Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

I particularly liked this reading (the fourth one) from vigils last night:

From the Sermons of Pope St Leo (the Great)
1st for Christmas.

Dearly beloved brethren, Unto us is born this day a Saviour. Let us rejoice. It would be unlawful to be sad today, for today is Life's Birthday – the Birthday of that Life, Which, for us dying creatures, taketh away the sting of death, and bringeth the bright promise of the eternal gladness hereafter. It would be unlawful for any man to refuse to partake in our rejoicing. All men have an equal share in the great cause of our joy, for, since our Lord, Who is the destroyer of sin and of death, findeth that all are bound under the condemnation, He is come to make all free. Rejoice, O thou that art holy, thou drawest nearer to thy crown! Rejoice, O thou that art sinful, thy Saviour offereth thee pardon! Rejoice also, O thou Gentile, God calleth thee to life! For the Son of God, when the fullness of the time was come, which had been fixed by the unsearchable counsel of God, took upon Him the nature of man, that He might reconcile that nature to Him Who made it, and so the devil, the inventor of death, is met and beaten in that very flesh which hath been the field of his victory.

Since my friend died last week, I’ve noticed her daughter posting sad memes on Face Book; I can hardly blame her, of course: she’s lost her mother. Others post memes related to their deceased loved one – how much they are missed, especially at Christmas time. My own father died on December 18, 1973, and our mourning certainly tinged our Christmas traditions with sadness.

But it brings me back to my thoughts about the true meaning and significance of Christmas. Christmas is not simply a time to get together with family and share gifts in pretty wrapping paper. Although we miss our loved ones, and maybe particularly so at this time of the year, when we traditionally gather with family and friends in a special way, Christmas can still be a time for joy. It is, after all, the celebration of the birth of Life, as Pope St. Leo the Great reminds us above; and Christmas marks the emergence of our Hope and our Salvation into the world we inhabit. He comes as flesh and blood, as a human being like us, but He speaks Life Eternal!

Christmas morning here: 6 degrees, and fog left everything frosted in white.
So…Merry Christmas. No matter what your circumstances, I pray you find the joy of hope in Our Savior’s birth this year (and always).

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Death of a Friend

A blurry photo from
her Face Book page;
but this captures the
essence of Pam.
Once upon a time, when we lived in California, I took under my wing a woman – her name was Pam – who was slightly retarded, and who had two children. The two little girls were removed from her custody by Child Protective Services, and I was doing my best to help her get them back.  We remained friends even after the family was reunited (the little girls were in foster care for over 2 years!).

Even after we moved, I talked on the phone with Pam every couple of months, and visited her once when I was back to visit other friends in that area. She was functionally illiterate, but managed to figure out how to text me as well. Usually she simply asked for money, and always expressed her love for me after making the request. But I do think she loved me, even without the money.

I hadn’t heard from Pam since last May, when she had asked for money and I had sent some. She didn’t call at Thanksgiving time, and she has always called me then. I wondered if she’d lost my number. I texted the number I had for her, asking her to call or text and let me know if it was still her number; there was no response.

Today, December 19, is her birthday. I already knew that, which was one reason I was trying to contact her, but Face Book let me know as well. (It is surprising that Pam had a Face Book account; I’m sure her younger daughter set it up for her, and she never posted anything other than profile pictures.) I left a birthday greeting on her timeline, with a note to call or text me with her number.

A few hours later, her daughter left a comment on my birthday greeting, asking for my phone number. I sent her a private message, and she replied, “My mom was hit by a car last night, and she passed away.”

I was stunned. And then I wondered if it were true. The news sources my husband and I checked turned up nothing, but then, it’s the weekend. Then I noticed other posts on the daughter’s timeline that made it clear that she was letting everyone know that her mom had died.

I’m very sad. It’s not that Pam and I were best friends or talked a lot. But we shared an important and trying time in her life (more than one trying time, actually!), and I felt a bond with her. I felt that I should always help her if I could. There was always a tension for me around giving her money; what was too much? What was too little? She re-married a man she’d previously divorced, and who had been nothing but trouble to her when the girls had been taken. Should I continue to give her money when she’d taken up with him? He had a history of living with women who would take care of him so that he didn’t have to work, though he had some mental issues of his own.

Despite her constant pleas to me for money, Pam was a very giving person. It got her into trouble more than once, because she was more than willing to offer one “friend” or another a space on her living room floor if they’d been kicked out of their apartment. She was easily taken advantage of…by many.

