In a reflection for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Father Henri Nouwen observed, “The mystery of God’s love is not that he takes our pains away, but that he first wants to share them with us.” God is not a God of revenge, “but a God who is moved by our pains and participates in the fullness of human struggle” (“In Joyful Hope: Advent Meditations from the Writings of Henri J.M. Nouwen”). Many people struggling with loss experience an extra layer of pain during the holiday season. Let us apply the balm of Christ’s healing love to soothe their pain.
At the parish level, programs such as GriefShare, Nourish for Caregivers and Befriender ministry are excellent vehicles through which faith communities collectively apply the balm of Christ’s healing love. St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf and Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport both offer GriefShare and Nourish for Caregivers. Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton offers a Befriender program and on Dec. 12 hosted its annual Blue Christmas service. This event encourages people dealing with loss to rediscover the hope born of faith and to see the light of Christ in the darkness.
On a personal level, applying the healing balm of Christ’s love takes form in simple, practical actions. For example, Leon, a Methodist pastor mourning the loss of his wife, Barbara, wrote a “grief letter” to his congregation in which he said, “If you see me crying, hand me a tissue.” It is among the practical suggestions he included in the letter, which he also shared with fellow participants in GriefShare at St. John Vianney.
The group, which Chris Pries and Deb Morse co-facilitate as members of the parish Health Ministry team, shared other practical tips to assist us in responding with sensitivity and compassion toward people struggling with loss during the holidays and beyond. Among the tips:
• Don’t be afraid to say the name of the loved one who has passed away. Leon longs to hear people say his wife Barbara’s name. He wants them to share memories with him about Barbara, who died in 2021. “Please remember her,” he said.
• Don’t be afraid of a grieving person’s emotions. “Men do cry,” Leon said.
• Don’t ask, “What do you need?” or “Call me if you need anything.” Instead, offer to take a specific action, such as running an errand, performing a chore or offering to sit with a loved one who can’t be left alone. Offer to take the hurting person to Mass or a church service.
• Take a dish or a meal to the person or family struggling with loss, but offer to stay and enjoy it with them. Loneliness is a huge struggle for people dealing with loss.
• Take time to listen to the hurting person’s stories, concerns or fears.
• Accept changes in or elimination of some holiday traditions. “Start your own traditions,” Claudia suggests to her fellow GriefShare members.
• Read more tips in the front-page story in this week’s Catholic Messenger.
Each of us experiences a journey through loss from time to time in our lives, a journey we may experience most acutely during Christmas, Easter and other holidays or anniversaries. Leaning into our faith is yet another way to apply the healing balm of Christ’s love. The Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Advent (Matt. 1:18-24), shows us one example.
After learning that Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant before they have lived together, Joseph plans to divorce her quietly to avoid exposing her to shame or the possibility of death. However, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and instructs Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife into his home. The angel reveals an amazing story: through the Holy Spirit, Mary has conceived a child, to be called Jesus, who “will save his people from their sins.” Waking from his dream, Joseph leans into his faith and follows the Lord’s command.
Despite the challenges they faced, Mary and Joseph trusted God and followed God’s plan for their life. Deacon Jeff Schuetzle shares that message in his homily for the Blue Christmas service. The service is a beginning, not an end, for participants. “We want them to know that we are here to hold them up during this difficult time of year,” Deacon Schuetzle says.
As we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of Christ, we must keep in mind that we now are the embodiment of his hands, feet and eyes. We are Christ to one another, applying the balm of his healing love.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor