A time to both celebrate and mourn: It’s who we are
First Corinthians 13 ends with the phrase, “Now abides faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.” But for me, in this season, my greatest need is for hope.
Human beings have two needs, among many others, that arrive in the emotional mail at this time of year. One need is the celebration of life. The other is mourning. They don’t come by Fed ex, or UPS, or the U.S. Postal Service. They don’t come by email or text. They come with the first snowflake and the first card. They come with holiday music. They come when plans are discussed. They come with the first consecutive days below freezing. They come with memories, and scents of food and pine, and candles. Along with all this comes the need to celebrate that we are alive. Along with all this comes the need to mourn and remember and hear and tell stories about those who are not with us.
The consumer culture that stimulates our wants does its best to deflect us from attending to these two needs, to celebrate and to mourn, but our needs always find a way.
I cannot speak for clergy of other faiths, but UU ministers eventually “get” the emotional complexity of this season. Essentially, we wrestle. We wrestle inside ourselves with those two human needs: to celebrate life, and to mourn. We listen and sit with the people we love and serve who are wrestling with the need to celebrate life, and to mourn. We invite people to exercise patience, forbearance, and compassion as we wind our ways through the emotional complexities of this season. If I can survive the welling up of my accumulated losses that arrive unbidden in my psyche in this season, it will be because of my need for hope.
The news of the shootings in Newtown Conn., brought feelings of sadness, grief, anger and confusion. That one newspaper article reminded me of all the people I have known over 35 years of ministry who have lost family members and loved ones, and how difficult the holiday season can be. I would request that you reach out to others in this season, from your compassion and from your own mourning.
Biologists title us, we are homo sapiens, or the wise humans, but perhaps we are more so the homo storialus, the human species who tell stories. In my ministry I hear the stories of how people are wrestling to balance the celebratory nature of the culture, and the urge to mourn the losses of people, customs, family, and things in their lives. When a woman told me that her husband had died a few days before Christmas, I understood how she was wrestling spiritually and emotionally with her children’s need to celebrate the season, and her need to mourn. When another woman told me about how her husband had left their family during the holiday, and left no money for food, let alone presents, I understood her anger at the celebratory cultural consumer excess, while for her December simply brought her to ways to mourn. Her rituals of mourning were not black cloth and ashes, but giving money to a woman’s shelter, and traveling with her children. Mourning is not always isolated sadness. We come together, we light candles, we hear and tell stories, we sometimes build an alter at home with a tree, a menorah, a crèche, each symbol telling us a story of memories and meaning. I mourn my mother in December by making Swedish meatballs. I mourn my father in December by encouraging my younger brother and sister to tell me the stories they remember about him.
The need to celebrate life and the need to mourn are part of our religious make-up. They provide meaning. When people look for meaning, they often turn to religion. There are 100,000 distinctly different recorded religious traditions over the last 150,000 years, and uncounted unrecorded religious traditions. We are continually telling stories about where we have come from, where we are going, and how we should ethically treat each other and our web of life along the way. These are the stories that give our lives meaning. We humans are perpetually in religious motion, looking for new ways to celebrate this life, and to mourn the losses in this life, and to tell impossible stories about how we meet these needs. We hope, we celebrate, we mourn, and we come to hope again in our beautiful cycle of being and story telling.
The Rev. David
Robins is the minister at the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church on Main Street.