She had health issues, too, and almost died once after some abdominal surgery to repair a large hernia. I know she almost died because they kept her in the hospital for 10 days, and she was NOT a paying customer; I doubt she’d have received that kind of care if they weren’t afraid of a wrongful death suit (I know, I’m very cynical about such things).  During that time, her ex-husband and his wife and several children moved into Pam’s apartment to “help” take care of her…except they didn’t help much, and ate all her food. And then they wouldn’t move out. We (me and the agency that helped her with such things) had to get the police involved to get the people to leave.

Pam did not have a happy childhood, having been sexually abused at the hands of her brother, along with other issues. She did not have a happy adulthood either: she married a young man who passed away within a year (I don’t remember what his malady was); her parents, on whom she was very dependent emotionally and for help with her infant daughter, both died in a car accident; she married and remarried the wrong man; she was dirt poor.

But she didn’t complain about any of it, really. She was pretty happy. I often thought about how she didn’t have much, but at least she didn’t have debt; and my husband and I had plenty of that! Pam just lived her life, taking what happiness came her way, and plugging along through the hard times.

Pam and her daughters, with my daughter in
the middle. The two girls were in foster care
at this time, and the only way Pam could
see them for Thanksgiving was if I would
bring them all to my house. Which I did.
One year, I went to her daughter’s birthday party. It was in the little yard of her duplex, which consisted of gravel and no grass. The house was small and not the best-kept; the other guests were very low-income down-and-outers. But everyone was real. There was no pretense about anything. And everyone had a good time. Later that same evening I went to a fund-raising event for a local Catholic school. The contrast was interesting. The conversation was aimed at impressing others, as were the bids on “silent auction” items; and the people were fake, not real, at least in this setting. I much preferred the party with the poor folks.

Pam wasn't Catholic. She considered herself a Christian, and was baptized. She suffered a lot in her life, and really didn't complain about any of it – not the way I would have, that's for sure! Do you suppose God will cut her a little slack since she was, after all, retarded?

I asked my spiritual director that question, and he replied, “Even without the pope’s Jubilee of Mercy, God exercises mercy in His judgment of our individual, final dispositions. Unlike us humans, He's able to take EVERYTHING into account, when rendering His judgment. So it's appropriate to hope in His mercy, while praying that He be merciful toward one of the deceased, since we know not the full circumstances of the individual.”

So, please, would you say a little prayer for the repose of the soul of my friend Pam? Thanks.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How Should We Celebrate Christmas?

I’m still thinking about the “meaning of Christmas”…or rather, about how we celebrate Christmas, and how we should celebrate it.

Maybe this post will sound sort of like "Bah, humbug!" But I don't mean it that way. I like Christmas as much as the next person, and for many of the same reasons! But still...

I wrote the other day about people with no religious inclination who celebrate Christmas with no sense of why it’s a holy day, why we celebrate it, etc. But now I am thinking about how Catholics and other Christians celebrate Christmas, and I am coming up with a few realizations that may be old news to you, but they are an epiphany of sorts for me.

First, there’s the whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” theme that runs in Christian circles. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! But I think it has simply become another trite meme that pops up every year. Just how does one keep Christ in Christmas, with all the other stuff competing for our holiday affections? Sure, many Christians have a crèche in their homes, or they set up their annual nativity scene outside in their front yard. Maybe they bake a birthday cake for Jesus. Maybe they attend Mass (although I think many Protestant denominations don’t even have a church service on Christmas, unless it’s a Sunday). These are all good things, and certainly go toward “keeping Christ in Christmas”, but all too often, I fear, they are just little sidelights done to “prove” we are Christians and that we know we are celebrating the birth of Christ.

But many people – Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, or whatever – seem to think that Christmas is primarily a time for families. It’s important for families to be together for Christmas, we believe as a culture. Christmas is “happy”, “joyful”, “magical”, “warm”, etc. Good Christians try to play down the importance of gift-giving, but everyone knows everyone wants to give (and receive) gifts during the “holiday season”. People have parties, and gifts are exchanged. We all feel sorry for the families that can’t gather all their members in one place, and we all love to see children’s excited faces on Christmas morning when they are preparing to go to Mass…oops, I mean preparing to open the pile of gifts under the tree.

Even a good Catholic friend of mine is agitated because her adult children won’t come home for Christmas, and because the one who is a single mother wants to do the Christmas morning gift-giving at home alone with her little son. My friend says that watching the child’s face light up with anticipation and excitement is a highlight of the day, and she is disappointed that she won’t be able to witness it.

Another good Catholic friend has been sighing for the last two weeks about not feeling the “Christmas spirit”. I told her she’s supposed to feel the Advent spirit first! She wrote a poem about her mixed feelings – anticipation of His birth, she says, mixed with sadness for those who are gone (deceased) or simply away from home. I know my friend is a good Catholic, but I don’t think she understands Christmas and death and Heaven and Hell and purgatory. Again I see a person who has made “being together as a family” the prime mover and end of “Christmas spirit”.

