The warm, squishy body wriggled in my arms for a few minutes. Penny, my aunt and uncle’s dog, let me snuggle her, and then looked up at me as if to say, “Dude, it’s loud in here.”
And it was. I was home for Christmas for the first time in years, and my father’s side of the family had all come together and raucously filled my aunt and uncle’s house. The number of cousins is in the double digits, and that doesn’t include their significant others, children or my grandmother and our aunts and uncles themselves. The dining room was packed full of people who have known me since my birth or theirs.
It was, to be honest, perfect. It is kinship of the clearest kind– forged through years of laughter and heartache, built on a strong foundation of finding love and joy within each other, even when it felt impossible.
I love Christmastime for lots of reasons. Beyond the surface-level, it’s a time to remember to love as puppies and babies do— without restraint or judgement, and with a full-hearted sense of wonder and awe.
This Christmas, though, I was in mass reflecting on the nativity. I was praying with imagination and imagining myself in the stable. When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve normally seen myself in awe as one of the shepherds or wise men.
This time though, for reasons beyond my understanding, I imagined myself as Mary. Don’t get me wrong– I hold no lofty illusions about my own lack of sin or greatness in the world. I was just sitting in mass, thinking about her in that moment, and realized that Mary must’ve been so scared.
I mean, pregnancy is scary. Motherhood is scary. Doing all of those things, at a young age, when you didn’t even conceive the kid but instead because some angel showed up and said God wanted you to? Like, how even? Now, to top it all off, everyone in the neighborhood is being the worst and you have to birth this kid in a stable, one of the coldest and grossest places one could birth a tiny human? That is truly some shenanigans right there.
In all seriousness, though, I imagined how helpless I would’ve felt in a moment like that– how out of control everything would’ve seemed, how my body would’ve, perhaps no longer felt like mine.
And I got a little teary because I have certainly felt that way this year.
Then, in all that fear and helplessness and pain, I thought about how Mary looked up and saw people around her— a husband that stayed with her through the most ridiculous of circumstances, random folks from the meadows who were told that they needed to come through. And I remembered a line from Fr. Boyle’s book, Barking to the Choir: “If love is the answer, community is the context, and tenderness is the methodology.”
In the middle of the worst conditions, the birth of a child created a community of warmth and love. For one night, that stable was an enclave of joy, laughter, love, and light. In a time of struggle, tenderness rallied these people together to create something much stronger and more powerful. Much like the dining room of my aunt and uncle’s house, they found raucous, bubbling kinship in each other, even when the world outside felt less than hospitable.
In my own time of personal struggle this year, when I felt helpless and out of control, was it not my own community that made me feel like I could overcome and reminded me that I was loved? Was it not the friends consistently at my side supporting me, the people the universe conspired to bring into my life, the family who loved me unconditionally? Earlier this week, I spent time with people who I had no blood connection with, but who had known me for nearly twenty years. Some I am still very close with, some I hadn’t seen in ages, but no matter what I was welcomed with open arms and laughter.
Ultimately, what staves off fear and helplessness is connecting with and loving each other, even when it feels impossible, even when the connection may not seem visible. It may be your blood family. It may be your chosen family. It may be the dude who you were arranged to marry and some shepherds who followed a star.
You never know how and when community will emerge though. The question is, when it comes, will you be ready to accept it? Will you be ready to turn your back to the harshness of the outside world not to forget it, but to seek to improve it by turning towards each other and rejoicing in the presence and light of others?
So, as we move into 2018, I am eager to continue finding the communities of kinship, and rejoicing not simply in all things, but trying to rejoice in all people. I am hopeful to try and focus this year not just on love, but on community and tenderness too.
For a savior was born unto us for one real reason: because, above all else, we are loved.