First published in the Umatuna, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Agana, on 12/26/99.
Although I like to watch movies, I don’t like to watch movies about Christmas, especially modern ones. In an effort to capture the spirit of Christmas without getting anywhere near Christ, these movies become stupider and stupider each year. Now, they will include angels. I guess they figure angels are harmless enough. Angels are sort of middle of the road. They just do good stuff and nobody has to shed any blood. Anyway, I’m not into any of this heart-warming stuff for Christmas. Bah, Humbug!
Let me tell you about the best Christmas I ever had. It was Christmas Eve, 1984. I was living on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands where I was employed as a high-school teacher. I was single yet and lived in a small cottage on the west shore of the island overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
As dusk set in, and day died its usually spectacular death into the Caribbean night, I found myself sitting in on old rocking chair, wrapped in a blanket, nursing the flu, and staring out into a sky where the struggle between the sea and the dying sun almost always erupted into a magnificent explosion of flame and color that escapes language. It was a sight that never ceased to utterly move me, even, as was then the case, in drugged illness.
I had no family to share this Christmas with. They all lived in Los Angeles. My roommate had gone home to New Jersey for the Christmas break. Students and other local friends were all with their families. And I was immovably ill with the flu; the kind of deep illness that keeps you from even wanting to take care of yourself.
There were no presents under the tree. There was no tree. There were no people to put presents under the tree. There was no phone call home, there was no phone. There were no Christmas carols coming from the radio, I had no radio...and no TV. Just me, the flu, an old rocking chair, the whisper of a quiet sea, and the dying sky.
I mused on Christmases past, as many of us do on this night; remembering that, as a choral conductor in the great city of Los Angeles, I was, for many years, the center of attention on Christmas Eve; bustling about getting the choir ready for the grand spectacle I had prepared for Midnight Mass.
I was pretty important then. All eyes on me. The flashing conductor’s baton. The passionate upward move of the left arm exhorting the entire ensemble into a heaven-shaking crescendo. The slight downward twitch of an eyebrow that would pass a long diminuendo into silence and send the softly pulsating overtones of the final harmony out to glowingly hover over an awed congregation.
Ah, yes. And then there was my own glow from having commanded such a great performance, the congratulations after Mass, the "that-was-so-beautiful's," the adoring choir members and parishioners. Yes, this place was lucky to have me. What would Christmas be without my ability to create music that could seemingly approximate the glorious sounds of the first "in excelsis Deo"’s?
Well, I was finding out. I smiled with sad amusement at my present picture: sick, alone, thousands of miles from home, and except for the wind, the distant lapping of the sea, and the sound of my own labored breathing, there was...silence. I wasn’t supposed to be here. By now I should have been the director of music at the Los Angeles Cathedral or something, standing with wild hair and waving arms amidst the trumpet blasts, thunderous organ, and hundred-voice "Hodie"’s. But God knows best how to save us.
Two years prior, He had washed me up on this island (that’s another story), and had torn me from everything I thought I was or was going to be. He had isolated me from everything and everyone that could remind me of me. He had cut me off from the adulation and praise on which I throve. I didn’t know why. I just knew it was Him. So though I cried and complained, I didn’t resist.
And tonight He had struck me with infirmity and crushed me with memories and loneliness. I didn’t know why. I just knew it was Him. But He was about to tell me why. He had done all this that He might be alone with me this night. That He might teach me at last about Christmas: that Christmas was about Him and not me.
In my sad, lonely little state, he gave me a brief glimpse of the First Christmas. His Mother’s Christmas. A sad, lonely little state, fraught with cold, loneliness, fear, and a hard dirt floor. What terror for this 16 year old girl, so far from home, with no place to deliver her firstborn save amid straw, dirt, and animal dung. And then to have to flee even further from her home lest her babe be murdered by a jealous ruler.
Who was this child she held who was born to die? What heaven-sent pain would her soul be asked to magnify? What cross had exited her womb? And how sad Joseph’s heart to be able to provide no better for his frail wife and Son. Terror, loneliness, pain, sadness, fear? Does this sound like Christmas?
Christ was born into the middle of it. And that night he was born into mine. It was all in an instant. But in heaven an instant and eternity know not the other. And in that eternal instant I was thrust through with a deep recognition of Him who sat next to me in my lonely illness that night. A recognition of Him, without Whom there is no Christmas, without Whom there are no Christmas lights, without Whom there is never anything but shadow.
Every year so many of us suffer during the holidays (Holy-Days) of loneliness, pain, sadness, fear and despair. And I’m not talking just about the homeless and infirm. I’m talking about those of us with lots of family, presents, and holiday cheer all about us.
We only suffer from these things because we know not that it is the Holy Family who is visiting this Christmas and bringing with them the mood of the stable so that we may remember, amidst the tinsel and turkey, what He was born to save us from. Open the door and let them in.
Have a "Mary" Christmas
December 26, 1999