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I had hoped to write something touching as a post-Christmas post. Instead, I have spend the last several days napping and reading. I hope you have all dodged the many viruses that have graced the rest of us with their presence.
Here is a treat for you all. Hodie! Alleluia! is the anthem we are learning for Epiphany (1/6/2014).
Last week, Lori wrote about the marvelous gift of faith that she received from her family. Her post stirred my own memories but that isn’t surprising. Christmas in our household is a time of memory. On the pie safe, we have the figures from my maternal grandmother’s nativity set; the crèche fell victim to a family of mice.
My maternal grandmother regularly spoke of her faith and her active prayer life. I especially knew when I was in her prayers. She read faith-based novels and got me hooked on Guidepost magazine. Her jewelry included a collection of tie-tack pins including smiley faces, flags, crosses and angels. She went to church weekly until she was well into her 90’s.
On the buffet, nestled amid the lamps and candles, we have my paternal grandmother’s Christmas angels. I don’t remember this grandmother ever speaking to me of her faith and God, but she lived in West Texas and we lived in Eastern Missouri. My time with her was much more limited. I know she was Methodist and I know these angels were important to her, because she made space for them in her home.
Home was a four room adobe with a walk in closet off the back porch. That was the only closet in the house proper although she had another single-room adobe building and a shed. She raised three kids in this limited space and she didn’t keep a cluttered home. If she kept these angels, they were special to her.
Faith comes into our families in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is up-front and blatant. Other times it is quiet and subtle. But that’s what Christmas has been about from the start – both choirs of angels and silent nights existing in the same world.
No matter which direction your family leans (quiet contemplation or riotous praise), may your Holy Day be deeply Blessed by His Love.
I wrote my first poem, at age five, about Christmas — well, specifically, about Santa Claus. It featured scintillating rhymes, for instance pairing “toys” with “good little girls and good little boys.” My audience was unreceptive: My mother was certain I’d memorized it from my sister’s first grade reading book, from which I’d earlier taught myself, pseudo-phonetically, to read, using the names of the letters of the alphabet. I never wrote the poem down; it is lost to history. The literary community continues to not mourn its loss.
My Christmas lists, age 11, age 12, age 13, all featured the same item, in ALL CAPS and underlined three times: paper. Paper to write on, to paint watercolors on, even to roll into the antique (to me) manual typewriter that was stored, temptingly, in my bedroom closet. I remember the thrill of looking at that blank, white page. What would end up on it? Even I didn’t know.
But of all the wonderful presents I ever received — a silk doll from Chinatown, calligraphy pens, “Free to Be, You and Me,” a Japanese sumi painting kit, more books than one child ought, by rights, to own — the greatest gift I ever received was my faith.
This was handed down to me from my mother, from her mother, whom I knew only through stories. From the first of the Bohemian Wattawas to land in America, who built the first Catholic church in their area by hand. I knew from an early age what I’d been gifted. This was a thing that was not taken lightly in my family. Faith had — has always had — a weight and a value. I knew it was dear.
There are those who take faith lightly — or not at all. They don’t understand its importance, its life-shaping power. They will not pass it on to their children because they don’t see the need to. But let me tell you this: Faith is every bit as foundational as a good education, one for which you would squirrel away hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is durable, lasting, more sheltering than a home, more practical than a computer. It is the gift of great price, lustrous, comforting and lovely. You can live in it. You can eat from it. It will sustain you. How can anyone think it not worth giving?
This Christmas, give the gift of faith. To anyone, to everyone. Let others see you enjoying your faith. Let them see how much you value it. Show it off like a shiny coin. Maybe it will rub off on them. Because this is the gift that everyone needs, the one you really can’t live without — not fully, anyway.
Thank you, Mom, for the best gift I ever got. Merry Christmas, everybody.
“I started to get into it but I’m Christian now. I can’t love Christmas anymore.”
I’ve encountered numerous people who feel this way. In their minds, there are two Christmases. One is joyous and vibrant and bright. It is also commercial — thus the condemnation. My husband and I call this version Stuff-mas.
The other Christmas, the Christian one, is solemn and serious and oh so pious. Nothing glitters and beware all things joyful. We don’t have a clever name for this one. We just let them huddle together and moan.
We’re Christian but we don’t buy into this version either. Our Christmas has church and music and God at its center. But there are also candles and a tree and things that glitter. And it is the one time of year that I shop.
What then do I say to my friends who, like Lorri, have a true reason to feel gloomy? I second Lorri’s own words.
“. . . to everyone mourning a loss this Christmas I say: You are not alone. We grieve together, but we also rejoice together.”
If you are in a place of mourning, than mourn unapologetically.
If song fills your heart, throw back your head and sing.
If you love to shop and give people gifts, get to it.
If you love to bake or craft various items, may your hands be busy and glad.
You may not be in the midst of a Norman Rockwell Christmas or a Hallmark moment. That’s okay.
