Christmas is a season of longing, when thoughts turn to home and family, often the images of a time past. Some of us, when we were in college, away at work, or in the U.S. armed forces, longed to come home to the loving embrace of parents and siblings.
But Christmas also has traditions, like the posadas, of visiting families who may be as close as next door but far removed from our concern and attention.
For many years, in our former home in Croton, New York, our friends Gaynell and Jim had a priest friend celebrate a Mass on Christmas Eve in their home to which they invited perhaps 15 or 20 families, ours included. It was the only time during the year that we got together. But that gathering gave us a sense of belonging that stayed with us throughout the year.
Just as the feast is the realization of the ages-old longing for a savior to redeem the world, in our dreams at least, as the carol about going home for Christmas ends, it perhaps touches in some way our longing for an eternal destiny.
Of course, Christmas is also a time when we think of family in larger terms. We think of the homeless, of those who live alone, of people in nursing homes, immigrants here without documents who cannot go home for Christmas, and this year of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Syria trekking across Europe.
This is when our tradition of gift-giving to loved ones expands to those near and far who are most in need. The beatitudes point the way, among the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, the victims of injustice.
Christmas therefore is the time when we are most likely to realize that a gift costing us a pittance can buy a vaccination that can save a life in the developing world.
Sadly, our concern for the needy often wanes in a short time. But there are people who set an inspiring example for us.
Recently while I was waiting at an auto repair shop, a middle-aged woman confided that she regularly goes to the county jail. There she always stops to visit a young man whose family has rejected him. Though poor, as everything about her proclaimed, she said she can sometimes give him a few dollars to purchase incidentals.
In my neighborhood in Connecticut, the real estate agent who helped us find our home cares for a man who lives alone and was incapacitated by a stroke. Though she works, she goes to his house every day, spending an hour or two cooking and cleaning, takes him shopping, to church and to family gatherings. “I carry a wheelchair in my car all the time,” she told me. Thanks to her, that man can truly say he has a family.
Recently, too, Connecticut’s governor, Dannel Malloy, accepted a Syrian refugee family after the governor of Indiana rejected them. He indicated we need not give in to the fear that some terrorist will enter the country among the refugees.
Recently, my brother Antonio and I visited an aunt in a nursing home. The dominant visual image I took away was of people sitting in their wheelchairs listlessly, alone with their thoughts. And one man said to me: “Don’t get old.”
We live at a time of excruciating loneliness. My aunt, of course, was delighted to see my brother, whom she had not seen in 25 years. We had difficulty tearing ourselves away. It made me think that these are the people we need to keep in mind the most in our Christmas journey.