What Brings You Comfort and Joy?

Ash at Christmas

Images of children have been playing behind my closed eyelids this week—images of those dear children in Connecticut—as I’m sure they have for all of us, long after we’ve turned off the television sets.  But I see them sleeping peacefully or waking to dance in joy at the Spirit’s feet, for I can hardly bear to think of them in any other way.  And I pray that their parents can call up images of their children before this terrible tragedy, for I know that my sadness cannot even begin to approach what their loved ones feel.

The pictures I’ve seen in the media have become like the images we see when we’ve looked at the sun for too long and then closed our eyes to still see their silhouettes.  So I’ve been trying to honor their memory and assuage my own sorrow by imagining visions of children dancing from foot to foot in excitement, clapping their hands in delight, squealing happily in the way that only children can do.

I turn to happy memories of my own daughter, who is 26 now and full of life and the promise of young adulthood, and to my stepchildren, one of whom has given us our first grandchild.  As I imagine every parent must, I fight back the fear at how easy it is to have our children torn from us.  Even as I write this, I realize I’m holding my breath as I think about it.

And then I make myself breathe.  And a wave of guilt washes over me that I’ll be able to return to my life, to breathe normally, long before those children’s loved ones who’ve suffered such loss.  How can I be joyful when there is such suffering?  And then I remember a lesson that cancer taught me:  If the fear of dying takes away the joy of living, then tragedy wins.  And I know that it’s okay for me to anticipate laughter and happiness as our children gather in the coming days.

Perhaps this year, more than I’ve ever considered before, I’m thinking of the child in the manger whose life ends in both tragedy and hope.  I think often of a poem I read in college by Howard Nemerov, a former poet laureate, who writes:

Somewhere on his travels the strange Child

Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man,

Affection’s inverted thief, who climbs at night

Down chimneys, into dreams, with this world’s goods.

Bringing all the benevolence of money,

He teaches the innocent to want…

…Now, at the season when the Child is born

To suffer for the world, suffer the world,

His bloated Other, jovial satellite…

This annual savior of the economy

Speaks in parables of the dollar sign:

Suffer the little children to come to Him.

At Easter, he’s anonymous again,

Just one of the crowd lunching on Calvary.

This poem was the beginning of my understanding that not everyone views Christmas through my glasses–that the chubby Santa of my mother, who couldn’t always put the world’s goods under the Christmas tree, represented something very different to the world at large.  But most of all, that reference to the Baby Jesus as a “strange Child” really made me think—about how others view my faith but, more than that, how strange it really is that my faith begins with an innocent baby and could have ended with an instrument of torture.

But it hasn’t.  Whatever one believes about Christ and about what Christians have done to Christmas, for 2000 years our faith has been a search for life.  Abundant life.  It begins in hope.  It sometimes ends in tragedy we can’t even begin to understand.  And in the intervening days and years, most of us do the best we can to bear the pain and celebrate the joy.  And my prayer for the survivors in Connecticut, still in the in-between, is that they can bear the loss, remember the pleasure, and some day, beyond the crucifying tragedy, find hope and life.

We are stronger in bearing pain when we know that others weep and pray for us.  But let us remember, too, that we grow stronger in hope and love by celebrating and sharing our moments of wonder at the beauty of life.

So what brings you tidings of comfort and joy?