Tending the Temple

Don’t Forget the Presence

It’s 7:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve. I fell asleep around 8:30 last night, utterly exhausted from the emotional, physical and financial strain of the past few weeks; months really. The pace I’ve kept since school started in September has been catching up with me during the pre-holiday rush, and I’ve had a breakdown or two. I’m simultaneously comforted and saddened to know I’m not the only one.

So at 7:30, I’m already showered and dressed. I’m enjoying a cup of tea and making a list of all the things I need to buy and do before 1:00 this afternoon when the kids come home. Get the salmon and mac ‘n cheese for dinner, and treats for breakfast Christmas morning. Pick up a last-minute gift. Wrap the rest of the presents. And don’t forget the presents at Floyd’s house!

I did most of my shopping last month. Thanks to Amazon, I had most of my kids’ gifts done and wrapped the first week of December. And to prevent the attempts at shaking and peeking, I took them to Floyd’s house for safe-keeping. It’s Christmas Eve, and they are still there!

So don’t forget the presents, I say to myself at 7:30 in the morning. Don’t forget the presents.

But in the hustle of last minute buying, wrapping, cooking, dressing up, churching, eating, unwrapping, and singing at midnight mass, I need to remember something just as important.

Don’t forget the present.

I will never have this Christmas Eve again. Never again will my kids be 14, 11, and 9. It’s all to human for my heart to grieve over the loss of 13, 10, and 8, and all too easy to forget the present.

I may never again have both my parents at my house for dinner for this most special of family meals. I don’t like thinking about that possibility, because they are both healthy. But far too many friends have unexpectedly lost a parent in the last year, and I need to remember I’m not immune. In the stress of the season, it’s all too human to take them for granted, all too easy to forget the present.

Ultimately, Christmas is a holiday about The Presence. The ultimate Presence of God, taking on flesh so that He could truly Be with us, Emmanuel.

So today, as I shop and wrap and dress and cook and eat and sing and “keep Christmas,” I will remember the present.

And the presents. Please don’t let me forget the presents!

Holey Heart

A Christmas Reflection

I wrote this Christmas Day.

It is quiet in my house this Christmas afternoon. The kids just left with their dad for celebrations at his house, and a blessed stillness settles over my home, a very welcome change of pace after a week of to-do lists that were far too long. My to-do list today is simple: take a shower; drive to my parents’ for turkey dinner and grown up gifts; spend the evening in my fella’s company.

In front of me is the nativity crèche. I set it up just a few days ago, the last of my holiday decorating. As I contemplate the baby Jesus in the manger, it strikes me that the quiet in my home is not one of emptiness but of fullness. It strikes me that the brokenness of my family has given my children an even bigger family with more love (and presents!) than they had six years ago. It strikes me that in my single state, I am less alone than ever. The God in the manger is a God of great paradox, and He has blessed me with the grace to see and appreciate this mystery in my own life.

I went to Mass twice last night – once with the kids and later at Midnight to sing with a small candlelight gathering of night owls. I heard the scriptures proclaimed twice. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and it shines from a small crèche in my family room. He came to fill every emptiness in my holey heart. He came to be the glue holding every crack together. In fulfilling ancient prophecies, He offers me fulfillment as well.

Yesterday afternoon I was in darkness. I had a panic attack in the morning. I get them on occasion; they seem to be triggered primarily by hormones in combination with stress or feelings of insecurity. Yesterday’s was brought on by a to-do list and the dark side of my perfectionism at choir practice. I went to my walk-in closet and cried out to the Savior whose birthday I was celebrating, “I can’t do this alone!” And he reminded me that his name is Emmanuel, God With Us. I felt his presence for the rest of the day as my anxiety slowly subsided. Jesus is real and I know because I felt his love.

In the second reading last night, Paul said, “The grace of God has appeared, saving ALL and TRAINING US to reject godless ways and worldly desires.” That word training really jumped out at me. This whole business of being a Christian is not just a one time decision followed by a lifetime of perfect love and peace. It requires practice and training. As an amateur musician, I am astounded by my church’s music ministry leaders, especially at the Christmas services. Our main cantor is a well oiled machine, not only because she has natural talent, but because she trains and practices. I know from personal experience it is much easier to face the inevitable nervousness of singing behind the mic at church when I’ve practiced a lot. The familiarity of discipline takes over and carries me in spite of my feelings. That happened for me last night.

