Carolyn Woo

Christmas is fast approaching. My thoughts, like those of many, have turned to Christmas presents. What would be fun and useful for my team members at Catholic Relief Services? What would not be merely shelved but stay in sight and mind and bring a smile? When would I have time to shop? What about my grown sons, nieces and nephews? And what to buy for so many good friends who do not need anything?

We go through all these deliberations to help us convey our affection in an explicit way, with special expressions, to let people know how much we appreciate their presence. Presence is what Christmas is about. Christ, the Son of God, comes into our world to be present to us, to know us intimately not from afar but among us, sharing all the experiences we have: joy, sadness, friendship, loss, temptations, anger, rejection, acceptance.

His engagement with us is physical as he puts his arms around us, healing, teaching, sharing our tables, coming to our weddings and listening to our squabbles. He cried for us, and he cried because of us. While he came at one moment in history, he promised that he is always with us, that he would never abandon us, that at our worst and most vulnerable, there he is. Why wouldn’t we be singing our hearts out for this feast?

Presents that come from the exhausting and fretful process of shopping and the logistics of wrapping and mailing can drive out authentic presence. There are many wonderful traditions of Christmas meant to turn our attention to others and to God, but somehow some of them become acts of duty or tradition, empty of their intended spirit.

I never understand the purpose of Christmas cards (usually from business contacts) that have no Christian message, no name of the recipient as in “Dear xxx.” They sometimes come with a preprinted signature of the sender. I also wonder how many of us line up to admire the elaborate creches in our parishes as part of the Christmas decoration without stopping for a moment of prayer or in awe of what it stands for? We love the beauty of candlelit midnight Mass without noting what it means for Christ to be the light that dispels the darkness in our lives.

Though I’m guilty of the frantic “preparations” for Christmas, there is one Christmas practice that I cherish. At home, I collect all the Christmas cards in a big basket. On Christmas, in the afternoon I sit in a quiet spot and slowly open each one. I look at the address label to identify the sender, and I try to remember where that person was in life since the last Christmas message. Reading and pondering the cards is like entering into the next chapter of a friend’s journey, noting the incredible privilege of sharing in their joys, challenges and changes.

Some of these cards come from students and colleagues I have not seen in decades, yet there is a bond that allows us to stay connected and recognize one another as a gift, a companion on the same journey. I say a prayer for each family and know that in many different ways, God has been present to me through them.

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Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.