I have recently adapted with my kids “the 20-second hug,” something I heard about in an article by Thich Nhat Hanh. Instead of a flimsy hug where you barely connect and just pat a person’s shoulders and move on to your next thing, this hug requires you to stay still in another person’s arms for a while. 20 whole seconds. Once someone knows they’re in the hug for 20 seconds, once you establish that expectation, everyone gets comfortable and actually experiences the experience. It becomes a true hug rather than a formality. You feel a person’s energy; they feel yours; the hug is actually the healing modality it was always meant to be. You realize why hugs exist, why touch exists, why we have a human body. We are not meant to live in isolation, alone, without hands on us.
My kids have succumbed to the practice now. They recognize the 20-second hug works, as long as they don’t have to do it in front of their friends. Except for my 5-year-old, who doesn’t stop talking about unicorns long enough to let anyone hold her. She refuses to be pinned down. But eventually, thank God, she sleeps, or she watches television, and I can put my arms around her then.
The point of my telling you this, as we approach Christmas, is to remind you that Christianity is and was supposed to be a religion doused in warmth and affection. A really heart-centered religion. Now, the centuries-old Renaissance paintings of Mary and Jesus don’t really show this, because Mary looks really uptight and bored in all of them, but if you close your eyes and picture the scene instead, this ancient story is rooted in a mother’s love, a mother’s risk, a mother’s strength. It is about finding warmth in the cold, and about how that warmth finds you, too.
A lot of the gospels have erased this part, because these dudes got so serious when they were writing stuff down, and because scripture became all about power and convincing. It’s hard to find the warmth that pervaded Jesus’s teachings, because he seems so intense all the time. The laughing part, the shooting the shit conversations over dinner, all got left out. Him rolling his eyes at people got left out, too, because this guy was human and had real human emotions and no doubt got fed up from time to time and offered up a Hail Mary when a dude said something stupid on a walk through the desert, when everyone’s feet were full of blisters.
It’s also hard to find the warmth in all the stained glass images in churches where no one—I mean no one!—is smiling. It’s hard to find warmth in the images of a naked guy with his arms splayed, bleeding from the rib and his face so sad. I guess these images work for some people, but not for me. Luckily, I have a good imagination, and I know enough about what it means to be human, that I can intimate and fill in the pieces of what’s lacking in what we’ve been taught, or read between the lines of what was put down in an imperfectly scribed book. I can collect and gather and realize what’s really what.
Jesus was a lover, pure and simple. I’m not calling him SexyJesus today, though he certainly was. What Jesus did, over and over again, and never seemed to tire!, was touch people and look in their eyes and heal them. He kissed his friends, before America was created and people got all scared about appearing masculine enough, or so worried about social order. (Except the French. God, I love the French! Bisous, everywhere, all day! And my friend Nora, who is British—British!—and kisses and hugs tightly and says I love you at the end of every interaction.) Jesus welcomed women to sit at his knees and lean against him. He let his hair be washed in myrrh. He washed his friends’ feet and shins with diligence and care.
Uh, this guy. So friggin’ awesome. And then this weird church got created after him which was all about celibacy and rigidity and no touching anyone except for the guys who touch in the dark of rooms in really horrible, inappropriate ways, using the name of God to do things God would never, ever do.
What Jesus meant to people, and what he did, despite institutions and leadership that have abused his reputation, was bring fire to the cold. A warm, burning fire for people to turn to and sit with. He was the epitome of solace and rest. A light in the dark is not just conceptual, not just a pretty idea. So if that metaphor is tired for you, reframe his meaning as warmth in the cold night. Your own personal fireplace. The burning flame that never goes out, no matter how many times cold winds try to break it down. The fire of never giving up the fight for goodness and love, and that love often expressed in the simplest, truest gesture of holding someone’s hand, or putting your arms around them and breathing and staying like that for a while.
Hugs are medicine. They bring you out of your head and into your body, and despite what we’ve been taught, your body is a really good place to be. It’s your home, it’s where you are meant to live every part of your existence. I ask for hugs when I need them, and I have no interest in spending any elongated time with someone who thinks that’s weird. I will also give one to anyone who asks. (It can get sticky if people don’t ask though, just sayin’, so be careful about that part, just an aside, okay.)
My wish for you (and me!) this Christmas and New Year is weeks full of 20-second—or longer! much, much longer!—hugs. My wish for you is the courage to ask when you need that warm fire of another person to cuddle with to bring you out of your head and into your body, back to solid ground. This time of year is not always easy for people. There is a lot of expectation and a lot of wishes and a lot of people terribly sad as they embark on a long, cold winter, or remember the winters and Christmases where bad things happened. It is a time of year of fear and hassle, or people going without what it is they need in a culture that has lost its center and what matters most and instead thinks toys and devices are the key to making dreams come true.
The way to combat all that is through love. True and heartfelt love. Cheek to cheek, hand to hand, chest to chest through your ugly snowman sweater or sweatshirt. Hugs.
Lots and lots of them.
In Jesus’s name, Amen.
(Did you know name and amen are anagrams?)
Here’s a pretty song.