Every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas, the flights into Juneau are full of people returning home to celebrate these holidays with their families. It’s a long trip for so many of those returning home to Alaska. Some, such as students coming home from colleges and universities in the Midwest, the South and on the East Coast, have traveled two or three time zones. Others, such as our young men and women serving in the armed forces have crossed the international dateline as they have made their long journey from where they have been deployed overseas.
It’s a tough time of year to travel. The airports are noisy and crowded, there are bags to check, connections to make and there are the inevitable delays and even cancellations. And flying into Alaska in the wintertime (and into Juneau) is never a sure thing as the weather can make arrival times capricious and unpredictable.
Coming home begins in either an airport or ferry station, where weary travelers see the familiar faces of friends, neighbors and classmates. It is only in Juneau that families and friends are reunited at last.
But to finally be home, and home for the holidays, makes the hours (and sometimes days) of travel worthwhile. Why is it so important for us to try and make it home for Thanksgiving and Christmas? To start with, I think during these times, we acknowledge with gratitude our family members and close friends. Despite the pressures to buy and spend during this season, what I think speaks most deeply to us is the opportunity to gather together. We desire above all to simply be with each other: whether that is around the family table, at worship, enjoying the beauty of nature or simply visiting. And despite cell phones and Skype, there is no substitute for being personally present to each other.
Similarly, being home is essential. Home is that place where we are welcome and where we belong. Even if only for a few days or weeks, our time at home refreshes and renews us.
Being home for the holidays is an important time to appreciate each other. While we live as if we have all of the time in the world with those we love, we know that this is not the case and every moment we spend together is a gift from God — a gift we should cherish.
Being home for the holidays is a chance to renew our family relationships and our friendships, especially if there has been a long absence or separation. It is an opportunity to get to know each other again or better. Renewing the bonds of love with our families and with our friends might feel awkward and uncomfortable or even require forgiveness or being forgiven but it is worth it. Jesus speaks of the father who ran with joy to his prodigal son as he returns home — the warm embrace he gave his son was just the beginning of the celebration (Luke 15).
In a similar way this season is also a chance to come home to your church, synagogue or faith community after a lengthy or not so lengthy absence.
This is also a time to remember those who are not able to come home for the holidays. I am thinking of our service members deployed overseas and their family members who miss them so much. Of workers whose jobs take them far from home during these days. I think too of all of those who serve us working in our hospitals, nursing homes and prisons or in police, fire and emergency services who are away from their families on Thanksgiving or Christmas.
And then there are those in our community who will not be home for the holidays because they are sick in the hospital, or incarcerated in the prison or living homeless on the street. No-one wants to be separated from their families or be alone during the holidays, that is why we should take extra steps to help those who are separated from family and friends. I truly believe we have a duty to them (Matthew 25:44).
From my perspective, a most painful scenario is when some have the desire or inclination to run away from home. In too many instances, the home can be a place of abuse or domestic violence when it should be a place of security and comfort. This is why I am grateful and edified by the generosity of members in this community who work with families in order to make the home a place of peace. The many agencies that work with drug and alcohol addictions; the state government’s initiative on domestic violence and sexual abuse; the people who work with family support programs as well as various mental health providers are all part of a community that seeks to make the home a better place.
As we contemplate being home for the holidays, let us continue to support ways of making it a little easier for others to do so.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.