In Christmas and Advent music, both secular and spiritual, there is a theme of homesickness and longing.
“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.”
“Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays.”
“Oh come, oh come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”
“the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
“I’m dreaming of white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.”
Even the gospel stories of the Holy Family must carry some degree of homesickness. I wonder if Joseph was homesick for his hometown of Bethlehem before being called back for the census. Mary almost certainly missed home and familiar faces as she found herself surrounded by her new in-laws in a city ten days journey from home as she prepared to give birth.
This Holiday Season, I find myself homesick. Not in the usual sense. I’m spending time with my family and friends. I am homesick, not for my family, or my childhood home. I am homesick for justice, I am longing for hope.
Maybe you feel the same. News about children and expecting mothers losing health care through the CHIP program, unresolved issues around DACA and the dreamers who have been temporarily protected, surging homelessness, disappearing environmental protections, stories of friends and family being subjected explicit racism, homophobia and sexual assault. I’m longing for a better world.
That’s, I think, what Advent and Christmas are about. The longing for God to break into our world. To give us hope and to set things right. And yet. I know that while Advent will be over on Monday, and we’ll celebrate Jesus’ birth, our world will not be right, I’ll continue to feel the homesickness of Advent even after I put my tree away.
So how do we live with that homesickness? How do we keep the ache of “this is not how the world is supposed to be” from leaving us in bed captive to depression and despair? How do we live meaningful lives while we are so far from “home?”
Give Yourself Time to Feel Your Feelings
I asked friends what they do with Christmas homesickness. One mentioned that she is too busy during Christmas to slow down and miss her mom, but she knows that she’ll take some time to grieve over the New Year’s Holiday.
We know that numbing our feelings is only helpful temporarily.
Are you angry about injustice? Are you scared for your loved ones? Are you sad about the lack of compassion in the world? Feel that. Name that. Create some art around that. Pray through that. When, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” is played or sung, think about the hopes and fears that you are carrying this Christmas.
One of the most dramatic and emotional “homesick,” poems I know comes from the time of the Babylonian exile. The people of Jerusalem had been captured, brought to Babylon, away from home, away from their center of worship, away from familiar smells, sights and sounds, to a strange land. And the Psalmist expressed the deep pain of this exile, this homesickness wrapped up in injustice.
Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
4 But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
5 Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.
7 Lord, remember what the Edomites did
on Jerusalem’s dark day:
“Rip it down, rip it down!
All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
8 Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
a blessing on the one who pays you back
the very deed you did to us!
9 A blessing on the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock!
Noticing and responding to our emotions around this homesickness for justice is important, but for the exiles missing Jerusalem, their task was to attend to those emotions while moving forward. Lots of my friends who experience homesickness at the holidays say that intentionally connecting with their chosen family in a new place is essential. Yes, weep for Zion, but also seek the well-being of Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah says.
4 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
There are injustices and threats to well being all around the globe today, and we can take time to sit by the river and weep, but we also need to stand back up again and plant gardens, celebrate relationships, and be people who even in hard-times continue to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Injustice is relentless. But as people marked by hope, we continue to do justice. Rent is going up and more families are ending up with out homes, so we march, we build, we invite people in, we advocate, we network, we find ways to get families housed. Our immigration policy is increasingly rooted in fear rather than compassion, so we make phone calls, right letters and support immigration advocacy organizations and refugee resettlement programs. Many urban and rural communities face enormous health disparities, so we plant gardens, set up cooperatives, advocate for health care equity and work for more livable communities.
It can be incredibly difficult to celebrate in times of homesickness and injustice. But Jeremiah’s instructions to those in exile include celebration and weddings. For those of us who have deep heart ache this Christmas season because of injustice, joy is one of our most important tools.
“Our hearts ache, but we always have joy, we are poor, but we make many rich, we have nothing, but we own everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:10 paraphrase).
One American friend told me that the key to enjoying her holidays away from her family after moving to first South Africa and now Uganda was to create new traditions. Having a barbeque on the beach with other people far from home became her best Christmas memory. Another friend said that just taking time to enjoy the small pleasures of the season, even witnessing a Pre-School Christmas program, gave her strength to get through the holiday season.
Joy is the thing that gives us strength to keep resisting injustice, hunger, despair, and all forms of evil. Taking time to enjoy and express gratitude for the things in our lives can mean the difference between being able to contact one more senator, or to march in the homeless memorial, or to invite someone new to our table and scrolling through facebook clicking the angry button again and again, or weeping as we watch the news.
So if you, like me, are feeling that homesickness for justice this holiday season, my invitation is three part: 1-feel those feelings; 2-keep doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God; and 3- find your joy.