On a recent trip to novel., to redeem a Christmas gift card, I picked up a collection of essays by Molly McCully Brown titled Places I’ve Taken My Body. Molly would have been one of our LPS preachers last spring if we hadn’t had to shut down for the pandemic that is still placing all sorts of limitations on our lives as Christmas approaches.
Molly knows about limitation. A few years ago, she received the Amy Lowell Fellowship, which provides a young poet the means to live and write for a year in Europe. Several of the first pieces in the book come from that time and provide a not so fawning perspective on the continent’s grand old cities, gorgeous as they are. Molly, you see, has cerebral palsy, and cobblestone streets and winding old staircases aren’t quite so charming to one in a wheelchair.
Of a trip to Bologna, she writes, “I’ve discovered, by now, that I can get almost nowhere in this city through the front door, and that there are many places I can’t access at all. I’ve also fallen in love with the light and the occasionally hidden channels of water tucked behind wrought iron gates, all the rose-colored stone, and the throng of the main piazza. The past feels shoulder to shoulder with the present here. I want to witness everything, and I’m having trouble knowing what to do with the way the magic of the place is tangled up in my inability to access it.”
That last line… Isn’t that what a lot of people feel about Christmas? That some grief or loss or hurt cuts us off and makes it hard to know what to do with the magic that seems present all around us. In some seasons of life, this glittering, flashing world, blaring comfort and joy at us always and everywhere seems made for everyone but us. It lights up each of our senses so we can take in what we can’t quite have in five different ways.
And if you, like me, recognize Molly’s stubbornly independent streak — as she wheels her unassisted self through airports, bag clenched between teeth and somehow still wearing her best I got this smile beneath it — we know we can tend to cut ourselves off from the few people who might not solve the heartbreak of Christmas for us, but who would gladly shoulder one of our bags as we stumble through it. Or at least walk alongside us.
Which is what the promise of Christmas actually is, isn’t it? The promise is not that God has made everything bright and shiny in the Incarnation, but that God travels this life with us. It’s not that we’re preserved from heartbreak and suffering — Mary certainly wasn’t, nor was her son — but that we’re not alone, even when we feel that way. And if we’ll grant ourselves at least enough preemptive forgiveness to admit our unhappiness, maybe we’ll also admit we’re not made to go this life alone and learn to let God in by letting another human or two into our sorrow. Sometimes a friend will gladly come trouncing down the stairs there’s no way you can climb if you’ll just let them know you’re stuck at the bottom.
God still comes to us incarnate. God still comes to us in the flesh. Christmas is a time to remember that the peace or hope or joy we long for won’t come to us any other way either. They come in through our needs and are delivered to us almost always by the hands of others.
So, if any of this describes you, even a little, especially in this strange year of living distanced from so much of what sustains us in less extraordinary times, I won’t offer my own advice. Just a couple more sentences from Molly and a practice some version of which might bear up any of us in those lonely, far away moments we all find ourselves caught in at times.
“Sometimes at night, in a new hotel, I put myself to sleep by listing all the people whom I really love; all the people whom I know and trust know me; the little list I’m working on of people I allow myself to need.”
Is that not a Christmas list we’d all be made a little more whole just in making?