay, could even be better.
This is the truth the Holy Family may have been able to enlighten in me, while I had resigned myself to wrestling and fighting the reality of your loss. The beauty of this Family was in their trust and surrender to the Lord. It was not twenty years but literally days after the birth of the Child Jesus that Simeon prophesied to Joseph and Mary their Child would be responsible for the rise and fall of many in Israel and their family would be ripped apart and utterly ruined. A sword would pierce Mary’s soul. [Luke 2:34-35] After Mary had just given birth to Jesus in a cave. After she had been visited by an angel of God telling her she would conceive a child without having relations to a man. The same angel who greeted Mary as the favored one of God. [Luke 1:28] How favored was Mary feeling in all the uncertainty and judgement and lowliness she found herself in? Yet, as the father of the Israelites before her, Abraham, did, she reasoned the Word of the Lord was trustworthy. [Hebrews 11:8, 11,19] Faith and surrender.
Never before have I felt such an intimacy with the Holy Family as this Advent and Christmas season. This unique year of a pandemic physically scattering and separating families has offered us a holy opportunity. I have never so much admired the trust and surrender both Mary and Joseph embodied in not only the Nativity story but their whole lives as witnessed by Scripture. Still, solely the events of the birth of Jesus alone have astounded me. I marvel at Mary’s yes. I am in awe of Joseph’s stalwart trust and obedience to the Lord he believed in coming to the world in the flesh as his Son. There is a deep well of God’s faithfulness in the lives of both Mary and Joseph. It is their individual holiness, too, that contributes to the holiness of their family. Spending time meditating on and praying with this incredible story has reignited in my soul the true magic of Christmas. The awe and wonder of the One God Incarnate. The Word made Flesh. The Creator of the universe coming to save it as a Baby born in a cave.
Lying in a manger as food for humanity. “The baby King is not fed; rather, laid in the place where the animals eat, he is offered as food for the world…he will be given over and again for the feeding of others.” Wrapped in clothes as bound by freedom. “…but real freedom, Luke is telling us, is enjoyed by the child totally bound by his Father’s will and hence tied to the good of the world he has come to serve. Once he has decided to create, God cannot remain indifferent to the world and its needs; on the contrary, he is bound by a fiercely parental love to everything that participates in his being. Authentic divine freedom therefore has nothing to do with capricious voluntarism, whereby God groundlessly and arbitrarily decides how or whether he will act. The Christ child-wrapped up in swaddling clothes- is the icon of this God of bound freedom…” [Bishop Barron, “The Word on Fire Bible,” Jesus vs. Caesar, Luke 2:1-14]
Christmas can be the best in a pandemic just as things can be better after losing a father. Goodness, hope, and love are ever present when we choose to trust and surrender. To participate in the being of God bound by a fiercely parental love. We are never alone or abandoned.
There is a sign outside a business in town saying, “be grateful in all things except 2020.” This is how we all have felt this year, no doubt. But it ought to read, “be grateful in all things, ESPECIALLY 2020.” Gratitude helps us to see we are not alone or abandoned, even in the loneliest and most forsaken times. We often want to indulge this despairing illusion that we are alone or abandoned because the alternative may be even more terrifying. How terrifying it is indeed that the giving away of being is actually the most life giving.
“Here [when Jesus is pierced on the cross and blood and water flow from his side] the law of the gift is on iconic display: being increases in the measure that it is given away; life is enhanced in the measure that one participates in the loop of grace.”[Bishop Barron, “The Word on Fire Bible,” Luke 2:1-14]
How troubling the possibility of death and loss bringing about life and love.
But these are the cards. This is Phase 2020.
I love you dad,
PS- Gram and I ended up going toe to toe until the very end of the game. I am pleased to say I pulled out the victory. She even documented the result in her diary this morning. It was a voluntary confession. By no means did I instigate a loss on my precious grandmother. Turns out, she is just a competitor herself.