Sitting in my den at 8:21 a.m. on what my mother called “Christmas Eve day,” my mind and my heart, my thoughts and my prayers wander to the Middle East, and more specifically to Palestine, and more specifically to Bethlehem, and more specifically to Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem.
It is Beit Jala that warms my Christian heart and sustains, what others have called, my Palestinian soul. I have fallen hopelessly in love with Beit Jala with a love full of hope which longs for peace for my friends, no, my family, in Beit Jala.
On Facebook I found a post by my (our) friend Waseim. From Arabic his name translates as “Handsome,” which has given the two of us many smiles since I first teased him, “Something certainly gets lost in translation!” I asked him to post it on YouTube, so that I could copy it and embed it here. Within hours of his waking in Beit Jala on Christmas Eve, he honored me and my request, as he always does, and so it appears below.
The countdown is obvious to our ears, however different the sound of the numbers. The feel of Jingle Bells is the same, no matter the language. And we join in singing the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” like we (and they) will sing those words in our hometown churches, here in the little town of Milford and there in the little town of Bethlehem.
Fireworks, of different kinds, are a common occurrence in the area surrounding Beit Jala, some set off in celebration and some set off in conflict. On this occasion, however, as during the celebrations of weddings, graduations and baptisms, the fireworks are explosively joyous. At the end of the video the noise of the fireworks overtakes the singing of “Glory to God in the highest.” We all live in hope that one day soon the song of the angels will overcome all military firing, and Beit Jala and Palestine and all the region will live in peace with justice with all her neighbors who deserve and long for the same freedoms and rights.
May Beit Jala know the peace the angels sang about during that mid-night on which Christ was born.
Twice Waseim turned the camera toward his parish church, Annunciation Catholic Church in Beit Jala, where I first met “my five (grand) children” – Issa, Mary, Ranim, Tamara and Tamer – back in 2003, and where Waseim worships every Sunday with Father Faysal, the parish priest, with the families of Beit Jala, with Suhail, the principal, with the teachers and students of the Latin Patriarchate School, and with the seminarians of the attached Latin Patriarchate Seminary. To all of them my heart will turn, as I turn my prayers to God at Midnight Mass for them.
Saturday evening after a Thai dinner I was walking (and gawking) around my house with Abouna Sleman. In what used to be the room where my mother slept when she visited, I showed him the chair in which mom loved to sit when she prayed her morning prayers and her rosary. It is next to the window which looks out on the Mary grotto behind the rectory. I enjoyed going through my mom’s funeral program with him, showing him the pictures of the family and of some of the people and the things that were important to her. He smiled and reacted most when I turned around the Christmas ornament of my house that mom had painted for me, “Ahhh. Nice.” It was the grotto of Mary outside the window by which he was standing. On Sunday morning Abouna concelebrated the 11:00 a.m. Mass which included the baptism of baby Ryan Joseph. During the Eucharistic Prayer, at the consecration I stepped aside, so that Abouna could chant the words of Jesus in Arabic, as he lifted the bread and the chalice from the altar. Arabic is the language presently spoken that is closest to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. We heard the words of consecration chanted in the tone and inflection close to what the apostles heard from the lips and heart of Jesus at the Last Supper. You can hear the at minute 47:00 at this link: Words of Jesus in Arabic.
This morning when Abouna was speaking to his mother on the phone before Mass, I wanted him to thank his mother for giving him to us. Her response? “I did not give him to you. I gave him to God … (pause) … God can give him to anyone He wants.”
After speaking with his mother Abouna was arguing on the phone with someone. When he hung up, I asked him what that was all about. It was his 8 year old sister, asking him over and over what he was going to bring back for her from America for Christmas. At the end of Mass, I asked the people to give him some ideas as to what he should take home to her. He was told about paints and markers and art books. He heard about teddy bears and dolls.
There was a lunch later in the church hall that was ready for his visit. The event was about peace, love and hope. And sure enough, in midafternoon, when we got back to the rectory from the luncheon, there was a bag hanging on the doorknob of breezeway door. One little girl, 8 year old Izzy, didn’t just give him an idea; she conned her dad to take her to buy something.
When I got back in the house I went directly to google “Daesh” and “Erbil and oil” to learn a little more than I had known before.
