Monday, December 26, 2011

A Joyful Christmas Day 2011

Christmas day for the Janaros was truly "merry." It was peaceful and blessed, cheerful and fun, and touched with a longing, an exquisite sorrow. We took joy in each other's company, while also having a palpable sense that time is passing, that we cannot capture life's joy but only follow it as it points us to its Source and Fulfillment.

On Christmas Eve, we decorated the tree. The gold papered star that Daddy made many years ago (probably for John Paul's first Christmas) is the same star that we still use. Now John Paul is 14: still young enough to be excited about Christmas, but also old enough to have a detailed understanding of the family rituals, of "how things are supposed to be done." He has four sisters, three of whom have a number of Christmas memories already, while the youngest seems to have become really, consciously aware of the joy of Christmas for the first time. "I'm so 'cited' about Christmas," Josefina has been saying for days.

It's still a special event for Daddy to put the star on the top of the tree, symbolizing that decoration is complete. It was important enough for John Paul to take a picture of it for our digitally documented family life. The baby boy who wasn't even allowed to touch the tree "a few years ago" (so it seems) is now becoming a young man with feet as big as his father's. In a few years, he'll be coming home from college for Christmas. The gold papered star will still be here.

The next morning we went to Mass. Christmas Day simply highlights another aspect of the unfathomable mystery of this singular action, in which Christ gives Himself. Whether in the purple colors of Advent's awaiting, or the explosion of Christmas light and flowers and the Nativity scene, the inexhaustible wonder of the Eucharist shines through. The humility of the Christ child in Bethlehem reminds us of the tremendous smallness and fragility of His gift of Himself in the Eucharist, by which He draws us into the very life of God who is the Transcendent Mystery of Gift and Love.

After Mass, we went home for Christmas morning, where we took our family pictures and them commenced the exuberant fun of opening gifts. Our gifts to one another are home made, or from thrift stores, or--as is usually the case with me and Eileen to each other--things we need for the house and were already going to buy. We don't have a lot of money to buy lots of gifts, but the kids enjoy making or finding small things to give to each other and to us, and the surprise and special feeling that comes from receiving and opening presents never grows old. Then there were many packages that had arrived from California over the course of the past week, from "Nana and Grampa" (Eileen's parents). The result is that we had a lot of gifts.

I sat back and sipped my coffee and watched the children laughing at one another's surprise and enjoying one another's company as they gave and opened their presents. Eileen was across from me in her chair--this amazing woman, this builder of human places, of environments of joy and learning and growing, in our home, in the classroom, in the community. Where does the love come from, that gives this woman the internal and external energy to be so creative, and to prop up and put into place her chronically exhausted husband besides? Christmas with this family seems like an awesome gift. This was my Christmas present: to experience this joy and to recognize that this is my home, and that I am not myself except in relationship with these people. I am loved here, with all my weakness and incompetence. And here the energy to love is born within me.

I also looked at the tree and wondered if this kind of gathering of the children would ever be the same again. They are growing, in life, in relation to us, and in relation to each other. For this Christmas, we had John Paul, Agnese, Lucia, Teresa, and Josefina all still with the enthusiasm and the hearts of children. John Paul is still young enough to be a child at Christmas, and Josefina is finally old enough to be more than a semi-confused toddler. They will change and grow, and this is good. But part of me cannot help longing for "forever" in such a moment, and that is a true longing, because love has an "eternal taste." It's clear that they cannot stay children forever; indeed my life and many efforts are dedicated to their growth and maturity and especially their discovery of their vocations. Still, my longing is not a sentimental nostalgia, because this beautiful moment is a sign, a promise of fulfillment, in which nothing is lost or "left behind." But I am powerless to make this happen; I must trust, I must open my heart, I must let my heart be wounded by hope. In hope, the eternal already begins to dwell.

Later, my parents and my brother came with more presents. My side of the family was gathered, and I saw here too that I was not only a father but also a son. My parents are growing old, and yet they find new joys in their sons and their growing grandchildren. The days are over when my parents hosted Christmas at their house. They can't do it anymore. We are facing with them the challenges of this time of life, where suffering and weakness begin to predominate. And I am still their son, still their little boy, even as I approach the age of 49. Something endures, reminding me of all that I have received from them.

My amazing Eileen cooked a wonderful dinner for us all, and even baked a cake. The kids helped in various ways. I did my best at a task that is becoming my specialty: keeping Josefina out of the way and out of trouble. Christmas Day at our house worked out very well. Not every Christmas has been so happy. Five years ago we spent part of Christmas at the hospital, with Josefina wired up and sick in the NICU, with the staff telling us that they did not know when she might be able to come home. It is hard to suffer at Christmas, but the promise calls out to our hearts especially in sorrow, which afflicts us only because we know that we are made for joy. Here especially, hope must endure. Only hope can endure. We must always keep hope alive, and focus it on the One who is worthy of our trust.

On Christmas day, a Human Face manifested itself to the world for the first time, a Face that is destined to look into the eyes of every other human face. A Voice was heard in the world for the first time, the human voice of Him who created the world, who created every human person in His image, who speaks in the depths of every human heart. This is Christmas: Jesus revealing Himself to the world, presenting Himself as a gift to us "from the beginning."

And Christmas comes, year after year, with the familiar prayers of its liturgical celebration, its festivity and its decoration, its particular family traditions. All of these are signs for us. Even as we change, He is with us. He has come, and He is coming. His love for us endures, and is shaping us.