Not the Christmas I Expected

SECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 144:12-20

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:1-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.

Christmas for Sesle and me did not go as we expected. Our plan was to host the holiday festivities at our house in Wellfleet with my son, his wife and our two grandchildren. Though she suffered a severe spinal cord injury in May of this year that left her nearly completely paralyzed, Sesle was making a remarkable recovery. She was walking again and had regained the full use of her hands. We were looking forward to a joyous and celebratory observance of the Nativity.  But on the evening of December 1st, after an active day of cooking, worship and visiting with  friends, Sesle began to experience severe chills, high temperatures and slipped finally into unconsciousness. She was rushed to the hospital by ambulance where she spent a week in the ICU fighting for her life against septic shock. She was discharged from the hospital two weeks later to an acute care facility-otherwise known as a nursing home-where she is now undergoing physical therapy to reclaim the progress she fought so hard to achieve since her accident in May. So we spent Christmas together in a double occupancy room opening our gifts, listening to our church’s online service and chatting with our children by telephone.

I have been reflecting a great deal on the Word made flesh this season during which I experienced two very different manifestations of flesh. One version came to me through our roommate’s television set. She was watching a station showing non-stop, back to back Hallmark Christmas movies. The flesh on the screen was nearly perfect. Petite women, immaculately groomed and airbrushed to perfection shared the screen with equally well endowed, dressed and made up men acting out tales of romance, family drama and the magical effects of Christmas that seem somehow to make everything come out right. This was flesh seemingly immune to aging, deformity and imperfection. These were people who inhabited an enchanted universe of Christmas trees, ugly sweaters and skin as white as the snow falling in nearly every scene.

The flesh on our side of the screen looks a lot different. On our side of the screen flesh is frequently paper thin with age and ravaged by disease and bed sores. The flesh surrounding us is wracked with pain and often inhabited by confused and terrified minds crying out for attention from a medical system too strained to be attentive. The flesh we meet on a regular basis is worn by nurses, CNAs, therapists and other nursing home staff overworked, underpaid and often treated abominably by their corporate overlords. The flesh I have seen this Christmas resembles more the wounded body of the crucified Jesus than the fresh and tender flesh of the newborn Christ child.

I take comfort in knowing, however, that God is incarnate on my side of the screen and that I have indeed seen his glory. I see it in the devotion of frazzled nurses and aids who, exhausted as they often are, still find time to go the extra mile in caring for their patients. I see it in the face of a woman who seems not to recognize even members of her family, but still wears a tender and welcoming smile for them and for all who come into her orbit of attention. All around me I am witnessing “glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Just as the wounds of Jesus become in his resurrected body the beautiful symbols of God’s love for the world, so the suffering flesh in our nursing home community is aglow with redemptive moments through which the gentle reign of God shines through. The Word has indeed become flesh, remains flesh and will redeem all flesh. Joy to the world. The Lord has come.

This Christmas was not the Christmas I planned. It is not the Christmas I would wish on anyone else. But it was the Christmas I needed and perhaps the most wonderful I will ever know.

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon about a Christmas disrupted by illness.

Christmas Away From Home

Her sickness brought me to Connecticut.
Mornings I walk the dog: that part of life
is intact. Who’s painted, who’s insulated
or put siding on, who’s burned the lawn
with lime—that’s the news on Ardmore Street.

The leaves of the neighbor’s respectable
rhododendrons curl under in the cold.
He has backed the car
through the white nimbus of its exhaust
and disappeared for the day.

In the hiatus between mayors
the city has left leaves in the gutters,
and passing cars lift them in maelstroms.

We pass the house two doors down, the one
with the wildest lights in the neighborhood,
an establishment without irony.
All summer their putto empties a water jar,
their St. Francis feeds the birds.
Now it’s angels, festoons, waist-high
candles, and swans pulling sleighs.

Two hundred miles north I’d let the dog
run among birches and the black shade of pines.
I miss the hills, the woods and stony
streams, where the swish of jacket sleeves
against my sides seems loud, and a crow
caws sleepily at dawn.

By now the streams must run under a skin
of ice, white air-bubbles passing erratically,
like blood cells through a vein. Soon the mail,
forwarded, will begin to reach me here.

Source Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon (c. 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon; pub. by Graywolf Press). Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

6 thoughts on “Not the Christmas I Expected

  1. I believe I am speaking on behalf of your many friends at Christ the King in Gladwin who understand what you and your family are going through. Know that we pray with you for her recovery and return to your family. We also offer thanks for providing our congregation with a spiritual leader who, like you, is gifted at writing insightful and clear messages that help us recognize and understand the presence of God – giving us hope for the future despite any sufferings and trials we may experience here on earth.

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    1. Thanks, Bob, for your ind words. Please tell all my good friends at Christ the King that their prayers and their support for my daughter at this very difficult time mean more to me than they will ever know. Blessings to you and the congregation this Epiphany season and throughout the coming year.

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  2. Praying for you and Sesle! I’ve been down this painful road years ago as well and can only imagine what that daily pain is like now. I also thank you for your continued excellent theological insight and shared reflections!

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    1. Thanks, Amandus, for your kind words and your prayers. I remember, too, how you struggled with the loss of your wife and having still to be a strong father for your son. Thankfully, my children are grown and supporting their Dad at this difficult time. Wishing you, Carol and the family a blessed Epiphany season. Peter

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