Happy to be here: Empty chairs

Published 6:43 pm Saturday, December 2, 2023

According to many different calendars, we’re deep into the season of holidays. Depending on your outlook, the festivities may have started with Halloween or with Thanksgiving. Still to come are Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve and Day, and several additional celebrations connected to other faith families and cultural traditions.

For many people, holiday observations include joyful gatherings around a table where traditional meals and activities are shared with family members and friends. Merriment often prevails as folks reconnect and catch up with events in each other’s lives. If this describes your house at this time of year, embrace the love and delight in the magic.

At the same time, keep a tender heart, remembering that others may be struggling. Joy can be mingled with sadness and happiness overcome by sorrow if some of the chairs around that table are empty.

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All of us have holiday tables with chairs that are no longer occupied by forebears. When years have passed, their loss may be less keenly felt, but the heartache can be especially acute in the early years after a loved one has passed on. It can grow as the list of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, friends, and others leave us behind. This universal affliction affects every single family. It can seem a trite cliché, but remember to cherish others while you can. We are all just passing through this life, and someday each of us will be gone.

Then, there are empty chairs because those who would sit in them have to work. Nurses, doctors, police officers, and other first responders may come immediately to mind, but deployed members of the military and the thousands who work in vital infrastructure jobs where someone has to remain at the control switch won’t be home either. There are also many who have service jobs where working holidays is required so that everyone else can enjoy the fun. For myself, I have children who work in the transportation and hospitality industries. They do not get holidays off.

Some holiday chairs remain empty for other reasons. Many people can’t afford to travel to the places where dinner will be served. Some families are divided, split asunder by divorce. And, as some families grow, holidays incorporate different sets of in-laws, so not everyone is able to gather every year at the same place. Some seats remain empty due to illnesses when people are in hospitals, long-term care facilities, or confined to their own homes. 

Some spots around the table remain vacant because would-be occupants are incarcerated. Some empty chairs are those that remain vacant because of estrangement. Abuse, addiction disorders, and mental health disturbances sometimes end relationships in ways that just can’t be reconciled.

In recent years, it seems that some seats around the holiday table have become unoccupied because of political angst. Anecdotes illustrate a trend of treating differences of opinion as unforgivable lapses in moral judgment. This seems especially odd in light of recent polling where statistics indicate that only telemarketers hold a lower trust rating than members of Congress. Nevertheless, some families across the country seem to find themselves divided as individuals align themselves with politicians rather than their family unit.

The theme of gathering around tables presents itself in many Gospel stories. One famous account tells of a wedding feast where Jesus turned water into wine. Other stories tell of gathering around tables in the homes of Pharisees, tax collectors, sinners, and friends. In one story, a woman anoints Jesus with perfume as he is reclining at a table. And, prior to being betrayed, Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples in an event that is remembered and reenacted in churches even today.

As the current holiday season reaches its crescendo, I hope your family can embrace the blessings Jesus promised to peacemakers. I hope you find delight in all your tablemates. When the day comes that you or some of your loved ones are absent, I hope your memories provide you with comfort, and I hope you are spared the sorrow of regret. Perhaps by practicing in our own families, we’ll all be better prepared to spread the message of Peace on Earth.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.