You could very well be knee-deep in a Bethlehem Christmas. For Mary and Joseph, this wasn’t business as usual. They were on the road because of a government mandate to go be counted in the census. Mary was about to have their first child — government bureaucracy meet life changing moment.
Then there were the people who were busy doing their jobs. The inn keeper had record numbers of travelers to take care of. The shepherds were tending sheep.
Yet, they were all called together to share this one glorious moment. Engraved invitations didn’t come weeks ahead of time. Christmas came and found them all where they happened to be at just that moment — amidst the fuss and mess that is life.
It still works much the same way. Sure, now we know what day it is going to be, but Christmas still has a tendency to catch us in the middle of life. Some of us will be singing. Some of us mourning. Some of us baking. But that’s okay. Christmas will come.
I’ve got an iron-clad faith in God, to be sure, but my friends know that I’ve also got a lot of new-agey ideas and curious quirks. I tend to see signs from God in almost everything. I also believe that I’m supposed to learn from hardship, so I analyze everything that happens like a CSI investigator.
My theory is that I was scheduled to develop MS at 63, but due to the stresses of an awful job, it came on early, at age 36. I had put the memory of that terrible workplace behind me, until a few months ago, when the cab brought me to the door of the Infusion Center where I’d be receiving treatment every month.
This can’t be right. Can it? I didn’t realize I had said this aloud.
The cab driver said, “Yes ma’am. This is the address you gave me.”
I didn’t speak for a moment.
“Ma’am? Are you all right?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t sure.
Even though I’m generally somewhat shy, I actually felt the need to pray out loud.
“Is this where you want me to go, Lord?”
The cab driver was unfazed. He felt comfortable answering for the Maker of All Things, apparently.
“Do you need what they give you here, Miss?” he asked quietly.
The answer was obvious to me.
“Yes. I really do.”
“Then that is your answer.”
New Jersey may be the world center for Wise Cab Drivers. He got a very nice tip, and I thanked him. I felt comfortable saying “God bless you,” which I’m very cagey about saying to anyone. It has, on occasion, offended a person or two, so I don’t offer it freely.
You see, this was the place where I had worked for fourteen years, and for the last few, it had been a nightmare. It was where I first started to notice that the headaches never went away, and that my fingers were starting to go numb. It was where a deep depression set in, and a constant state of anxiety took hold. It’s where everything in my life seemed to start to unravel.
But it was no longer the same place. I tossed a coin in my mind and decided to see it differently now. It was a place of healing. It had been totally revamped and reconfigured, and the place that had been my office was now a large room where patients sat with their IVs, being tended to by the caring nurses. There were pillows and reclining chairs, relaxing music and fresh coffee. If you didn’t know better, you might even mistake it for a day-spa.
“I used to work here, kind of…” I said to the receptionist after she signed me in. “Really?” she asked. I said, “It used to be a different company, and I sat right over there by that window.”
“Weird!” she said, and looked over at the window. “Does it look the same?”
It didn’t. And I decided it would no longer feel the same. I realized that God moved in mysterious ways, and maybe He was allowing me to achieve some kind of closure on that era of my life. That place doesn’t even exist anymore, my child. Those days are over, and all I have for you here is healing.
I sat back in my chair, feeling the cold liquid coursing through my veins, grateful for so many things: Cab Drivers with an Inordinate Amount of Life Experience; the medicine that would bring back the feeling in my feet and hands; open doors and second chances. I thanked God that hearts and minds can be revamped and reconfigured, and that even after a deep, dark night, joy still comes in the morning.
I had it all planned out. The post was going to be titled “Have Yourself a Mary Little Christmas,” and it was going to be about embracing chaos and imperfection this holiday season. Like Mary, Jesus’ mother, who did not have such a merry Christmas: mile after grueling mile on the back of a donkey at nine months pregnant? Check. Giving birth in a stable? Check. The bible is glib on the subject of angels, shepherds and wise men, but leaves out the labor pains altogether. It can’t have been easy. Anyway, I was going to go on and on like this, and leave you with pithy parallels to your own holiday madness: Sleeping on the floor to accommodate guests? Hey, you’re right there with the Holy Family! Avoiding a particular family member? Try avoiding a crazy king who wants your child murdered! It was going to be good.
And it was going to be a lie. Hokum, bunk, balderdash. The real reason I’m keeping Christmas minimal this year is because I can hardly bear its celebration. It will be the first without my father. And I will not be with my mother, either, because our vacation fund was decimated by the trip we took this Fall, the one we never wanted to make. It’s going to be, to quote a different King (he of the funky jumpsuits), “a blue Christmas.”
I came into the world on a Christmas Day. My mother went into labor at Mass, five weeks before her due date. She remembers thinking, “Oh no. Any day but today.” But I left her no choice. My father remembered watching the Blue-Gray Game at the hospital, while my mother was in labor (Blue won). His first impression of me is recorded for posterity: I had a “mad, red face.” My mother’s are also recorded, in her own handwriting, that I looked just like her, only my eyes reflected innocence, and that she prayed they always would. (A lady at the beauty parlor remarked not long ago that my eyes looked “so pure and innocent;” a boss long ago nicknamed me Virginia — long after I was a married woman — because I looked so naïve and unsophisticated. I guess my mom’s wish was answered.)
