This will be my 80th Christmas. The first one, I don’t remember. I was six days old. I celebrated Christmas in the hospital, with my mother, in the days when newly-delivered mothers and their babies were allowed about a two-week rest from the traumatic experience of separation they had both just been through.
The first Christmas that I remember, when I was two, or maybe three, I saw Santa Claus. He was right there next to the Christmas tree in our apartment. We had company, so I was sleeping in the living room, on two big chairs put seat to seat. It was the middle of the night. The grown-ups had all gone to bed. I woke up, and saw him as plain as anything, in his red suit with white trim, across the room, looking toward me, and the tree lights were on, too.
In the morning, when I told the grown-ups, they said I must have been dreaming, or else it was all my imagination. But I was sure of what I had experienced. I finally kept quiet, but never really gave in.
There are a few other Christmases I remember – for instance. the first one at our Ursuline novitiate in Beacon, when the novices got us up well before midnight, silently but smilingly handed us our shawls and boots, and led us out into the fields. A wooden shed had been fixed up with a manger and images of Mary and Joseph. There we stood and sang Christmas carols in the clear country air before going back to the chapel for Midnight Mass.
Then there was the Christmas Eve in Taiwan, when I was assigned with my homeroom students to decorate the students’ dining room. Decorate? With what? The only decorations I knew were hand-me-downs from European traditions. Here I was in a semi-tropical country, a vastly different culture. No evergreens, no snowflakes, no tinsel, no wide red ribbon. Somehow, the girls must have found a way – all I can remember is the feeling of impotence, of being given a task impossible for me.
Some other Christmases I remember as sweet, some sad, some frustrating. But most, I confess, blur into moments that go by with a sense of emptiness, that in the effort to observe the traditions and rituals, I’ve missed the meaning of it all.
Now, for the 80th Christmas, but perhaps for the first time, I’ve been realizing what it is we celebrate. It is a birth, the birthing of a baby boy to a young woman. And birthing means pain, a pain such as every mother knows and I have never known. The baby boy was named Jesus, and grew up to be a prophet, an itinerant preacher with a disarmingly simple message: Love. God is love. You are to love God, love each other. Love one another as I have loved you.
But wait. Think of this: “A child is born to us. A son is given to us.” To us. To all of us. Is it that, in this ever-evolving universe, all the pain that we humans experience, mothers and virgins, women and men, can be seen as birth-pangs of the God-life in us? Can it be that illness or death, or the devastation of a storm surge, or the immeasurable grief and loss of families caught in a mass killing, or all the world’s troubles brought to us on the nightly newscasts, are preambles to life?
I think it can. It takes a focused way of seeing, a deliberate looking for the ways that are opened up to loving, to some newness of life, however small it might seem, in ourselves and those around us. It takes a faith in the message that the grown-up Jesus left for us: that love is what it’s all about.
And in this new way of seeing, Christmas comes not once a year, but every day, every moment.
Not easy. But birthing never is.