Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (1811) public domain
I find one common theme running through my years of Franciscan Christmases. To describe this thread, I would have to go back to an early Christmas spent with the friars instead of at home. I was in my first year of temporary vows, and I understood that for the time being Christmas would be spent with the friary community. Much of the activity leading up to Christmas Eve at our college seminary involved preparing for a very beautiful midnight Mass in the college chapel, so popular in the area that you had to request tickets in advance to get in.
My small part was to help Br. Martin Humphreys drive an elderly woman from her home to the midnight Mass. Br. Martin had me sit in the back seat, and then hold the woman’s head steady during the drive because her neck muscles had degenerated. I gingerly held her head while we traveled to and from the church, realizing that I was learning something profound from Br. Martin about Christmas. This is the thread: His gentle consideration for the frail woman taught me how to get out of myself and my own holiday dreams.
Every Christmas after that, to this day, an opportunity opens up to lend a hand or go out of my way to help: side trips to nursing homes; stopping to help someone who had run out of gas; picking up a hitchhiker while on a long Christmas drive home. I have come to expect these moments each year because I still need a reminder to stay anchored in the Franciscan spirit of the season. This year I will be celebrating a late-morning Mass for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital patients and staff.
While almost all of the Christmas Days were spent with the friars, I look back 11 years to my mother’s final Advent as she grew closer to death. She had chosen to remain at her home under Hospice care. I celebrated Christmas Mass with my sister and brothers in Mom’s room, four days before she died. It was a beautiful and solemn moment for us, and only now I’m connecting it to the memory of another woman whose head I kept steady during a snowy drive to midnight Mass – how it helped me get out of myself and my own holiday dreams.
(Based in Cincinnati, Fr. Bill Farris is Provincial Vicar for St. John the Baptist Province.)