Christmas is meant to be a family affair; at our house it meant Christmas in the morning, my birthday in the afternoon (I was born at 5:03 p.m.). This year I will be spending it with my husband’s family, whom I love dearly. But my dad will not be there to share his memory of the Blue-Gray game of 1964, or to reminisce about going out into the rain to buy flowers for my mother — my sister recalls that it was raining; the puddles were nearly up to her waist — or to purchase a necklace at one of the shops at Knott’s Berry Farm, a local theme park. (Who else would be open on Christmas?) He always called me “Honey.” I called him “Daddy,” middle age be damned.
I probably should have written the liar post. It would have been easier to read. No one wants to read this; no one wants to be bummed out at Christmas. But the blog was a lie.
This is supposed to be a spiritual blog. I guess I ought to be teasing out the spirituality of loss, but I’m just not up to it. So to everyone mourning a loss this Christmas I say: You are not alone. We grieve together, but we also rejoice together. And why? Because of someone else who was born on Christmas, someone who showed us that we never really die; we just move on to another state of being. It’s okay to mourn. But let’s also hang on to the greatest gift of the season, the one represented by that baby in a manger: Hope. I’ll see my dad again someday. I wonder who will win the Christmas football game that year?
I squinted at the photo online and then glared at the two stuffed animals I’d just finished. Mine looked lumpy. The ones online? Pure perfection.
“I think we’re going to have to go shopping.” I said.
My husband shook his head. “Quit being so hard on yourself.”
“But these aren’t good enough.”
Again, he shook his head and assured me that I was striving after perfection yet again.
How often do we do this at Christmas time? We can’t send out Christmas cards without a family letter, Christmas stamps and a red gel pen to sign our names . . . . in calligraphy. It isn’t enough to put up a tree, lay out the manger and hang our stockings. The tree has to have a color coordinated designer theme. And we have to decorate the mantel, wind garland and lights up the stair rail and decorate the front porch.
Sweet friends, Christmas was never meant to be perfect here on Earth. Mary gave birth in a stable. Look at a stable floor some time. Now think about what this floor would have looked like when Bethlehem was full of travelers. If there was no room at the inn, the stable was likely pretty full too. This was not the perfect place to give birth, but even this first Christmas wasn’t about Earthly perfection.
That first Christmas, and each one after it, was meant to pull our gazes upward. Don’t stare at the imperfection around you, gaze instead up at Him. His is the vastness of a star filled sky at night combined with the warmth of a stable and a tiny baby. It is about hearing His song and seeing Him among the imperfection of our lives.
Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have to sew button eyes on two stuffed animals. They may not be perfect, but nothing here on Earth is. But that’s okay. Christmas isn’t about Earthly perfection. It’s about caring and sharing and Him.
(With apologies to James Schuyler)
Our Father (I’m
having trouble with those words;
more in a minute)
who art in heaven (see,
now I have two fathers
in heaven, You and Daddy,
and I don’t want to blur the line)
hallowed be thy name. (I try,
and yet it is so very hard, especially
for someone as accident-prone as I. The
strongest oath my mother ever emits
is “Judas traitor!” That’s a lot
to live up to)
Thy kingdom come, (yes!)
thy will be done, (yes!)
on earth as it is in heaven.
(Wouldn’t it have been easier
to make us like the angels? So
much less to worry about.)
Give us this day (this hour this minute this second)
our daily bread (and yet, so much more!),
and forgive us our trespasses (I
much prefer this word to “debtors.” No one
owes me anything, but plenty have
trespassed on my heart)
as we forgive those who trespass against us.(I
see! It’s reciprocal. Tit for tat. As we forgive,
so shall we be forgiven. Interesting.)
And lead us not into temptation, (this is not
your fault, by the way. You could lead us
into a cave; we’d still be tempted to
scribble on the walls)
but deliver us (yes! again, yes!)
from evil. (for it is all around us, and
we tire easily)
For the kingdom, (like the very best
fairy tale, only real)
the power (you wield it gently,
yet you wield)
and the glory (ah yes!)
are yours (yours alone)
for ever and ever (I
hope to live there one day
with you. Please, may it be.)
1 Sing joyful songs to the Lord!
Praise the mighty rock where we are safe.
2 Come to worship him
with thankful hearts
and songs of praise.
3 The Lord is the greatest God,
king over all other gods.
4 He holds the deepest part
of the earth in his hands,
and the mountain peaks
belong to him.
5 The ocean is the Lord’s
because he made it,
and with his own hands
he formed the dry land.
6 Bow down and worship
the Lord our Creator!
7 The Lord is our God,
and we are his people.
Psalm 95:1-7 CEV