A Chaplain’s Perspective Essay X: Christmas Eve 2020

“and they shall call his name Emmanuel” 

(which means God with us). 

Matthew 1:23b

            It is Christmas Eve during this strange and challenging year. My wife, who is a Neonatal Intensive Care nurse, is working. All hospitals seem to be struggling to staff their positions and everyone is trying to fill in the best they can. I go to work Christmas morning. I am sitting in the study with the dogs and a cup of coffee. There is a stunningly beautiful snow falling outside.

It has been a strange year. I have never been around this much death and at the same time there have been times when life has been so vibrant. Working in the emergency department seems to represent an incredible contrast in coping. There seems to be an increase in patients who are victims of assault and violence and at the same time I encounter daily reminders of strength, endurance and self-sacrifice rooted in fellowship, hope and faith.

I decided to research my observation and sadly found evidence of increased violence in my city of Columbus, Ohio. We have tragically broken a record. As of December 24, 2020, there have been 166 homicides in the city. This shatters the previous record of 143 homicides in 2017. As I dug a little further, I discovered that this trend is apparent across the nation. An article in the Christian Science Monitor reported, “This year fifty-one cities of various sizes across the United States saw an average 35% jump in murder from 2019 to 2020.” People seem to be struggling with stress, grief, anger, frustration and loss of control during this pandemic year in different ways.

We are a trauma hospital and a number of these victims of violence have been in our hospital. Working with the family anguish during these moments and times is built upon being a compassionate presence who can keep your head. Things can be very confusing and family emotions raw. A chaplain’s presence seems to be comforting and a source of calm within the chaos and confusion.

Presence, the gift of being with another. Observing the ways people are coping during this unusual year I have witnessed fellowship, hope and faith contrasted with unhealthy behaviors of increased violence and despair.

This pandemic year has given me a new perspective on Emmanuel (God with us) for there are moments when the most raw and intimate connections are rooted in presence. There are times when grief is so over-whelming that there are no words. There are times when strength known in self and others can waver. There can even be moments when hope seems to vanish and only presence remains.

If you have ever been around a baby, you may have experienced the calming impact a touch or holding that baby can produce. Words struggle to convey the simplicity and love shared in those moments. Holding the hand of a person nearing death is indescribable; sadness mixed with peace. These have been some of the hardest and holiest moments of my life.

Emmanuel, God is with us. Anyone who has ever had an experience with the Living God knows it changes everything. For even when fellowship and hope have been exhausted there is the lingering echo that there is something more. There is faith that God’s presence remains. And slowly, over the course of time, if we have the willingness to see, God’s presence is revealed once again. Maybe in the act of another sitting in silence with you, or someone listening to your anger and despair, or holding a hand in prayer.

The advent prayer shared overhead with the hospital has read,

O God, it has been an unusual and challenging year. We are living through social unrest and challenges of a global pandemic not known in our lifetime.   As we continue to journey through this advent season; a season of expectation and hope, we pause to reflect upon the countless moments of sacrifice for the good of one’s neighbor that has been such an important part of this unusual and challenging year. We pause to reflect upon all those who have lost a loved one and pray for your comforting presence and assurance that “we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Be with us today and every day, Oh Emmanuel, and fill us with childlike joy as we wait expectantly for the gift of love born in a manger and the hope for the world that echoes throughout eternity known in the Christ child.

Amen.

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