For the past few months, I have been attending Mass at a small Jesuit parish in East Los Angeles, a humble but mighty Catholic community that is strongly social justice and stewardship focused. During an Advent Mass, members of their homeless community were invited to share their story during the homily. I was moved to tears by one particular man, who had described his experience of homelessness as an opportunity for self-reflection. It was a moment where he gazed past the supposed nothingness and instead saw abundance. Through sobbing, he expressed feeling “broken with joy” at the love and support he had received from the parish community and Christ.

Those who know me will know that the Christmas season is typically my favorite time of the year. Those who are close to me will know that last year's holiday season has been one of the most difficult ones yet. “Broken with joy” is a phrase that resonated with me deeply during Advent, as there has never been a time in my life where I have felt more defeated and yet more loved.

I awoke at 2:30 AM this past Christmas Eve overcome in my brokenness, tearfully shivering in my bed at the gravity of my spiritual homelessness. At a time when so many Christians have been preparing their hearts for their Savior’s arrival, I instead found myself praying to Him in the witching hours of the evening, begging for strength to make it through the next few days. Through further reflection, I realized, that that very prayer must have been the one that Mary had prayed as she prepared to bring Jesus into the world. Like Mary and Joseph, I have been wandering looking for a haven in my own heart where I feel safe and settled. Perhaps my heart was being prepared after all.

Often we see “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to be this occasion of strict joy and celebration when I truly believe that “joyful anticipation” was the farthest thing from Mary and Joseph’s mind in the process of bringing Jesus into the world. Somehow, Advent has become that season of “happily waiting.” In actuality, I have witnessed so much anxiety, fear, and even resentment in many of us who have been waiting: A wife who awaits to be blessed with a pregnancy after a miscarriage,  a graduate student who awaits the results of a recent comprehensive exam,  and a single woman who awaits the promise of a future husband. As I recall all of us going through each of those experiences, I can verify that “joyful anticipation” is not one of the feelings that we shared. 

What I have noticed is that the payoff is great, for those who no longer have to wait and for whom that time has finally arrived. That blessing has not yet been placed in my life, but as Christmas signifies hope above all else, I am beginning to see that the greater blessing is the fortitude to push forward with unwavering love and trust. 

This past Christmas, I felt this vast emptiness, not an indication of hopelessness, but the sign of a heart ready to be filled. For as with the man at Mass, I know that in this nothingness, I will truly have gained everything. 

Paula Votendahl