Why is it that at the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” amid preparations for the arrival of Christmas and within the onslaught of Christmas movies, a common reaction to the coming holiday is loneliness?
Maybe it’s the heightened expectations, the rampant materialism, the attempt to make the “perfect” Christmas with the perfect decorations. Maybe it’s missing the people and events that used to define Christmases of long ago. Regardless of the reason, the lead-up to Christmas day can be a period of alienation that ends with a holiday that can’t live up to our expectations of “perfection”.
What is the answer? It isn’t to lower expectations. After all, the most unexpected and glorious gift was given to us on that first Christmas. It isn’t to try harder. Struggling against loneliness tends to accentuate it once we are alone. It isn’t to surround ourselves with unbelievably cheerful people. Personally, the happier others are when I’m lonely, the more homicidal instincts come to the fore (maybe that’s just me…). The answer is that misery loves company.
This saying is often quoted and just as often misunderstood. Usually people use the phrase to mean that an unhappy person wants everyone to be as unhappy as he is, but that’s just a selfish reduction of the phrase. We can understand the saying in a way more consonant with the real character of loneliness. Loneliness is only helped when we know that someone else has suffered or is suffering as we are suffering. We are helped when that person is with us.
The message of Advent is Emmanuel–God is with us. Jesus is the one who is with us in our suffering, in our loneliness. He understands the feeling of being all alone when surrounded by friends. Look at the Agony in the Garden: at the moment when Jesus most wanted to be comforted by friends, they were asleep. When he most wanted them to ask him questions (even if they were ignorant), they were silent or snoring.
Why was Christ left alone at the moments of his greatest suffering? He was, in effect, alone in the Garden. He was alone when he was being judged by Pontius Pilate. No human could share his loneliness at the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). Christ took up all our suffering at the Passion: physical, mental, emotional. Christ’s desolation demonstrates His love for us. Through His loneliness, Jesus teaches us how to come closer to Himself. Through His suffering, He takes away our suffering.
The loneliness of suffering is not only how Christ came closer to us, but also it is one of the ways whereby we draw closer to Him. Christ tells us to take up our cross and follow Him, not to build character (though it does do this as well), but in order to be with Him. It is in the loneliness of our personal crosses that we find Him who will take away our tears. It is in our alienation that we learn to draw away from all else that would distract us from the One who is necessary. We draw near to Him who shares our misery. We draw near to Him who takes away our fears. We draw near to Him who comes to us this Christmas with the words we most long to hear:
“I love you.”
Image: French School, Scenes from Christ’s Life