Every year, I try my damnedest to get excited for the holidays. I really do. I listen to holiday music for .5 seconds, consider buying the packaged eggnog at the local grocery, and panic about the gifts I haven't bought—usually to no avail. No matter how hard I try to enjoy them, the holidays still remain a painful reminder of the difficulties I face as a member of the LGBTQ community to reconcile my faith, my happiness, and the sense of alienation I've so often felt in my relationships with devoutly religious family members.
Loving anyone for who they are can be a very painful experience when you know that they love you in spite of who you are.
While that person may be trying their best, this incomplete love creates artificial barriers in your relationships. As someone who came of age in a religious household, I find that being authentic about my identity can create a crisis for family members who feel constrained to choose between their relationship with God and their relationship with me.
During Advent, faith communities often consider the Holy Family's experience of displacement, first in the journey to Bethlehem, and secondly in their flight to Egypt. Ministers admonish their congregations to be a home for the homeless, an inspiring message that nevertheless stings in the wound of my isolation. Where is the message of consolation for those of us who are wandering the lonely wilderness of rejection, struggling to find some peace and resolution?
This year, I'm meditating on the experience of St. Joseph in the period after he found out his fiancée was pregnant and before Jesus was born. In those dark moments, Joseph must have wrestled a number of intense emotions—feelings of betrayal, loss, grief, and confusion. I would like to think he wanted to believe the best of his partner.
But the fact is, Joseph decided to divorce Mary quietly, exiting her life without much fuss and avoiding a scene.
In a time when Joseph had the grounds to demand his partner's execution, his decision to leave her quietly seems to reflect his best intentions for everyone involved. He had lost his trust in his partner, but perhaps not his love for her. In this crisis he decided that he did not have what it took to stand by her. Genuine love, yet incomplete. And it took the urging of an angel to change his mind.
As for St. Mary, what could she do but tell the truth, when the truth seemed so implausible? How hard must it have been for her in that time, growing in her understanding of the miracle inside her despite the conclusions her community would draw because of her pregnancy?
I find personal resonance with both people in this story, both the experience of being given a sacred gift that violates my culture's religious taboos (my gender and sexual identity), and the experience of struggling to stand by the people I love but cannot trust. For both of these saints, nothing was offered but a promise of what would come, and all that was asked of them was that they participate in a greater plan as an act of faith.
Neither saint was offered security.
As we navigate the holidays, LGBTQ people who are estranged from their families have a plethora of options, and we have to make the best decisions we can with imperfect situations and people. Sometimes the best we can do is to walk away, whether for our emotional well-being or the well-being of another. At other times we may feel called to interact directly with both our families and our painful shared histories.
There is no one easy way to manage these relationships, but I believe this sticky predicament facing the Holy Family offers some guidance for maintaining our spiritual integrity while grappling with these challenges.
The Advent of Christ is the initiation of a cycle of progress and change. St. John the Baptist's echo of the prophets' request to “make straight the way of the Lord” is a direct call to our hearts to adjust our expectations and make room for the holy presence of God in our lives.
Our God is not abstract. Our God is personal.
And the Christmas story introduces that personal interaction with us by setting the stage with Jesus’ own family drama.
When St. Gabriel announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, her response was one of bewilderment: "How can this be?" It's not hard to imagine Joseph's first response to Mary's pregnancy sounding much the same. In both cases, things are not as they seem. Expectations changed. Jesus disrupted everyone's plans.
From the start, Jesus challenged the established norms of decency, family structure, and sexual morality. He created a crisis of faith: Do I fight to hold on to an established ideal, or do I participate in a new way of living in the world—the uncharted territory of a life touched by Jesus?
Estrangement is intimately tied to this Christmas narrative, a story rooted in disruption.
While it can feel contrary to the popular understanding of the holiday spirit, estrangement is actually a sign that Jesus is drawing near. It is an invitation to prepare our hearts ("make straight the way") for Christ's unique appearance in each of our lives during the darkest and coldest time of the year. It is an opportunity for us to respond to our dashed hopes with an act of faith and a commitment to unconditional love.
The story of Jesus' birth and infancy involves many encounters with people ready for a new experience of God. Nobody expected a crowd of country shepherds to barge into the stable where Jesus first opened and closed his tired eyes. Nobody expected the prophets in the temple to rejoice at the sight of Jesus. And nobody expected the arrival of three Magi from a distant country, intent on being among the first to welcome and recognize Jesus for the leader he would become.
But they did come. And while we often think of Jesus' nativity in terms of pity for his humble conditions, I like to think that Jesus arrived in exactly the perfect circumstances: confusion, budding hope, compromised cultural values, and living faith. In asking each participant to release their judgments about how things should be, God opened each heart to his magnificent participation in their lives, exceeding every expectation.
This Christmas, may God grant us faith to listen to God’s guidance while navigating complicated situations.
As you and I continue to live and grow with our own broken hearts and disappointed dreams, may we find our hope in the new path that God paves in our hearts, ready to find him in the "least likely" places. And may this intimate encounter with our maker spill out with unconditional love through the rest of our lives.
Photo via flickr user Jonathan Stonehouse