What’s the best Christmas prayer you have ever experienced?
A mystical midnight Mass? Quiet adoration before the manger scene, lit by the glow of the tree in your living room? Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the 1,000th time? Taking your small children to see Santa and enjoying their delight on Christmas morning?
Donating to the needy rather than splurge on unneeded gifts? Hearing “Do You Hear What I Hear”? the wonderful call for peace written in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis? Just holding a loved one?
Mine was an hour one Christmas day a few years ago.
For many years, my Christmas routine consisted of preaching and presiding at a 5:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass at the university; later, a smaller home Mass for friends; usually a morning Mass at a parish; and then I’d attend the 11:30 a.m. Mass with the Jesuits in our infirmary at St. Joe’s University. Wonderful prayer times all.
Then, it was off to visit four homes of families who are so good to me. The last home was with my elderly mother to a huge family’s feast who always welcomed the two of us to their raucous and loving celebration.
Late Christmas night, tired and stuffed, I would make the examen prayer of St. Ignatius, just stunned by how lucky I am to have so many people with which to celebrate the mystery of the birth of Christ, God incarnate among us.
A couple of years ago, my mother had died, and one family I usually visited was out of town. All of a sudden, it was 1:00 p.m. Christmas Day, and I had nowhere I had to be until later in the afternoon.
I went into the house chapel and settled down. Slowly, I read Luke 2:1-20, lingering on the words. Caesar Augustus. David. Mary and Joseph. The time came. She gave birth to her firstborn son. Shepherds. Great fear. “Do not be afraid!” trumpets the angel. Good news. Great joy. A savior has been born for you. An infant. Wrapped in swaddling clothes. Glory!
Entering into the classic Ignatian method of contemplation, I imagined myself in the Gospel scene. My imagination was filled with the quiet rustling of the manger. An ox and donkey snort, their breath visible in the frigid air. A few mice dart around in the straw. The musty smell of earthen floor. A small charcoal fire reminds me of the same in John 18 and 21.
I gaze on Mary holding Jesus. She looks tired, really exhausted. She’s far from home, no gal pals to help her. Joseph too looks weary. He seems a bit awed and almost fearful. How is he going to care for these two? Does he already sense the terror of Herod?
As I just sit there, being present to the moment, suddenly, Mary turns to me and asks, “Do you want to hold him?”
She gently places the sleeping baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in my arms.
As I hold the savior of the world, all tiny and baby bald, smaller than a loaf of bread, I don’t do anything. Nor say anything. Silence is often the best conduit of God.
There isn’t any tremendous grace given, nor any startling insight into the mystery and majesty of divinity. What pervades my consciousness is a sense of peace.
A deeper realization of the vulnerability of God dawns on me. A welling up of gratitude for the gift of faith, and hope for our world, moves in me. Love for Jesus, and a sense of connection to Mary and Joseph as they accept their mission, surges within me. The reality of Emmanuel, God with us, takes hold in my heart.
Carl Sandburg once said, “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” This baby is God’s pledge and promise that life will go on forever. Hold on to him.
Christmas in the chapel, holding the baby Jesus — best Christmas prayer ever.
Jesuit Father Richard Malloy is director of mission and ministry at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore. He is author of “Being on Fire: The Top Ten Essentials of Catholic Faith.”
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