A few years ago I was given a book called Images of Hope. It was a collection of interviews given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI. Some time ago, a reporter had asked if he could collect the cardinal’s thoughts on various works of Christian art, knowing that Ratzinger was an art aficionado. Together they went to view something like ten major works and discussed each one as they did. While looking at a Christmas creche in Greccio inspired by Francis of Assisi’s first creche (itself inspired by the Poverello’s visit to the Holy Land in the early thirteenth century) the future pontiff opined this.
“In the child Jesus, the defenselessness of God is apparent. God comes without weapons because He does not wish to conquer from outside, but desires to win and transform us from within. If anything can conquer man’s vainglory, his violence, his greed, it is the vulnerability of a child. God assumed this vulnerability in order to conquer us and to lead us to himself.”
And so it comes back to the child, or, I should say, to children. Every year at Christmas I get sad. I don’t get depressed or mournful, just sad for a bit. It usually sets in around Christmas Eve sometime after the sun has set and the kids are in bed and begins to lift maybe after I’ve been to mass the next morning or afternoon. And I know why.
I’m thinking of children. I think of little, vulnerable children who aren’t celebrating Christmas with their families this year. I think of my niece Bernadette who died five days after birth. In particular, her’s was such a beautiful life. She was born with a fatal condition. I’ve written about her before. I remember how, during one of those few precious nights in the NICU, my brother-in-law and I, in an effort to keep ourselves awake started singing. It’s amazing how the mind cannot recall a single worthwhile song at 4 in the morning. “Dan, what should we sing?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “Every child should have at least one Christmas.” And so for the next hour my brother-in-law and I belted out every Christmas carol we could think of, harmonizing in parts as best as our tired voiced allowed, all the while holding on to the tiny fingers of the most beautiful little girl who probably couldn’t hear us anyway. When we got to Silent Night I stopped about half-way through. The haunting words echoed in my mind and I thought of the great gift to be there at the moment in that place. I composed myself and we continued. O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie! Above thy deep and dreamless streets the silent stars go by… Now I definitely had to stop. It wasn’t anything dramatic. My voice just sort of faded out as I clutched her hand and stroked her face with my finger. Thank God he started in with Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree or I would have slumped over in misery.
It’s not just Bernadette. Little Fiona would be nine years-old. When I was nine I still held fast to the wonder of Christmas morning. Her parents, my sister and her husband, still include her in the Christmas cards each year. Their other children hold up a picture of little Fiona in their portrait. I remember her last Christmas and how she was fascinated with the ornaments on the tree. And then I think about Nicky, another life taken too soon from us. He was my niece Caitlin’s only child and he went home to God when he was two. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing Glory to the Newborn King! I imagine him amazed at the angels who surround him in heaven as they glory in the Lord who chose to come among us lowly men as a vulnerable baby. He understands because He was one of us — helpless, innocent, happy.
But what weighs most on my mind tonight is little Tolkien, a child I never met but who’s passing leaves just as big a hole in my heart. A few months ago my baby sister called me at 6:45 in the morning. I had missed my alarm so I’m glad she did. “Oh man, I always forget you’re an hour behind!” she exclaimed. “Well, why do you think I might have forgotten something like that and would be calling you this early in the morning?” she asked. “Let me guess,” I shot back, “You’re pregnant?” Yes, it turns out she was expecting her eighth child. This was such incredibly happy news! To me, every baby is a happy, undeserved gift from God. Especially for me, when my wife and I haven’t been too successful in the conception department for a few years, being able to share in my sister’s joy was a welcome gift.
My heart sank as I answered the phone one night last week and the same sister began by saying a very shaky hello. I knew right away what had happened. She had lost the baby. She was 17 weeks along. This meant she would have to deliver her baby. Two days later she brought a son into the world under less than ideal circumstances. Our faith teaches us that life begins at conception. She and her husband buried little Tolkien Mary’s remains yesterday. Is there ever a good time to do this? But right before Christmas?… I cannot fathom except that in faith I choose to see that God has blessed us with these children and not to dwell on Him having called them home so soon.
When I am at mass tomorrow the music will play and my thoughts will turn back to that NICU and her hand, and Fiona’s smile looking at the lights, and all of them… Silent Night, Holy Night… And I will cry. And my own children will look up at me and find a reason to make me laugh. And looking at them I will be ever grateful for the God who became one of them for a poor bastard like me. And I will understand Christmas. And I will sing and be filled with joy.