As Advent draws to a close and Christmas is but a breath away, I marvel at how each day has unfolded in preparation for Christ’s birth. In the past few weeks I have written about the beauty of the readings in the the Liturgy of the Hours and those for Holy Mass during this sacred season. Each day has built as a sort of crescendo in the symphony of the season. Even the secular celebration of the season – the music, lights, cookies, cards, wrappings and trappings of Christmas all flow together into an overwhelming sense of anticipation and joy. Our senses are alive; and our souls rejoice. Advent and Christmas are steeped in emotion and tradition.
Each family has a set of traditions that enhance the spiritual significance of religious celebrations. Christmas traditions are especially treasured. My Mom’s nativity set sits in our foyer. I delight in watching my young children kiss baby Jesus each night before bed, as I did as a child (and still do as an adult). The yearly recitation of the St. Andrew’s Novena helps to focus our hearts on the essence of Christmas. Our Christ-child’s crib is stuffed with colorful strips of paper- each representing sacrifices lovingly offered to warm His infant Heart. The glow of the tree, the scent of the cooking, the rhythm of these chilly days are all replete with meaning – cherished memories are being forged as Christmas is lived.
Perhaps no tradition is more cherished in our family than that of taking a lighted Christmas tree to the cemetery and celebrating Christ’s birth with my parents- the children’s grandma and grandpa. Tomorrow night will be the tenth year we have engaged in this bitter-sweet celebration.
My Dad had been diagnosed with immunoblastic multiple myeloma only four short months before Christmas 2000. This aggressive bone cancer had quickly serpentined its way through my dad’s body, leaving holes in his skull, and hip, and zygoma. The radiation to his hip and eye-socket had greatly reduced the pain, though left his vision a blurry fog. Chemo had taken its toll, and this once stocky man was now a frail shadow of himself. This Advent, Dad was waiting for a bone-marrow transplant, and living with my young family.
Though cancer had ravaged his body, Dad’s spirit was as effervescent as ever. He LOVED Christmas. My childhood memories are replete with his and my mom’s self-sacrifice, and efforts to make Christmas joyous and beautiful. Christmas was always focused on Christ, and their love for Him spilled forth into our family celebrations. As Dad became Grandpa George, he continued to share that same spirit with my children. Singing Christmas carols, telling stories, and just beaming as the little people approached Christmas with wonder and joy. He’d let the little ones curl up in his lap, and snug close as they shared Christmas stories and secrets- even when he was most ill.
Well, here we were on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 2000, I was sitting upstairs on my Dad’s bed, reading the morning paper to him out-loud. I came to a story about a family from West Bend, just a few miles from my parents’ home. They had lost a lovely lady to cancer six years ago. She had been a wife, mother, and daughter. Each year since her death, her family would gather by her grave with a generator and a Christmas tree, and pray and sing. As I read this story out-loud, my Dad sat up in bed, his eyes twinkled and he said– “Wow – that is faithfulness and love!”
With tears in my eyes, I said, “Dad, if you begin eternity before the rest of us, we’ll still celebrate Christmas together every year. I promise, I’ll bring a lighted Christmas tree to you, and we’ll pray and sing, and celebrate Christ’s birth together.” Little did I know, that he had lest than a month left. Eleven months after his death, Ken and I, and four little ones kept our promise, and began this special tradition.
Over the years our group has grown. My Mom joined my Dad on the other side of eternity within a few years of his passing. Pregnancies and adoptions have enlarged our family, and now ten of us pray and sing on Christmas Eve. We bring the tree on the way to the 4:30 Vigil Mass- leaving it lit all night, and return after Christmas morning Mass to pray and sing, and bring it home. Some years snow covers our little tree, shorting out the battery operated lights by morning – other years bitter cold renders our prayers short and sweet. This year I don’t think we will have to worry about climbing over icy snow-banks to reach their resting place. Year by year, the rhythm of life continues- and joy has replaced sorrow. The Communion of Saints is such a consoling doctrine, and I love being able to unite Heaven and Earth in one joyous celebration of Christ’s saving love.
This tradition is cherished. As we head off to Holy Hill Basilica to celebrate the vigil of Christ’s birth, we bring a quiet sense of joy. Again there is a crescendo in the sense of anticipation as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated. Receiving our Infant Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, resting with Him in our souls while pondering the miracle of His birth is the pinnacle of Christmas joy! After Mass we usually drive by the cemetery to view the glow of the brightly colored lights on our little tree. Christmas morning is filled with the sights and sounds of Christmas, as we ready eight excited children for Holy Mass. Their exuberance is contagious! Again we celebrate the miracle of Holy Mass and rest from the whirlwind of activity to again welcome the newborn Christ into our souls, Christmas becomes real and alive. Christ’s joy becomes our joy.
These moments of grace flood my soul with profound gratitude. Our Savior- loves us so much that He shivered in a straw-filled stable on His first night on Earth. He blesses us with family and friends – offering us the opportunity to share His faithfulness and love with them. My heart overflows with awe as I contemplate the joys of past Christmases and hopes of those yet to come. May our Lord’s birth fill you and yours with every grace and joy.
Ad Jesum per Mariam