And then I turned on a football game and fell asleep.
Shhh. Don’t tell Amanda or Matt.
It is their wedding gift.
It is from Bethlehem. I carried it home myself.
It is olive wood. All wrapped up are shepherds and sheep, kings and a camel, a donkey and a manger.
When Amanda was very little, and before her brother Cody was born, she saw everything in terms of a mommy, a daddy and a baby. When she saw deer, it was a mommy, a daddy and a baby. If she saw cows in a field, it was a mommy, a daddy and a baby. Everywhere she looked, there was a mommy, a daddy and a baby. She always saw her own stable, safe and secure life reflected elsewhere – everywhere.
This gift is for Amanda and Matt. It is for their first Christmas together. It is … yes, you know what it is. It is will be so much fun for me to tell her that it is from Bethlehem itself. It is for their new home together. In this “stable” scene there is the promise of safety and security for them – in Jesus born among us and through Jesus living within us.
In this olive wood Nativity set there is “a mommy, a (foster) daddy and a baby.” We will now wait to see how long it takes after their wedding until we get word that there will be in their home a mommy, a daddy – and a baby!
The one who reads aloud the Gospel of the visit of the shepherds must make the appropriate pause, lest it sound like “they found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger.” All three of them lying in the manger together sounds cozy, but cramped. Yet the failure to pause (and the accompanying chuckle) gives us pause to remember that God chose to be that close to us. God has invited us into that kind of intimacy with him.
What we celebrate on the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God is quite simple: “God chose to have a mother. God chose Mary to be that mother.” That is amazing. If it were not so true, it would be unbelievable.
God chose to have a mother. I had no choice. I had to have a mother or I would not exist. God, who creates everything, chose to be a creature. God did not choose be like us; God chose to be one of us. God, who creates every mother, chose to have a mother. The woman he chose for his mother, he himself had created. God, who creates all life that lives in the womb, chose to live in the womb. God chose to be born and to wear diapers. God chose to be held, changed and nursed. That is outlandish. If it were not so true, it would be unbelievable.
God chose as his mother someone who was humble and simple, trusting and loving, brave and strong. God chose Mary to be his mother. When Mary felt movement within her, she was feeling God within her. When she felt a kick, she was feeling God’s foot. When she held her baby and smelled him, she smelled something of herself, and she smelled something of divinity and eternity. When she slobbered him with motherly kisses, she was kissing the face of God.
We call him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Prince of Peace. We call her God-bearer, God-birther, Mother of God. If it were not so true, it would be unbelievable.
The painting above is by American painter Morgan Weistling. “Kissing the Face of God” is lovely and tender. Take a generously long look at the painting, savor the emotion, and then maybe ask Mary to kiss the face of God for you.
[Thank you to Caitlin Kennell Kim of Busted Halo for the inspiration and for many of the words I have used.]
For the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, six things that we do well to say often in family: Please. Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. You are wonderful. How can I help you?
Perhaps you think of the one in your family to whom you last said one of these, or the one to whom you would do well to say one of these six things: Please. Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. You are wonderful. How can I help you?
Something dawned on me while I was coming up with the list.
I was shooting for five. The first four came easily: Please. Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you.
Something had me notice that they were the kinds of things that we often say in prayer. They matched three of the four “kinds” of prayer that we talk about: petition (please), thanksgiving (thank you) and contrition (I’m sorry; I love you).
The one kind of prayer that was missing was adoration. You know how we say to God, “You are wonderful. You just are.” Well, we can say that to someone in family, too, and we would do well to say that often to family. I had reached five.
But then I thought that there is something else we often say in family, “How can I help you? How can I help you accomplish what you are trying to do?” We can say that to God, too, “God, how can I help you to pull off what you are trying to make happen?”
It dawned on me that what we do well to say in prayer we would do well to say in family, and what we say in family we can also say in prayer.
So, which prayer best matches your emotions and desires at this moment, “Please, O God. Thank you, God. I’m sorry, God. God, I love you. O God, you are wonderful. God, how can I help you?
Didn’t get what you want for Christmas? Do you have food, clean water and shelter? That’s more than many have. Can you say thanks to God?
