As the weather is getting colder, we enter into that period known as “the holidays”: that mix of secular and religious feasts of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Theophany. And in the midst of the hectic fervor of Christmas preparations, we stop for a moment and give thanks. Thanksgiving – that secular Pascha of Autumn – is a chance for everyone to be together once again, gathered around a spread of delicious food.
But for many people, the holidays can be a challenge. They are a reminder of what has changed and those we have lost. We remember the good old days and how things have changed, we remember our losses, we remember our differences with family members, and we remember our resentments. And then comes the predictable question from our family of why we’re still single or when we’re getting married.
And just as we start thinking we’re so different from our family, during the holidays we realize we’re slowly…becoming…our parents.
So how do we give thanks during the holidays when we just want to escape them?
One of the hardest things for many of us during the holidays is to walk in love. We have so much on our minds, so many things to do, so many places to go to see this or that family member, that we can easily get frustrated and short-tempered.
But we have another model to follow. "Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” St. Paul writes, “and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:1-2). The way we live out the Holidays should be modeled by Christ’s own sacrificial love. So how do we walk in love during the Holidays?
Well for starters, St. Paul doesn’t say to walk in fear or to walk in resentments. We are to walk in love. So the first thing we need to do is leave behind our fears and our resentments, to leave behind our family feuds and our political differences. We need to walk in love, and love requires sacrifice.
What can each of us offer to our family and friends? We can offer them grace and patience, we can offer them our serenity and our listening ears. This can be our offering, our fragrant offering, this holiday season. And we might even find that it’s easier to be thankful when we walk in love.
Time is one of those things we tend to wish away, and then wish we could get back. We take for granted the time we have with those we love. We think we’ll be able to make those amends later, we’ll be able to listen to them later. But if we are to walk in love, we need to “look carefully then how [we] walk,” says St. Paul, "not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time" (Ephesians 5:15-16).
When we make the best use of the time, we will be aware of all that we have to be thankful for. When we are wishing the time away, we might try to escape our present situation by going to our phones to text, tweet, snap, or scroll through Instagram. Our instinct to escape our uncomfortable situation keeps us from connecting, it disconnects us from those around us, and it is certainly not making the most of our limited time with our loved ones. We need to be present with our family and friends during the holidays, not trying to will the time away.
Something we can all do is to take a break from our phones when we are together with family. We can practice being more fully present by joining in conversation with family members, by engaging with those people we haven’t spoken with in a while, or to get to know our family better than with surface level conversation.
Do you have old-timers left in your family? Ask them family stories, ask about your family history. Usually, people don’t think anyone would be interested in these stories, so they don’t share them. But these are the stories we will never know if we don’t ask. And plus, storytelling is a way to grow closer to and to connect with family.
Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to be patient with strangers, or with your boss, than it is to be patient and loving to your family members? We are able to discern what is the right action with those we know we have to be nice to, but we struggle with our family, especially during the holidays when tension seems to run high. What we need in these moments is to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).
Discernment involves being able to sort through all of the noise we encounter, and find some sense of order or music in it all. Discernment is being able to find the good when we want to focus on the bad. St. Paul tells us that “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5: 8-9). So instead of being a source of darkness (being argumentative, or worse, non-communicative) we could try to be a source of light, to try to be pleasing to the Lord in all of our interactions with family during the holidays.
In discussing giving thanks, St. Paul frames it in contradistinction to a lack of sobriety. Instead of giving into the temptations of impurity, covetousness, foolish talk, crude joking, and drunkenness, we are to give “thanks always and for everything” (Ephesians 5: 4, 20). Being thankful and discerning what is pleasing to God are the sober actions that we choose to take during the holidays. And being with family during the holidays is the soil where we grow in our faith, perhaps the place our faith is tested the most.
The holidays are as full of feasts as they are of opportunities to test and grow in our faith. When we are so wrapped up in the stresses that these occasions bring us, we can look past the little blessings, we can miss the beauty of life as we focus on its imperfections.
But as we prepare for our family get-togethers, we can prepare by remembering to walk in love. We can be aware of each moment so that we can make the most of our time. And we can approach our time with family in sobriety and thankfulness, with a discerning mind and by doing what is pleasing to God.
How are you going to walk in love during the holidays? Do you struggle with being present with family; do you find yourself escaping into your phone? How can you show your thanks to your family and make the most of this time?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Photo Credit: depositphotos