The image is powerful and evocative. Angelic young faces, happy parents, serene grandparents gathered around the Christmas tree, a fire burning and stockings hanging from the mantle. Music reinforces the atmosphere promising a dreamy White Christmas and that Ill Be Home for Christmas as well as the power of a Silent NIght and the hope for Joy to all the World. The power of the images and traditions is such, many people and up in the depth of depression for lack of family or friends with which to share this moment. Now, imagine being separated from all those you love not because you are in the service of your country, not because they live far away or because of a distant job, but because you screwed up and gave into pride and made choices which forfeited your freedom. You experience guilt and sadness and anger and everywhere you look, all those around you are in the same boat.
My first Christmas separated from family and friends was an emotional disaster. I was incapable of wishing anyone a Merry Christmas including my wife and children. Joy was nowhere to be found. In its place was recrimination, pessimism and a feeling I was in a deep hole and someone was still digging. Because of my actions, loneliness and alienation were constant companions and God was a distant, in approachable, silent force.
This is my third Christmas in this state, and it represents years of self reflection and evaluation of who I am and what is important and valuable in my and our lives and ways to come in from the weeping and gnashing of teeth, come out of the darkness and begin to close the yawning gaps and distances between me and those I love. It started with a Mass on Christmas Eve which was powerful and joyful and filled with hope. It was a liturgy built around symbols of light and dark which Christmas evokes. We filled the sanctuary and altar with candles of every size and variety. Some were broken and others barely had enough wick left to burn for any period of time. the chapel lights were out and as the priest processed in, to the strains of Angels We Have Heard On High, he carried a lone candle which would be the source of light for all the others. Light spread across the front of the chapel and on the altar, and as we sang hundreds of men, separated from everyone they love, raised their voices and spirits. At the end of the liturgy, I walked out feeling God less distant and hope a possibility.
It was on Christmas Day this theme and feeling took off and time and distance, separation, loneliness and sadness, guilt and recrimination were rendered impotent if only for a moment. It was because of "the prayer". I was able to join intimately with my wife and children in a way I would have bet was impossible. We had spoken on the phone several times...early in the morning to say Merry Christmas as they rose to open presents; around 1pm while at brunch at Granna's house and now at dinner time to say good night. My daughter, Darcy, answered her phone. She said they had just sat down at the dining room table for dinner. (the tablecloth would be red, place mats red and green, candles in Christmas colors and the china...the good stuff...passed down from on generation to another) All of a sudden I can tell I'm on a speaker phone and Darcy says, "...ok dad go ahead." I didn't know what she meant. She had put the phone in the center of the table and said, "go ahead and say the prayer." We would always start a special meal with a prayer. I would lead it in times past. Again she says, "go ahead dad, are you there?" When it hit me what she was suggesting, my knees buckled and legs were rubber. "Go ahead dad." she pleaded. "Wait, give me a second," I stammered. Someone else added, "...remember start with the sign of the cross." (very funny) So I did..."In the name of the Father...then Bless Us Oh Lord and these Thy gifts..and finally thank you for the love around this table. Thank you for our family, remember all those who don't have food on their table or a roof over their h heads or clothes on their backs." I offered a couple of intentions and then finished with,"...we ask all of this through Christ Our Lord." At that moment there was a chorus of "Amen." they then all said we love you and Merry Christmas and hung up.
For one nano second, there was no separation between us. In that one moment we were all around the table basking in the warmth of the love and care we share. Distance had been bridged, loneliness banished. We were one. ON Christmas Day it was an experience of transcendence and immanence which is what Christmas symbolizes...God's transcendence and, through the birth of Jesus, Her immanent presence in the world.
How did she know to do that? What motivated her to just put the phone down and say,"..go ahead dad?" Where did the inspiration come from and how did they know this one act would cause time and space to alter and would touch me at my deepest core? My four children and wife treated this like an everyday occurrence, a natural response to our current condition, no one batted an eye and yet when I hung up the phone, I had been transformed. Tears covered my face and I had no voice. I was unable to tell anyone what had happened. I had experienced a moment of true love and grace which rendered me speechless.
At one point I couldn't even say Merry Christmas and now I'm given a gift by those I cherish the most and it shuffles the laws of physics and unites us, touches us, brings us together and becomes a tangible, touchable, transcendent, event capable of moving and re-shaping the soul.
I don't know what lesson this teaches. What I do know is the Spirit was present at that moment. I could feel the love at that table no different than if I had been physically present and the news is really good. I'm not alone and that love I felt can never be taken away from me and all of it is available to you too.
This account could be tightened and edited so it reads better and is more concise. It could be less rambling and more cohesive. However,"the prayer" gave me glimpse of what an encounter with God must be like and it requires poetry not prose. A talent for poetry is not a gift I've been granted, so this is my best shot. I hope it makes sense to you, but even if it doesn't its proof the same power and spirit and ability to effect us exists and is available even if its through a smart phone and a loving family. Happy New Year.