Family drive you crazy at Christmas? Many refugees and war victims have no families at all. Can you thank God for even your crazy family?
Someone didn’t like your gift? Many people can’t afford gifts for their families. Can you thank God for the ability to give in this way?
Christmas a disappointment? Many Christians suffer persecution and cannot go to Mass safely. Can you thank God you’re free to worship Him?
Did something human – like illness, anger, lust – ruin your Christmas? Can you thank God for becoming human and entering into our messy human life?
Those five reflection questions come from Father James Martin. I follow Father Jim, a Jesuit priest, on Twitter and in America magazine. Either of his latest books are an easy read and would make a great gift to just about anyone: “Between Heaven and Mirth” and “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” (This is not a hint or disguised request. I have both books already.)
At all six Masses on Christmas at St. Andrew we presented to each person a booklet with all the prayers and music for the celebration. The first thing people saw was a welcome message and an explanantion of the preace dove.
(click on image of program to see it enlarged)
By yourself or with family,
grateful or hurting, disappointed or satisfied,
successful or stressed, sick or healed, elated or deflated,
feeling the loss of health, home, loved one and employment,
or with everyone and in good relationship
with everyone whom you love and who loves you,
we come to Mass on this holy day
and approach the altar
with grateful and humble hearts.
Jesus is on the altar at every Mass
as truly as he was in the manger on the first Christmas.
As he was in the wood of feeding trough
and on the wood of the cross,
he is truly present on our altar-table
for our nourishment and our salvation.
At every Mass
we are in Bethlehem on Christmas,
at Calvary on Good Friday
and at the empty tomb in Jerusalem on Easter morning.
May you experience always
the spirit of Christmas which is peace,
the joy of Christmas which is hope,
and the heart of Christmas which is love.
A “peace dove” with lighted candle will remain on the ledge at the tabernacle in our church throughout the Christmas season. Our friends in our partner parish and school in the Beit Jala area of Bethlehem will light a candle for us on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They will remember us in Bethlehem, as we will remember them here. The Christians who live in Bethlehem still do not enjoy the peace the angels sang about on the first Christmas. As we sing the opening words of the Gloria – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will” – we will pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem, throughout the Holy Land and all throughout the Middle East.
In “Good King Wenceslas” we sing, “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen.” On the feast of Stephen, December 26, many are out shopping, looking for bargains and sales. Good King Wenceslas sought out a poor person.
Toward the end of the song, there is a line that we have rarely paid any notice: “Ye who now will bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing.”
Father James Martin likes the version of the Christmas song sung by the Roches, for it highlights how helping the poor helps us …
It should be of no great surprise that I like best a version sung by a lovely Irish girl, Roisin Dempsey, because, well, she’s a lovely Irish girl with a lovely Irish voice singing with some lovely Irish flavor …
Roisin and I appeared together in Celtic Woman’s “Songs from the Heart” DVD that was taped at Powerscourt House and Gardens in Dublin, Ireland … well, actually, she sang in the show on stage … and I was in the audience … but we can both be seen on the same DVD.
My nose and my fingers are crooked. My right ear sticks out like a car door that is opening. One of my legs is longer than the other one.
I am a bit of a misfit.
In a classic Christmas movie, Rudolph the Reindeer, the one with the red nose, accidentally comes to the island of misfit toys. Something is wrong with each of the toys. They are convinced that no one would want them or love them.
There is an elephant that had spots, and a bird that couldn’t fly but it could swim. There is a water pistol that shoots jelly, and a train that has a caboose with squares wheels. And there is Charlie:. He is a bit of a surprise and has a spring in his legs. He hides in a box, and pops out. But his name is Charlie, and he is convinced that no one would ever want to play with a Charlie in a Box.
We are all misfits. Somewhere, and someone all of us don’t fit in. I don’t meet the standards that I have set for myself. I don’t match up with what the Church thinks that I should be and what the Gospel demands of me. I have not become all that God created me to be.
God came on purpose to our island, this island of misfits, to show us what was in his heart that needed to be in ours, that we are wanted and loved by God. God wants you. God loves you. No one is truly happy until they are convinced deep down within them that they are truly wanted and truly loved by God. That is what makes Christmas the most wonderful day of the year!