“Being together as a family” is a nice thing. But it can happen any time. Giving gifts is a nice thing, but you can give a loved one a gift any day of the year. Enjoying a festive meal together is nice, but that can be done for many occasions. “Being together as a family” is NOT the end goal of Christmas…or at least, it shouldn’t be. And when these families are together for Christmas, what are they thinking and talking about?  Well, surely some of them are talking about Christ, about His first and second coming, about the hope and joy that His birth inspires in us year after year. Some are surely making plans for Midnight Mass, or at least Christmas morning Mass. (Too many in our parish are simply anticipating the fun and festive singing of the Christmas Eve “children’s Mass”, and some of the protestants in the community attend that one just because it’s so Christmas-y, with carols sung and Santa making an appearance at the side of the holy crib, etc.)

But mostly, I think people are making plans to have a big feast, sort of like Thanksgiving; to arrange a gift-exchange time; chat and laugh and play games. I fear that even among good Catholics and Christians, “the family” has become what is worshiped; I fear that the Christmas tree has supplanted the crèche as the center of attention; I fear that Mass is just something that interrupts the flow of the festivities for a short time; I fear that, even when Mass is attended and Jesus is acknowledged in the home, Christmas has really been reduced to a time to eat, drink, and be merry.

That is not the same as making Christmas a time of hope and joy in the salvation of Our Lord.  

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Meaning of Christmas

I stole this photo from a friend...this is the beauty of where we live!
My husband always writes a “Christmas Letter” to enclose with the Christmas cards we send out…I have mixed feelings about that. I do enjoy getting such letters from other families, but the one I enjoyed the most, for years, was from a friend of my husband’s whom I had never yet. He would include such details as, “I admit I did not floss regularly this year. However, I did make it to the dentist for my 6-month check-up. The hygienist scolded me for not flossing.” Or, “We made a major change this year: we have chosen a new brand of shampoo.” I'd like to write one like that some year!

Anyway, I went to the local Bi-Mart the other day in search of Christmas cards, because it is that time of the year when my husband is champing at the bit to get those cards addressed, stamped, and mailed, with the Christmas Letter inside!

I have bought Christmas cards at Bi-Mart for years. I ignore the ones with Santa on the front, and the ones that only mention “Christmas wishes”, and the ones that tell us the meaning of Christmas is “family” or “peace” or some such thing. I choose the ones that have the Holy Family on the front, the typical nativity scene; and those usually include a verse from Scripture as well. These things are a must!

But this year in Bi-Mart, there was not one single box of cards with a nativity scene, or even a mention of the name of Our Lord. Not one. I found one box of cards with the three wise men on their camels on the front, and inside there was a mention of the “one who came at Christmas” or something like that – clearly a reference to Our Lord, yes, but with no scripture, and no Name.

Why am I surprised? Well, we live in a small, rural town, and I would venture to guess that a sizable majority of the folks who live here are Christians. Why would our local Bi-Mart choose not to stock real Christmas cards?! I asked the checker, and she said someone else had complained about the same thing.

It really made me think about something I guess I take for granted, though: the real meaning of Christmas. It’s not really about “family” and “peace” and “happiness” and “health” – not in the way most of the secular cards are using those words, which amounts to cheap sentimentality. I know I don’t have to tell you readers what Christmas is about!
But it made me think about the people who buy “Happy Holidays” cards and the other secular sentimentality. What meaning does Christmas have for them? It is a meaningless holiday for the secular world. And yet, they celebrate it…and some of them try to deny Christ in the way they celebrate it!

In addition, I had a “chance” encounter with a woman from Portland while we were waiting to be seated for dinner in a local restaurant. Because I mentioned that I was Catholic, she responded – not in a defensive or offensive way – that she wasn’t “particularly religious”. She said, “I like your pope, though…I don’t know how you feel about him.” And she smiled slightly. I said I had a few problems with some of the things he’s said, and she smiled again and said, “Well, the politics are a little different here than they are in Portland.” Ha! Did she hit that one on the head: the secular supporters of Francis simply see him as a prop for their liberal political agenda; there is no spiritual meaning for them.

I wondered what meaning life has for someone like that. And what meaning Christmas could possibly have, other than being a feel-good, pretty-lights, cozy-hot-chocolate kind of season.
It’s sad, how lost the world is – isn’t it?

But Advent is full of hope, and looking forward as we prepare the way of the Lord. We can pray for a good many conversions through the contact the unbelievers have with Christ through Christmas.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.