I recently heard on the news that approximately 115 million people in the United States will travel 50 miles or more this holiday season. In other words, over one-third of the population dedicates significant time, energy, and resources to be with friends and family. It wasn’t that long ago when the pandemic kept us home not only during the holidays but also in the midst of births and deaths and everything in between. We found ways to be with one another but, more frequently than not, we grieved the loss of physical presence in significant moments and life transitions.
My daughter Eleanor and I are currently in Florida visiting family. We are with them—baking cookies, wrapping presents, relaxing in the hot tub, and playing board games (which, to be honest, is a bit less “with you” and a bit more “against you!”). In a place laden with holiday memories, I’m sleeping more. Eleanor is laughing more. And we are all eating more. Together.
The little word “with” suggests so much. Like all prepositions, it describes the relationship between two nouns. It tells us how people, places, and things are connected. It suggests that we fundamentally belong to one another and near one another. It reminds us that we exist in solidarity in all of life’s ups and downs.
The preposition “with” shows up throughout the Christmas story and in our favorite seasonal hymns. Think about “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” A Hebrew name from the prophet Isaiah, it has been ascribed to Jesus who is God-with-us. Through Jesus, God is present with us in any and all circumstances; with us in the context of loss, grief, and trauma; with us in the midst of anxiety and dread; with us when social and political powers threaten our existence; with us in the midst of surprising delight and great joy; with us in and through death. This last one is the ultimate “with.”
“With” suggests an unbreakable bond, the securest of attachments. “Us” suggests a wide inclusivity—so expansive that it is likely to offend each of us in some way. None are excluded, even the ones who would exclude us. God is with ALL of us, ALL of creation. God is the pulse of life coursing through the cosmos. From the tiniest subatomic particle to the farthest expanse of universe, God is there with all. As theologian John Wesley wrote, God is “the all-informing soul, that fills, pervades and actuates the whole.”
If God is with us and not without us, then we are with and not without each other. If we are attached to God, then we are, by very definition, attached to each other. We belong to one another in love, though we frequently forget this truth and act contrary to it. Thus, our solidarity with each other must include confession, forgiveness, change, and repair.
Many of us travel long and far to practice this “with-ness” during the holidays. Others stay put geographically and enact rituals that enable us to be with one another in meaningful ways. Some, of course, go through this holiday season feeling the piercing loss of others’ physical presence. We feel the “without” as much or even more as the “with.” Whether the result of death, sickness, conflict, or prejudice, the pain of absence looms large. God’s promise to be “with us” rings out loudly again and again until we all hear and receive its fullness. Whatever your situation this Christmas season, the Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center staff and I celebrate your connection with us. We hope and pray that you are nourished by your togetherness with God, with friends and family, and with all creation.
Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center has been welcoming groups, families, and individuals to experience much-needed rest and renewal for over 47 years. As a non-profit organization with a long history of contributing to the wellbeing of a diverse array of people (over 7000 annually), we depend on the contributions of our volunteers and donors and the hard work and dedication of our staff. Every gift, no matter the size, makes a difference and helps us further our mission. Please consider making an end-of-the-year gift so that we can continue welcoming guests to experience rest, renewal, and wellbeing. Simply click this link. Thank you!