Christmas was always such a family time when I was growing up. I remember going to Midnight Mass; it didn’t seem to really be Christmas until we had done so. Of course, as children there was the rising early Christmas morning, on little sleep, to open presents. Then there was Christmas supper later in the day, with all the festive foods that are traditional in southeastern Maryland, such as oyster dressing with a turkey, and sweet potato biscuits.
Christ blessed these celebrations of his birth, and such memories, to the extent that one has them, are nourishment for the soul throughout one’s life. Madonna House, wherever it is possible, carries on the tradition of good memories that mark the Christmas feast. We still celebrate Mass over the midnight hour. We have festive foods and festive decorations and festive time off for playing cards, going on hikes or cross-country skiing, skating on our homemade rink, or just plain resting and reading a book. At the centre of it all is Christ the Lord born for us this day. We write about these things every year for our newspaper, Restoration.
In an increasingly secularized society, we tend to keep the accoutrements of the feast but lose the original meaning. We keep the former, and substitute for the latter “family time”, “time off for a needed break”, “winter festival” “the holidays”, or perhaps a more noble humanitarian reason, like gifts for the needy and that sort of thing. There’s still a lot of good left in those sentiments. I can remember our beloved Archbishop from Lebanon, Joseph Raya, urging us not to criticize what is lacking in modern secularized versions of Christmas, but to bless these efforts, and to remember that they indicate a hunger for something transcendent and lasting, even if they would in some cases deny this aspect.
Catherine Doherty certainly encouraged the traditional celebration of Christmas, with all the decorations and with customs introduced from many different lands. She would also seek to take us to another level. She would remind us of the many people who have precious little with which to celebrate the Christmas feast, and she would urge us not to forget these people in the midst of our own celebration, so blessed by God’s bounty. At Christmas, Catherine would often hear in her heart the cry of the poor. She would see the tears of many beseeching our compassion and crying out in their need. She would share this with us not to dampen our celebrations, but to remind us of the deeper reason Christmas exists at all.
For Christ came to identify himself with all humanity, including and most especially the poorest of the poor, the sinner, and those who are in greatest need of one kind or another. St. Paul says in the letter to the Philippians that Christ emptied himself, took the form of a slave and became as men are, and being as all men are he was humbler yet, accepting death, even death on a cross. It is love like this that is the true ideal of Christmas and the original motivation for all the celebrations that ensued.
Again, I think back to Christmas nights that follow December 25, in which the family (personal or MH) is relaxing around the Christmas tree with its colourful lights and decorations casting their gentle glow on the room. All of us need to find our resting place somewhere near that tree, symbolic of Christ the Light dwelling in our midst, transforming creation with a divine glory. We need to find our renewal and our rejuvenation near this One who is ever new and ever young.
We can milk a celebration for all it’s worth, and come away depleted somehow, and empty inside. Or we can turn to Christ whose heart is turned towards us, raison d’etre for finding joy even in the midst of life’s sorrows and losses. As the years go by, sorrows and especially losses tend to mount up in most people’s lives. I think of the close friends of the community who have lost loved ones just in this last year. Then there is the unimaginable grief of losing one’s homeland due to war or persecution or economic necessity. I haven’t even mentioned the losses we experience, most of us, even in our own bodies and minds as the years pass from middle age to old age. Of course, illness can strike at any age, and I know people younger than myself (72) who are dealing with serious sickness and the possibility of death as much more than a hypothetical of some future year. Yet even in times of mourning, the Child is born for us, symbolic of the new beginning that is always emerging from the soil of loss watered by tears.
Every door that closes is countered by a window telling us of a new horizon that is about to open. That horizon will likely not be limited to this world only but includes that New World that Christ’s coming as a child announces with its message of peace on earth and good will towards men.
So let us welcome the Christ Child once again this Christmas, be it a time of childlike and even carefree joy, or one that closes in on us with its sense of loss and pain. To each it is He who brings the gift of some kind of new possibility, asking in turn only our trust and our surrender to such a One. May the Lord console, bless, and be born anew in each one of us, as we say farewell to another year and trust that graces for future years will not be lacking, no matter the appearance of things. For the apparent aging of a fallen and continually failing world should not blind us to the reality that at work deep within all creation is a fantastic longing for the birth of the King. This desire is God-given and nothing can ultimately annihilate it. May the Lord Jesus be triumphant in matters both small and great in the coming days! Glorify him!