I met a priest once. Actually I’ve met lots of priests, some of whom were (RIP Basil) and still are (thank you Louis) much-cherished friends and mentors in my life. But this one has always, from the moment we met, presented me with a challenging conundrum. We met when he took over as the parish priest in the Church where I had been happily involved for many years. He seemed to take an immediate disliking to me, which really baffled and hurt me at the time, and which proved to be very uncomfortable and inconvenient, since we were in such constant contact with each other because of my involvement in various committees (including parish council) and as the pianist in the choir. After a few months of being subjected to ongoing unwarranted rudeness and sometimes publicly-humiliating hostility, I finally, reluctantly, made an appointment to see him to discuss this baffling animosity (which perplexed not only me, but many others who also could not understand the reason for it). The moment I sat down, he began raging at me, flinging strange psychological lingo at me, most of which I actually understood the meaning of – but not the personal implication of – or why he believed that any of it pertained to me personally, since we barely even knew each other at that point. The attack was calculated and cruel, and left me reeling in such shock that I could not respond. I stumbled out of the office feeling shredded and horribly diminished.
I hung in at this parish for awhile longer, mainly because of my commitment as the pianist in the choir, but his continuing animosity made it too uncomfortable for me to stay and I eventually had to give up all involvement in that parish altogether. (Ironically, and equally baffling, once I became just a “spectator” parishioner, his attitude improved dramatically.) To this day, I cannot fathom, nor can others who know both of us, the why of this irrational (and it WAS irrational) hatred and hostility.
That encounter that day left scars that have proven difficult to heal or overcome. Eventually I left the Church altogether, and to this day I cannot bring myself to go back to the Catholic Church. I know that’s irrational, but that’s the way it is. I did find another wonderful community in which to worship, but have still not been able to involve myself to the happy level that I once enjoyed.
But knowing that everyone comes into our lives for a reason, and that there are always golden nuggets of wisdom in every encounter and experience, I’ve analyzed (even with the help of trusted therapists) and searched for the lessons I’m supposed to have learned from this person and those brutal encounters. I still don’t know all the answers, but over the years I’ve come to realize and acknowledge that he also left another much more valuable and positive memory that continues to have a good ripple effect in my life. It was a homily that he once gave during Advent, a sermon I’ll never forget and which to this day is still one of the foundation stones of my own Christmas.
His message, though I cannot quote directly, went like this: We get the Christmas that we prepare for. However you choose to prepare for your Christmas will dictate what kind of Christmas you end up with. So whatever you want Christmas to be, you have to plan ahead and create it into being. All of the choices we make throughout our Christmas preparations create the Christmas that we end up having, not only on the day itself but throughout the entire Advent season as well. If all of our preparations are centered around shopping and consumerism, then our Christmas will be all about gifts and material things. If all of our preparations are centered around Jesus, then our Christmas will be all about the stable and all that happened there. If all of our preparations are centered around family, then our Christmas will be all about family.
You get the picture. That sermon had a lasting profound impact on me. I’ve never forgotten that message. And ever since then, I’ve made an effort to, first, decide early in the season what kind of Christmas I want, and then to choose the activities and preparations that will best nurture that kind of Christmas into being. For so long, my vision included both the profound spiritual celebration and an equally-profound celebration of family. So for me, seeing all of my family sitting around the living room (and then the dining room table), laughing and enjoying being with each other was the epitome of Christmas for me.
Then, as members of my family began disappearing, either through death or other circumstances, that picture began to shrink dramatically, until eventually, it completely disappeared. Suddenly, I was left with an empty living room and too many empty chairs around the table. It took me awhile to open my eyes and realize that hubby and my step-daughter were still here, and that they were my reason for climbing out of hibernation and finding a new way to prepare for and celebrate Christmas. While we’ve all decided to keep some of the older traditions from my side of the family (like morning stockings), the day has picked up new traditions as well, and I really love and embrace the new Christmas that we’re still in the process of building for ourselves.
But it still comes down to what we prepare for. For me, the Christmas that I want is still centered around both the spiritual and family. And so I nurture the spiritual side of Christmas by placing the nativity scene front and center, by spending time in prayer and Advent meditation, by including charitable giftings in with the gift-giving, and by keeping in my heart a constant awareness of the true meaning of my Christian Christmas. And I nurture the family side by baking cookies that I know everyone will enjoy, searching for the ultimate stuffing recipe that will be both healthy and tasty (still looking), and shopping for those special little gifts that will hopefully help to tell my loved ones how special and beloved they are to me. There is (in my Christmas) room for all of it (spiritual, family and shopping) as long as I keep it in balance and healthy perspective (according to the kind of Christmas that I want).
For me, Christmas isn’t just about that one day…it’s about the preparation and anticipation, enjoying the music of the season, experiencing a quiet gratitude for blessings received throughout the year and a humble attempt to pay it forward as best as we can. Most of all, for me, it’s about Love. Love, love, love. It’s the only way that I’ve been able to rescue Christmas from the threat of permanent hibernation and despair. To infuse it and wrap it in as much love as possible. Love of God, love FOR God, love of family, love for my family, love for peace, love for nurturing peace within my own heart and daily encounters, love for life and love for being alive.
That’s the Christmas I want, so that’s the Christmas I’m preparing for this Advent. A Christmas season steeped in love, a Christmas Day wrapped in love, and a heart so bursting with love and gratitude that it will be enough to ripple right through into the new year.
You can’t buy that in the store.
If I want my Christmas to be all about love, then I have to infuse all of my preparations with love…my vision needs to be intimately interwoven into every aspect of my preparations – so that all of my shopping is done with love in my heart (including compassion for those overworked cashiers and other people stuck in those long line-ups), all of my encounters are kind and loving (even in the parking lot when someone takes that last parking spot), and all of my choices for gifts, meals and activities are made out of love (rather than a need to cling to old traditions that perhaps just don’t work anymore). And while I do admittedly fall short and let the stress get to me at times (we’re human!), this vision-nurturing approach, and my constant awareness of what I want my Christmas to look like, has helped to make the season much merrier and brighter than the dreaded burden that it was becoming.
Yes, that priest flung some wounding shards into my psyche that day. But he also gave me a gift for which I’ll be forever grateful. He opened my eyes to see my way through all the loss and devastation to create a new Christmas in my here-and-now, founded on the Love which carried me through those dark patches and brought me safely to the threshold of a new wondrous Christmas morning wrapped in all of the colours of Love, love and love.
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Copyright © Sharon C. Matthies, Meanderings (blog), 2012. All rights reserved.
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