This Without a Doubt Column was originally printed Rhode Island Catholic on Thursday, December 15, 2016.
My mom loved Christmas. Each year it quickened her step and lifted her spirits, creating a lot of activity in the little house in which we lived.
For example, after my dad died, the task of putting up the single string of lights around our front porch fell to me. They were the old-fashioned, large, multi-colored bulbs we used to know. But I remember so clearly, that as I climbed the ladder to string the lights my mom would invariably start to sing in a soft, lilting voice, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” It happened every year.
My mom liked to write Christmas cards to family, friends and neighbors, especially to long-time friends she hadn’t seen in a while. And she really looked forward to receiving them too.
And for many years she dutifully gave $5 to each of my ten nieces and nephews, even when they were grown adults. When, at one point I suggested that maybe it was time to increase the gift, perhaps to $10, she looked at me like I had just shot Santa Claus. Her Christmas gift was $5, and that was that!
But most of all, my mom loved to bake Christmas cookies, an event which took over our kitchen and dining room for a couple of weeks before the holiday. At her peak she made about 200 dozen cookies I think. Her traditional list included Russian Tea Cakes, thumbprints, spritzes, gingerbread men (each individually wrapped) and her specialty, sugar cookies – rolled thin because my dad liked them that way – and cut with old-fashioned, metal cookie cutters, into Santas, stars, stockings, bells and wreathes, and finished-off with homemade icing, and, on some, sprinkles.
My mom would then carefully arrange the cookies on trays, cover them with plastic wrap, put a bow on top and deliver them to friends and neighbors.
And that’s where I got into trouble.
One year, when I was living in Youngstown, I went home for my weekly visit to mom just before Christmas and she asked me to take a tray of her prized cookies across the street to our neighbors. Of course I was happy to comply.
So, I grabbed the tray, put it under my arm like a football, and started out the door. “Wait,” she said, “hold it upright or you’ll crush the cookies.” And then I said something I still remember and regret: “It doesn’t really matter, they’re just cookies.” And she leveled me with this, her voice as stern as I ever heard it: “It matters to me; I made those cookies and I’m proud of them. Hold the tray straight!”
Boom! That’s how a mom corrects a fifty-year-old bishop, pulls him from his pedestal, and puts him in his place.
At Christmas time I still miss my home and my mom. (My dad too, but that’s another whole set of stories!) I miss her singing while I put up the lights, the cards she sent and received, her personal little customs, and . . . her cookies.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that as time goes on Christmas changes, and it doesn’t seem nearly as good, as magical or comforting, as it used to. Yesterday’s memories are far better than today’s realities. (I don’t know – are young families today creating endearing traditions they’ll remember fondly in the future?)
However, the words my mom spoke to me on that ill-fated-cookie-delivery-day remain with me still, and I think they summarize perfectly the meaning of Christmas: On this day our loving Father looks at us, his wayward, imperfect and bruised children, cradles us gently and says wistfully: “They matter to me; I made them and I want to be proud of them.”
That’s why our Heavenly Father sent his beloved Son into the world – because He loves us and cares for us – each and every one of us: The Christian, Jew, Muslim and atheist; the Black, White and Brown; the citizen, immigrant and refugee; the Democrat, Republican, liberal and conservative; the straight, gay and transgendered; the homeless, unemployed, incarcerated, abused and addicted. And precisely because He wants to be proud of us, He calls us to be good and to do good, to overcome our sins and divisions, and someday to be by his side forever in heaven.
And what can be said of the whole human family can be said of you personally, dear reader. God loves you! He cares for you and how you’re doing! He accompanies you every day, in moments of joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, success and failure, health and illness, and life and death. But we shouldn’t be surprised by God’s providence. After all, remember that Jesus is Emmanuel, the “God-who-is-with-us!”
As we celebrate Christmas this year, we know our world is troubled, our nation is divided, and our Church is challenged. It can be pretty discouraging, and sometimes I wonder if God is disappointed in us, if He’d like to start all over.
But the truth is, God hasn’t given up yet on the human experiment. Each year at Christmas, God says to us once again: “You matter to me; I made you, and I’m confident that you can do better. That’s why I sent my Son to help you.”
So thanks, mom, for the Christmas memories. Thanks for setting me straight about your cookies. And thanks for your words of reprimand that help me understand the mystery of Christmas.
A blessed and joyous Christmas to all!