The Cross Above the Manger: That First Christmas Wasn’t All Joy and Peace

The Cross Above the Manger: That First Christmas Wasn’t All Joy and Peace

By Kevin Burke, LSW and Theresa Burke, Ph.D.

As this year comes to a close, you may be facing the first Holiday season after the death of a beloved friend or family member.   Their absence is especially raw, and painful during the Christmas season.

Many reading this are facing daily challenges to manage pain, physical decline, and the accompanying emotional stress, anxiety and grief/depression that accompany, sudden, as well as chronic illness.

Some families are facing job loss, and with the rise in inflation since the last presidential election, many are struggling to make ends meet. 

Perhaps the most painful feeling this time of year – loneliness, isolation, separation from those we love.  Saint Mother Teresa shared that the greatest poverty is feeling unloved, unwanted, and rejected. 

So what do sparking lights, and quaint manger scenes have to with any of that?

Too often, a commercialized, homogenized Christmas, distorts the deeper meaning of this Holy-day, and can add to a sense of disconnection and depression this time of year.

As the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus unfolds, before the choir of angels sang to the shepherds in the fields, we see in the Gospel accounts the first reaction of Mary and Joseph upon learning of their unique vocation and calling from God – fear and anxiety.

As the Angel Gabriel encounters Mary and Joseph, he responds to the anxiety that rose up in their minds and hearts.  It is a message all those facing the loss of a loved one, physical and emotional illness, job loss and other stress and suffering need to hear:

“Do not be afraid Mary…do not be afraid Joseph…”

Mary and Joseph are overwhelmed with the mysterious, massive changes being unleashed in their lives, and they are naturally afraid.  This touches upon a mystery in the lives of the Holy Family, and in our own stories.

Alongside the joy of the incarnation, and the birth of the Christ with angelic choirs proclaiming the Good News, the Holy Family faced looming threats; murderous political persecution, exile from family and friends, and in time, the rejection, brutal torture and execution of the Christ Child in the manger.

Fr. Bernhard Speringer shares:

“…the Cross above the Manger is more than a mere decoration…The birth and death of Jesus Christ, the Manger and the Cross, belong together indissolubly. God became man in order to die for us as man. God was born in Bethlehem in order to be able to lay down his life on Golgotha out of love for men…Both the Manger and the Cross are for us the revelation of God’s love.”

Mary and Joseph not only faced external threats; they also experienced personal grief and loss.

Mary’s special calling brought her great joy and peace. Yet, like any young woman, she likely had dreams of how her life would unfold, a future with the natural course of marriage, and a house filled with children. There was sacrifice and loss that were part of Mary’s “yes,” from the beginning of her vocation.   

Mary understands the pain of losing family members and friends to illness and death.   Remember that prior to the start of the public ministry of her son Jesus, she lost her spouse, and best friend, Joseph, with whom she shared a very special vocation to parent and protect the Christ.  What a profound loss for her.

Joseph surely had his own dreams of the joys and intimacy of marriage to his beloved Mary. While he was obedient to the angel’s message, and accepted Mary into his home as his wife, he was also embracing a life of celibacy. While his vocation provided the grace to embrace this sacrifice, he surely had times when he longed for a traditional marriage, and grieved the changes, and loss that came with his very special calling. 

With that said, there was no deeper intimacy, love and friendship between a husband and wife, and their precious Son, as was shared within the heart of the Holy Family.

Some Coping Strategies for the Holidays

Struggling with depression, or numbing ourselves in various ways during the Holidays, is a natural response to feeling overwhelmed, alone, and afraid.  How do we regain a sense of perspective, hope and peace this time of year?

  • Lower your expectations and the expectations of others.  Our commercialized culture puts great pressure on families during the holidays.  Avoid those things that take you away from focusing on the deeper meaning of this great feast.   
  • At Holiday gatherings, avoid those conversation topics and encounters that will feed into conflict and stress you out.  Engage with loved ones and friends, even those you deeply disagree with and find annoying, in a spirit of peace and love. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to avoid getting pulled into any of those familiar toxic dynamics and exchanges, and let the peace of the Christ Child reign in your heart.
  • If you have a friend or relative who is going through a tough time or had a rough year, try and make some time to be with them, or call / zoom connect.   Above all give the gift of listening with love, and most importantly, acknowledge their losses.  Embrace them with love and assure them of your continued support.
  • If you are doing ok financially, buy your gifts/gift cards from local small businesses that have been hit so hard by the pandemic.
  • Exercise daily as your health allows. It’s very challenging to take that first step when you are grieving or struggling with depression.  Start with something simple and build on the positive results.  A daily walk and simple stretching exercises have been proven to be very effective medicine for anxiety and depression.  Many townships are offering exercise programs online during Covid. If you need additional support, ask a friend, family physician, or your pastor for a counselor referral
  • Avoid the over-use of alcohol, drugs or behaviors to avoid your feelings and find relief of your pain and grief.
  • Spend time each day in quiet prayer with God. Ask the Lord to help you avoid both isolating, but also hyper-activity, as ways of coping with your pain.  Open your heart to the Spirit and ask for consolation, strength and the peace to accept the will of God in your life.  Unite your suffering with that of the Holy Family and pray that the grace from your simple sacrifice may touch someone you love who is in need of God’s mercy.
  • Make a resolution to get involved in services and activities at your local church once things open up.  Pray for discernment to see if God is calling you to reach out with the love of Christ to the homebound elderly, prisoners, the homeless, children in the womb, and other children in need. 
  • If you know a friend or loved one who was impacted by an abortion loss and they have shared this with you in the past, check in with them to see how they are doing.   Share a pamphlet or the website information on Rachel’s Vineyard.  It really is the best Christmas gift you could offer them.
  • If you suffered past sexual, physical, emotional abuse, or other trauma, and would like to explore a very effective, beautiful program for emotional and spiritual healing, learn more about Grief to Grace.

The Promise

In closing, we share this original Christmas song, The Promise,written by Kevin Burke and Henry Gennaria.  May it touch your heart and soul with the love and peace of the Holy Family, in this Advent and Christmas season. 

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