This time of year is particularly difficult for those with family who are absent or who feel as though they don’t belong. Christmas can be seen as unfair, an unwelcome reminder of too much disappointment. The dreaded time of year when more salt is added to already aggravated, yet-to-heal wounds. When Christmas eve is spent ringing sometimes hostile and estranged family members to at least, albeit at a safe distance, meet and greet them in the hope that this year wounds will heal as prayers are answered.
Even in this reflection, I find that my longing to fit in where I think I belong is confronted by a new belonging, if it isn’t replaced by it completely. In the midst of this encounter I am reminded that I cannot remain absent in places where I have been given an invitation to be present.
This is because belonging when you don’t belong is a unique attribute of a Christian gathering, particularly pertinent at Christmas.
This idea lingers in the storylines of movies which narrate to us the wisdom that says our worth and identity exist outside of our possessions, work and social status. The music at this time of year reminds us of a homecoming even if the house or the family in it are not, or were not originally ours.
The gift of the gathering is to be recognised by those of us who encounter more sorrow than merriment during Christmas. Presuming that the gathering is an authentic gathering, we will discover, if we care to admit it, something special – unique. The bitter disappointment that enters your entire being; the taste of fallen Christmas’ past are slowly eroded by the loving merriment of those who were once strangers. An emptiness filled over time by people who consider your presence the most important present of all.
As time goes by, the echo of this response leaves memories that are generally filled with more Merry than “Meh-rry”. It is untidy at times and not perfect, but it is healthy, joyful and genuine.
Something, or rather someone who grasps us, even as we are gasping, trying to smile and not entertain thoughts about where ones own side of the extended family are this time of year.
Your heart may feel like it is being squeezed into your throat, but thankfully the sensation passes, even if the questions and contrasts increase the sense of inferiority and displacement. The pain of isolation and abandonment is not cancelled out or discounted by this strange, new belonging; rather it is answered by it.
This discovery uncovers lives grounded upon the reconciliation between God and humanity. We find ourselves in a different, strange and unique place of acceptance, a place where we belong even if we don’t truly think we do.
Out of the gathering we are reminded of the theological position that states, in Jesus the Christ we understand that our reconciliation with God happens through his movement towards us – the answer to the paradox that we belong even though we don’t belong is exemplified by Paul Tillich’s imperative to ‘accept that you are accepted[i]’.
It may be only once a year, but in the gathering the melancholic and the introvert finds the gift of acceptance, the gift of being present, of being around people he or she doesn’t feel they even belong being around. It is then up to the melancholic and the introvert to respond. To accept that they are accepted if it is safe enough to do so.
This kind of gathering is a gift. The wonderful knowledge that being present is itself received as a gift.
This kind of belonging is driven by the acceptance of, and invitation to, those who don’t belong by those that do.
Men and women who may fail to understand the significance of your reticent manner, but still acknowledge that you’re being present is a worthwhile gift; a selfless offering made in spite of the pain, the brokenness and sorrow. In spite of the emptiness and the clear absence of anyone directly related to you.
This encounter with a new belonging cannot be purchased; neither does its impact dissolve into the atmosphere once the event has come to a close.
During Christmas and New Year, busyness and distraction are temptations too easily agreed to. However, agreeing to these only enable negative patterns of anxiety avoidance.
Alternatively accepting the invitation to gather lovingly confronts a soul-filled with sorrow by the gentle reminder that you will find less solace in the solitude of a glass of wine, than in a Christ led crowd of forty plus people who are genuinely pleased that you made the effort to show up. Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus as saying: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mt. 18:20, ESV)
Perhaps this might coincide with Paul’s reminder to the Church in Rome, as a potential reminder to us that we:
‘did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption, as sons (and daughters) by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Paul, Rom.8:15, ESV)
[i] Tillich, P. 1952 The Courage To Be Yale University Press p.164
[ii] Video: [Official] Linkin Park, Somewhere I Belong from the album Meteora available @ itunes