Audio length: 7:20 minutes
Godliness with contentment is great gain (I Tim. 6:6). What are you hoping for this Christmas?
It is with great sheepishness that I share with you my memories of being lectured about the true meaning of Christmas at the “I really should have known better” age of sixteen. In early December of 1990, I came down with a most horrendous case of Chicken Pox producing ugly itchy scabs on my limbs, my scalp, down my throat and between my toes. At the height of my agony, I had an overwhelming desire to clip my fingernails and yet, much to my frustration, not a single pair of fingernail clippers could be found in our bi-level home. Their absence triggered a tearful tantrum on my part directed at every member of our family who had dared to trim their own fingernails without remembering where exactly they had left the much-coveted clippers. I was furious, I was uncomfortable, and I was horrified by own appearance. A stoic, I most certainly was not.
A couple weeks later I gathered around our Christmas tree with the family I had since forgiven. The first gift I opened was, quite appropriately, a brand new pair of fingernail clippers. “Ha ha,” I said, “very funny!” laying them aside to make room for the watch, the sweater, the c.d., or whatever it was I wanted that year, I just knew was still festively wrapped and waiting for me. When my turn arrived again, however, mom and dad (with a fair amount snickering) presented a medium sized box stuffed generously with tissue paper, at the bottom of which I found yet another pair of …you guessed it, silver fingernail clippers. Eventually (in between the tearing open of perfectly legitimate offerings), I’d unwrap half a dozen of them.
“C’mon Molly,” they said, when I pouted like a preschooler, “don’t get all mad about it, we were only joking with you.” But exactly like a preschooler, I was incapable of snapping out of the disappointed funk clouding for me the brightness of Christ’s birth, just because things hadn’t gone the way I envisioned. I had wanted every last gift with my name on it to contain something that would “wow” me, something that would make me happy, something quite impractical and excessive. I knew it was selfish and I clearly understood that my attitude was immature and inappropriate. But sometimes that gap between what we long for and what we actually get seems a little too wide for stepping over gracefully.
It wasn’t until I submitted myself to the Orthodox Church that I began to feel truly self-conscious about my knee jerk reaction to failed expectations - one very similar to that of a scowling third grader, blaming the pitcher for his lousy aim after raising her foot fiercely at recess only to have the kick ball whoosh right under it into the waiting arms of the other team’s catcher. Disappointment meant that something had gone awry: I hadn’t prayed hard enough, I didn’t plan well enough or in most cases, someone else has screwed up and I was paying the price for it. In other words, the let down in question almost always seemed to reek of unfairness. But at some point, between the penitential prostrations of Lent and countless recitations of the Prayer of St. Ephraim, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret, it began to dawn on me that, for followers of Christ, there really is no such thing as random happenstance, no unforeseen bumps in the road sabotaging our efforts toward success.
“…Thy will be done.”
“…all things are sent by You”
“…give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.”
An untimely sinus infection, an embarrassing professional blunder, a phone call from my husband to say he’s running an hour late just as I take our dinner out of the oven, can make me writhe and howl internally with aggravation. I can point my damning finger out of spitefulness; I can beat my breast till its bruised and tear out my hair, but nothing changes – nothing that is except for the potential cooling of my passions, if I so choose to use these disappointments to my spiritual advantage. Authentic tranquility is gained only through bumping up against life over and over and over again until I am numb to the irritation, until I stop wincing, until I become thankful for the blows that knock me soundly off my high horse and straight into the arms of our loving God.
St. Gregory the Great encouraged us to persevere throughout this process when he said,
“Hold to patience in your hearts, my friends, and put it into action when the situation calls for it. Don’t let any abusive word from your neighbor stir up hatred in you, and don’t allow any loss of things that pass away to upset you. If you are steadfast in fearing the loss of those things that last forever, you will never take seriously the loss of those that pass away; if you keep your eyes fixed on the glory of our eternal recompense, you will not resent a temporal injury. You must bear with those who oppose you, but also love those you fear with. Seek an eternal reward in return for your temporal losses.”
All the money we saved to update our decrepit old bathroom ended up being spent on a busted sewer pipe…Lord have mercy. I wrote half a manuscript and a proposal; they were rejected upon submission…Lord have mercy. I was eight and a half weeks pregnant and then I miscarried our baby…Lord have mercy. We wanted that job in Louisville but Troy was turned down…Lord have mercy. I am heartsick over the loss of my time, my earthly dreams, my resources that now feel so important, but more than anything …Dear God, more anything - I want a whole lot less of me and all of You when the present gives way to eternity. “Lord have mercy on my weak but willing soul.”
This Christmas I promise to be sweeter, to be downright exuberant over the festively wrapped comb I will get from Priscilla, the hand drawn comic I’ll receive from Elijah, the rock-n-roll dance I’ll be entertained with by Ben, the sticky kisses I might get (if I’m lucky) from little Mary, and most especially over the one single gift that makes all other joys and sorrows pale in comparison to its splendor - a savior which is Christ the Lord.
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