That same process is how being a believer works. God could have atoned for our sins the moment he was born. He could have perished when Herod had all the male babies killed; his death was all that was required to settle the score. But God willed that His son live long enough to teach us a few things, to “train” us to be eager to do what is good. Atonement was only one part of Christ’s mission. He came to show us the actions we would need to take so that we could have life and have it in abundance, not just in eternity, but in the present moment.

That is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. Like most training, it is not always fun. It pushes me outside my comfort zone. Sometimes it pushes me beyond my abilities. My voice cracks on the high notes. I need to remember that if we could do something perfect the first time without training, we wouldn’t need practice, whether it’s singing or loving.

Christ would rather I love poorly than not at all.

Holey Heart

The Shadow Side of Christmas

It’s no question the Christmas holiday is difficult for many people. It’s as if the everyday garden variety perfectionism that eats away at our serenity on any given day goes into hyperdrive as December 25 approaches, and those of us who are most keenly aware of how we fall short of being “merry” are prone to suffer the most.

We are told that Christmas is about families, and those who are estranged from or who have painful relationships with their blood relatives feel the sting.

We are told that Christmas is about children, and those who are childless because of infertility or miscarriage or perinatal or postnatal loss or abortion or other untimely passing are cut to the heart.

We are told that Christmas is about peace on earth, and meanwhile men and women in our military who have come home and are perhaps the sole survivor of an attack carry the weight of survivor guilt that very few will ever understand.

We are told to that Christmas is about the Holy Family, and those of us whose families are broken by divorce, the single parents, the children whose moms or dads are in prison or addicted … we struggle to give our kids a sense of the sacred but can’t give what we don’t have and end up scolding while making cookies or on the way to church, keenly aware of the irony.

We are told that Christmas is about Jesus, and we think of that lovely Italian-inspired crèche scene. We don’t think about the fact that the baby Jesus would have been seen by his culture as a bastard child.

We know there was no room at the inn, but we don’t wonder why Joseph went there in the first place. After all, Bethlehem was his hometown, and was likely filled with cousins, uncles, maybe even brothers or sisters with whom he could have stayed. Maybe Joseph was estranged from his family. Maybe they disapproved of his betrothed, Mary.

We celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, but very few people mark any remembrance on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Most people probably don’t even know what that is. Following the birth of the “prince of peace,” King Herod was so jealous he had every male child under two years old slaughtered. I think Jesus knows a thing or two about what it feels like to be a sole survivor.

Did Mary understand that her little baby, born in such unusual circumstances, would one day die a brutal death, cut down in his prime? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the shepherds knew. I recently read that there is evidence that the Bethlehem shepherds were special. They were shepherd-priests who tended the flocks that provided Passover lambs – unblemished firstborn male lambs. Supposedly they birthed the animals in caves in the Bethlehem countryside that they kept ritually clean. To keep them from injury, the shepherds immediately separated the lambs from their mothers, bound them with swaddling cloths to keep the from moving, and laid them in tomb-like mangers hewed out of stone to keep them unblemished until it was time to be sacrificed. When the angel appeared and told them of the sign, they understood deeply that this Savior was to be a sacrifice.

It’s Christmas in America and all is merry and bright. We sing Joy To the World and have forgotten the reason for that joy has nothing to do with families or children or some idealized version of the nativity scene. That joy is about a gift for which every one of us, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Wiccan or agnostic or atheist, longs. Our deepest yearning is to not be alone in our shadows. When Christ was born, He was named Emanuel “God with us.” He and all the characters of the Nativity narratives are examples of the “shadow” side of Christmas. After all, you cannot have a light as bright as the Christmas star without casting a few cross-shaped shadows.

If you find yourself experiencing the shadow side of the holidays this year, take heart. God is with you. Joseph is with you. Mary is with you. They’ve been where you are and they understand.