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Sabbath Revival: Christmas Pain, Christmas Joy

By Catherine Pavia

In today’s piece from the archives, Emily M. juxtaposes her own experience with pain at Christmas time with Elder Holland’s experience and shares the comfort she found in his words.

Posted by Emily M. | December 24, 2007 | 7 Comments
Four years ago, the week before Christmas, my mother-in-law suffered a heart attack. While this was not unanticipated, it was a hard thing to have happen at Christmas. She seemed to respond to us at first, but as time passed we could no longer reach her, and machines sustained her life, feeding her and breathing for her.

One Sunday night I went alone to visit her in the hospital. I found our bishop already there. He had come alone also, after finishing tithing settlement, and he was reading to her from Elder Holland’s book Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?. And this is what he read:

For many people in many places this may not be an entirely happy Christmas, one not filled with complete joy because of the circumstances facing a spouse or a friend, a child or a grandchild. Or perhaps that was the case another Christmas in another year, but one which brings a painful annual memory to us yet. Or . . . perhaps this may be the case some future Christmas …when there is some public or very personal tragedy in which it may seem, at least for a time, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

On the evening of December 23, 1976, my father underwent surgery…. The surgery was successful, but near the conclusion of it he suffered a major heart attack. Eight hours later, he suffered another one…. By the time we finally got to see him, wired and tubed and gray and unconscious, it was mid morning on December 24, Christmas Eve…

“Magnificent time,” I muttered to no one in particular. . . .

At the hospital I sat and walked and read and walked and looked in on Dad and walked. He would not, in fact, recover from all this. I suppose everyone knew that, but the nursing staff were kind to me and gave me free access to him and to the entire hospital. A couple of nurses wore Santa Claus hats, and all the nursing stations were decorated for the season. During the course of the evening I think I checked them all out, and sure enough, on every floor it was Christmas.

You will forgive me if I admit that somewhere in the early hours of the morning I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. “Why does it have to be like this?” I thought. “Why does it have to be on Christmas Eve?”

Lying under that oxygen tent was the most generous man I have ever known . . . and by some seemingly cruel turn of cardiac fate it was Christmas morning and he was in the process of dying.

Then and there 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. in a very quiet hospital, immersed as I was in some sorrow and too much selfishness heaven sent me a small, personal, prepackaged revelation, a tiny Christmas declaration that was as powerful as any I have ever received.

In the midst of mumbling about the very calendaring in all of this, I heard the clear, unbroken cry of a baby.

It startled me. I had long since ceased paying attention to where I was wandering that night, and only then did I realize I was near the maternity ward; somewhere, I suppose, near the nursery …

God could not have sent me a more penetrating wake up call.

“Jeff, my boy,” my Father in Heaven seemed to say with that baby’s cry. “I expected a little more from you. If you can’t remember why all of this matters, then your approach to Christmas is no more virtuous than the over commercialization everyone laments these days. You need to shape up just a little, to put your theology where your Christmas carols are. You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It’s a single plan…. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain and privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,’ makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

I have repented since that night. In fact, I did some repenting there in the maternity ward. If you have to lose your dad, what more comforting time than the Christmas season?

These are sad experiences, terribly wrenching experiences, with difficult moments for years and years to come. But because of the birth in Bethlehem and what it led to, they are not tragic experiences. They have a happy ending. There is a rising after the falling. There is life always. New births and rebirths and resurrection to eternal life. It is the joy of the stable the maternity ward forever.

. . .[W]hat may be most glorious about the hymns’ celebration of Christ’s advent is not only their telling of that first Christmas story but also their promise of a later one. This is the theme that runs through the carols and which may be lost in the season if we are not listening for it. Along with the joy of Christmas past is the anticipation of Christ’s triumphant return and what will be made known by the angels again.

-Elder Jeffery R. Holland, Shepherds, Why This Jubilee

She died New Year’s Day. I borrowed the book from my bishop, and I have read over this story many times. I think that we all want Christmas happiness, and sometimes we get it. Sometimes, though, we get the kind of Christmas that, if we allow it, helps us access and understand the Atonement in ways that only suffering allows.
I don’t wish that kind of Christmas on anyone. But I also would not trade my own experience: my grief at her suffering, combined with the sight of my tender bishop, reading her the words of an apostle that have brought me comfort at Christmas ever since.
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About Catherine Pavia

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

6 thoughts on “Sabbath Revival: Christmas Pain, Christmas Joy”

  1. I read this Sunday morning. It made an impact on me and I looked up the book to see if I could get a copy. I thought about it all day, thinking about how hard it would be to have one of my family in the hospital during the Christmas season.

    Monday morning I was in the emergency room with my daughter. Monday night we found out she has had a stroke.

    We are now in the PICU and I don't know how long we will be here.

    This post was for me.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful story. I lost my brother on Dec. 21, 1996 from an ATV accident. My mom was also shot and killed in an attempted car-jacking Dec. 15, 2002. Every Christmas since has been hard. Some more than others. I have never thought about these Christmastime tradegies in the way Elder Holland explained. Thank you for helping me feel more joyful this season.

  3. Karen, I just said a prayer for you and your daughter.

    DaLawna, I'm so sorry for your losses.

    I wish for peace for both of you this season.

  4. Karen, when I read your comment this morning I said a prayer too. And DaLawna, love to you as well.

    Catherine, thanks for posting this again. It's good for me to be reminded of Elder Holland's words: "Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain and privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us."


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