The haunting chant of "O Come, O Come, Immanuel" is heard once again as much of the world prepares for Christmas. "Immanuel," one of the many names for Jesus, means "God with us." "Immanuel" does not mean "God rescuing us," or "God over us," or "God out there somewhere," but "God with us." As I face my fourteenth Christmas with AIDS, I take great comfort in this re-news: God is with us!
That news is particularly needed when we're feeling lonely, which can happen all too easily when we're living with HIV or AIDS, particularly at holiday time. We all have expectations that we should be surrounded by loved ones, sharing in the warmth and glow of loving gift exchanges and Christmas caroling. We hope that somehow all that holiday cheer will rescue us from the pain and terror we may be going through facing HIV or AIDS. Some of us suffer the reality of being alone on Christmas. Some of us may be surrounded by folks, but still feel particularly alone.
I remember that when they told me I had AIDS, two kinds of cancer, and eight months to live, I felt a cosmic sense of loneliness. I had never felt so abandoned. Yes, there were people there with me, holding me, comforting me. But I realized in the depths of my heart that no one else could go through this for me: the most loving, caring person in the world could not have my bone marrow biopsies, or my spinal taps, or my chemotherapy. The most compassionate person in my life could not do the dying for me.
Just as I was feeling most sorry for myself, someone reminded me that the most compassionate, loving person in my life already did the dying for me. Jesus faced death at an early age, abandoned by many of his friends and family, and he died for all of us. And that wasn't the end of the story, of course. God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus is alive with us today. Immanuel: "God With Us." Still.
The message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is about God being with us. God, through Jesus, knows exactly what it's like to face the agonies and tragedies of life. The gospel is about God's presence with us as our quality of life, even life itself, is at stake. HIV/AIDS can hand out some pretty tough challenges! But believing in Immanuel means believing God is with us in handling these challenges.
Even though I am a member of the clergy, Christmas can still be a rough time of year, a time when I feel loneliness more acutely than any other time. As a single gay man, I usually spend Christmas with loving relatives or friends. But as I watch gift exchanges between the couples, there's always a sad yearning in me saying, "Next year, I'll have a lover to share this with." And next year arrives, and I'm still alone.
At times like this, I practice what I learned when I was feeling lonely during the worst of my illness, a decade ago: I start to pray with every breath. I pray to feel God's presence with me. I pray to trust in God's love for me. I pray to feel that God is with me. And it works. I am reminded of all the ways God has been with me in the past, how I have survived all kinds of challenges I didn't think I could handle alone. Somehow, there were always people there when I needed them most. Sometimes I had to work pretty hard at finding them, but I learned, through this process, that God is always with us.
Sometimes we have to really focus on feeling God's presence. Sometimes we have to look for it. So if you're feeling lonely this holiday season, actively look for evidence of God being with you! Each and every day. Sometimes each and every moment. Particularly at the times you feel most alone. Repeat the prayer, "God, let me feel your loving presence" over and over with each breath, open your heart, and feel the love of God enfold you.
Many nights when I laid awake with fevers and night sweats, with anxiety and fear, or loneliness and despair, I calmed myself by reminding myself of the old hymn, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." When I was so sick I could hardly stand being in my body anymore, I would literally picture Jesus there in my bed loving me, holding me, comforting me, healing me. And that always got me through the night. Thinking of Jesus as my lover is a powerful image for me as a single gay man living with AIDS. God is so diverse, you can visualize God's presence with you in whatever form is most powerful and comforting for you.
So this holiday season, if you are feeling alone, abandoned, or bitter about being single, first of all remember that you are not alone. Immanuel is born. God is with us. Secondly, remember that you are not the only one feeling alone at Christmas! Seek out others who may be feeling lonelier than you. Maybe that's where you will find God's presence most profoundly.
Look for evidence of God being with you! God is with us: God is there as we take our chemotherapy, God is with us as we have spinal taps, God is with us as we fight bureaucracies, God is even with us as we face death. When our hearts are open to feeling God with us, it can transform even the worst experiences.
"O Come, O Come, Immanuel:" Be with us, God. Help us to feel your love in every challenge of our lives. Help us to feel you in our hearts, and in our bodies, giving us comfort, courage, and new life even as we live with HIV or AIDS.