Sunday, December 8, 2013

Contemplating Christmas Alone

The priest began his Sunday homily this morning by mentioning that today is December 8th, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception in the Catholic Church, but because it falls on a Sunday this year, we would celebrate Our Lady’s feast day tomorrow instead of today.  Oops!  I hadn’t considered that, and had been praying the prayers of the feast day last night and this morning.  Oh well, I’m sure Mary understands.
“Today,” the priest continued, “we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent.”  The Second Sunday of Advent (!!!), I almost said aloud. Now I knew today was the Second Sunday of Advent, but somehow the priest’s words hit me solidly in the gut.  The Second Sunday of Advent, as in, halfway to Christmas!  What about the Christmas cards, and shopping, and wrapping, and (good grief!) putting up the tree and all the decorations I’d talked about doing?  How did it get to be so late?  But I knew how. 
The First Sunday of Advent I spent in Arizona with my nieces.  Over the weekend, we’d driven up into the mountains of Sedona to spend a couple of days there together, or that was the plan.  But Sunday morning I became acutely aware that something was wrong with me, and I felt ill at mass --- I didn’t pay too much attention to the service or the feast day.  We later determined I appeared to have suffered an altitude sickness, which getting back to lower ground seemed to make go away.  We cut short our Sedona stay, but that was okay; I wasn’t there to sight see.
I was in Arizona to celebrate Thanksgiving with my nieces and their families --- and extended families and friends.  Thanksgiving Day found 25 or 30 people wandering about Rose and Steve’s large home.  There were tons of appetizer and main course choices, and desserts, and wine, and football on television, and football in the yard.  And yes, there was a ton of sincere thanks given for our many blessings, our many, many blessings.  And there also was time to sit in the yard and quietly talk.  And then on that Monday before I returned home, there was time to the noon mass together, which was offered for my departed sister, the mother of this family.  And we gave thanks again.
So that’s how the First Sunday of Advent slipped by, almost unnoticed.  As I thought on these things this morning, I was suddenly struck by another memory:  the Christmas Eves spent at grandma’s house.  I have such wonderful memories of those days of my youth.  Dad and all his brothers and sisters (and their spouses and us kids) gathered at the home of THEIR youth for Christmas Eve dinner.  Grandma cooked all day for the event, and the meal was always wonderful.  We passed around the Christmas wafer, each taking a small piece and wishing each other well and giving thanks for our blessings, and each year there would be at least one of the many cousins who, with nothing else coming to mind, would say: “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”  In my earliest memories of those days, I recall lots and lots of presents from my aunts and uncles, but then as ever more cousins arrived on the scene, the gift exchange toned down, as the adults drew names for a single gift for each child.  But I didn’t care about the gifts (much), it was always such a wonderful, wonder-filled day, with my family.
I realized now that that is what I’d seen and experienced once again this past Thanksgiving.  Rose and her sisters weren’t even born then, but grandma’s tradition --- and love --- seems to be in their genes.  Her Thanksgiving gathering was every bit as much a memory as grandma’s events.  In the future, I shall make sure I am there in Arizona, or wherever they gather, on Thanksgiving Day, with our family.  And I look forward to those days, and future memories.
I remember the year grandma died.  There was no big family Christmas gathering that year.  And something good left my life, a hole never to be filled.  In the 50-plus years since, I’ve never forgotten grandma, and I still sometimes talk to her, and I can see her smile as she so seriously listens to me just like she did so long ago.  If it had been in my power, I’d never have let her die, and I’d still trek to her house each Christmas Eve, and I’d never miss even a one. 
Those days were so precious.
But grandma is gone, and so is dad and sis and brother Ed, and now mom.  More holes in my life, never to be filled.  I shed some tears at mass this morning, as these thoughts quickly flooded over me, and a few now as I look at a picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall in this small chapel, sitting here alone. 
And in the picture, He is smiling.
I had some fleeting thoughts about how I’d celebrate this first Christmas as the surviving member of our family of five.  I thought I’d start out by going to midnight mass at a local parish, sitting quietly away from the crowd, recalling the midnight masses of my youth.  Friends have invited me to join their family gatherings, but I think that where close families exist, they should focus that day on each other, not me.  I thought about going out to dinner, or cooking something elaborate at home, making it special for myself.  I thought of the movie Home Alone: I could spend all day in bed eating ice cream and watching old movies.  I thought of traveling somewhere, as a friend is doing, to get away and not focus on the memories --- and the aloneness.  And I thought of putting a note in the church bulletin, inviting to dinner others who were going to be alone, making an organized affair for strangers.  From memories of a gathering of family to thoughts of a gathering of strangers --- hmmm, perhaps that would be a “Christian thing” to do, but somehow I don’t think it would make me happy.
I wasn’t paying much attention in church this morning as the priest continued his homily, but suddenly I heard him say: “and the apostles were afraid in the boat and they asked Jesus: ‘Don’t you care?’”  It seemed that in my ponderings there in the church that also was the question I was asking.  Thinking of spending Christmas alone, holes in my life, and perhaps like the apostles a little bit scared: “Don’t You care,” I wondered?
The priest began wrapping up his homily.  “Advent is a time of preparation,” he said.  Well, that certainly summarized my thoughts (and my inattention to his homily), as I tried to prepare for Christmas, my Christmas alone.  And then I recalled again those words of a Christmas long ago, and the child who said: “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”  Could that child have been me?
I don’t know what I shall do on Christmas Day.  It now dawns on me that Christmas Day is a Wednesday, and so I expect that I shall be in the adoration chapel at midnight, as I am every Tuesday midnight.  No midnight mass for me therefore, but rather an even more quiet time, just me and Jesus, alone, together.  I imagine I’ll start out that visit by wishing Him a “Happy Birthday.”  I don’t know what else I’ll do that day, but that does seem like a fitting way to start the day.  After all, it IS His birthday, not mine.  It is His day, a day for me to focus on His happiness, and not selfishly on mine, as I have been.
I have family and friends who have departed this life, leaving holes in mine, but they also left memories, so many wonderful memories, and those shall never go away --- until that day when we meet again, and we celebrate them anew.  I had been pondering Christmas Day and ways I might make myself happy that day.  Instead of finding joy in good memories, my ponderings of them were making me sad, and I thought about ways to change that.  But it is not a day to worry about making myself happy; that’s the wrong focus.  It’s a day to make Jesus happy; it’s His day, not mine.  The holes I feel in my life over lost loved ones will be filled again one day; I believe.  That is nothing to be sad about.  So for now, I’ll ask Jesus to show me what He’d like for His birthday, what gift could I give Him, to make it a special day for Him.
And as for my memories?  I think if I find myself with nothing to do at some point on Christmas Day, I shall pull out reminders --- pictures, cards, and letters --- of those happy memories, and I shall live some of them again, not in sadness, but in celebration, of this party, this day, this family, which began with the birth of Jesus.


  1. Tom, I wish you so many blessings and the peace and love of Christ, during the remainder of this Advent Season and at Christmas as well. You have my prayers!

    1. Ah, Anne, what more could I wish for Christmas. Thank you. Your family shall always be in my prayers.