There is something special about this time of year. The unique traditions, decorations, and gatherings associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas are, at least for myself, always looked forward to.
Yet, family gatherings can come with mixed emotions and situations for at least some of us (if not more). A family noticing one more empty seat at the table. Family members who won’t speak to one another. The awkward silence and abated looks when religion or politics are brought up. It is then when the reality of human weakness becomes apparent, and nostalgia fades away.
What may we be tempted to do? For some, we ignore the conversation or issues. We attempt to bury them deep as if no one notices them. This may work for a time, but eventually the issues will resurface. For others, we attempt to tackle the issues head on and can, in our eagerness, end up creating more hurt or alienation.
As one priest pointed out to me in Confession, it can be easy to hurt our families because they are the ones closest to us.
Yet, our proximity to individuals also allows for the opposite. Since our families are closest to us, it presents ready opportunities for compassion and mercy, healing and support.
If you’re like me, holidays can be a mixed bag. They’re great, until they’re not. The conversation is wonderful, until it isn’t. And at times, yes, I am to blame.
But I wanted to present to you the premise that if we can approach the awkward moments and topics intentionally, we don’t need to fall into the “either/or” of ignoring them or hurting others through them. There is another way and the Gospels aid us in knowing what to do.
So what do we do?
The first thing I would sincerely recommend, especially if you know you may be walking into a tense situation during the upcoming holidays, is this: pray and go to Mass.
We have to acknowledge that if we want others to be transformed, we must be willing to be transformed ourselves. My wife and I have made it a simple tradition to go to Mass Thanksgiving morning as a family. Does it alter when we can start cooking that day? Yes. But ultimately, what’s more important? Start the day right and ask the Lord for His grace. It is important to note that throughout the Gospels, Jesus goes off to pray to God the Father by Himself on a regular basis.
If there is someone you are not looking forward to seeing, then pray for them by name each day ahead of time. Fast for them. Perhaps, even reach out to them ahead of time, with no agenda, just to reconnect. In Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus advise His followers to make peace with one’s brother before making an offering at the altar (5:23-24). For this reason, we have the sign of peace at Mass before Communion. There is wisdom in continuing this practice outside of Mass.
But let’s say that you did not have the opportunity to do this. Let’s say that the day has come and the inevitable, undesired interaction has occurred. You find yourself in the midst of “that” conversation, with “that” person. What do you do?
My suggestion is to become familiar with John 4, where Jesus meets and speaks with the Samaritan Woman at the well. It is, in my opinion, a masterclass on how to engage in difficult discussions. I invite you to pray with this Gospel chapter yourself, but would like to make some observations on Jesus’ actions.
First, while knowing the impending situation, Jesus is open to it.
Jesus is traversing through Samaria; an unnecessary, yet intentional, detour on Jesus’ part. He does not shy away from a people (the Samaritans) who are at odds with the Jewish people. In doing so, He encounters the unnamed woman at the well and breaks open the conversation with a simple request: that she give Him some water.
Her response is essentially: why are you talking to me? Yikes. She knows the situation. She knows that she is a Samaritan woman, and Jesus is a Jewish man. Yet, Jesus broke this convention for He came to seek and save the lost. And so, He does not shy away from a potentially awkward situation.
Second, Jesus invites the woman to share her story.
He knows that there are issues going on in her life. After all, she is getting water from the well at noon, when the ordinary time to do so was early in the morning. Why? So she could avoid her town folk, for whom she is the topic of gossip due to her checkered past. While He already knows the situation, He still asks her questions and allows her to speak for herself. He first listens to her and what she has to say. It is through this conversation that the woman begins to encounter Jesus not as “other” but as someone who wants to truly know her.
Often times, our disagreements and divisions cause us to want to see individuals as “other.” There must be an “us” and “them” to justify our displeasure. Yet, Jesus gets rid of this divide and enters more deeply into coming to know the heart of this woman and her story. Remember: while the proximity of family can cause great hurt, this proximity allows for great compassion and healing. Thus, embrace the proximity and enter more deeply into it.
Third, Jesus speaks truth into the woman’s situation.
After hearing the woman’s story, Jesus speaks the truth that she needs to hear. And, yes, He does point out details she’d rather not acknowledge. This involves sharing with her that her longing for love remains unsatiated because (pardon the cliché) she has looked for love in all the wrong places. Ultimately, what she longs for is not in the string of marriages she entered into, but in God alone. How does she respond? In awe and acceptance of what Jesus says.
Why? Well, she is first astounded by the fact that Jesus knows the details of her life. But, I would argue, she accepts what Jesus says because He first “tilled” the soil through the lead up in the conversation. In other words, Jesus didn’t rush in, tell her what she did wrong, judge her for it, and in so doing leave the situation worst than He found it.
Rather, He fostered a genuine encounter by being open to speaking with her, listening to her story, and then, and only then, speaking about the matter at hand intentionally and without malice.
What was the end result? She left their conversation elated and went out to the same town folk she previously avoided to share the Good News of this encounter.
Now, am I saying this will exactly happen for our own situations? No. I am also not saying that the Thanksgiving dinner table is the appropriate time to point out someone’s wrong doing and make it the end all-be all conversation to try to fix a larger problem. But, I am saying that if we can approach — rather than avoid — difficult situations, topics, and conversations through prayer, listening, and intentionality in what we say, we have a much better chance of binding wounds, building relationships, or even just taking an initial step towards either of these. Let the proximity of upcoming family gatherings, by God’s grace and assistance, be an opportunity for compassion, healing, and living the Gospel message.
Anchor columnist David Carvalho is the senior director for Faith Formation, Youth, Young Adult and Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Fall River. Contact: email@example.com.