It has been my observation that certain people have a tough time at Christmas. Single adults, for example, see younger couples with their children, the families of their close friends gathering for Christmas Eve services where they’ll hold hands and sing “Joy to the World,” and somehow all the merriment and tinsel escapes those who Santa Claus will pass by.
Over the years I’ve learned to pretty well deal with what I call the “Blue Christmas Syndrome” but as I sat to write my Christmas column yesterday afternoon, my eyes were drawn to Webster, N.Y., where our “Crazy of the Week” apparently set a house on fire and then, as firefighters responded, the deranged lunatic shot four of them, two fatally.
Oh, the gunman – identified as William Spengler -- was loopy, allegedly just having served 17 years in prison after bludgeoning his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer back in 1980. He soon committed suicide after his Christmas Eve murders, but what on earth do we say to the families of Mike Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka this morning? How about the kids of the other two firemen who are now in intensive care?
Seven houses and a mobile home were destroyed as the other firefighters were drawn back in the hail of bullets, which surely ruined Christmas for those people as well. So in a concerted effort to soothe my soul, I read most of Monday afternoon, seeking solace for myself and finally I came across a “preview” of sorts of what New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan would talk about during last night’s famous Midnight Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
Back in the day I’d never walk down Madison Avenue that I wouldn’t take a few minutes to go inside for prayers. Understand, I’m not a Catholic but I have great admiration and respect for the Church, just like most of the 5.5 million visitors every year. It’s the easiest thing in the world to pray in St. Patrick’s and when you leave there is a lightness to your step and a song in your heart.
“Midnight Mass” at St. Patrick’s, which begins at the first minute of the day we celebrate the birth of Christ, is the toughest ticket in New York at Christmas. You have to have a special ticket to get in and, while they are free, the 2,200-seat church almost bursts at the seams. So what will Cardinal Dolan tell those who kneel in honor of the Christ Child?
He predicts Christmas Day will be bittersweet. “One thing, though, that the tragedy of (Hurricane Sandy), and the tragedy of Sandy Hook has taught us, is how we all rally around kids. Whenever our kids are threatened, whether that be our kids’ homes wrecked, our schools closed and destroyed because of the hurricane, or the sadness and the violence of Sandy Hook, it reminds us how our heart goes out when our kids are in danger, and, I think, in a way, that’s why God chose to come to us as a baby,” he told Rich Lamb of WCBS radio.
“There’s nothing more vulnerable or frail or fragile or innocent or poor than a little baby and that’s why Christmas is so tender,” Cardinal Dolan gently explained.
So where is the hope during our times of despair? “With the eyes of faith, we see life as a dawn. We find ourselves at a dawn, a lot of somberness, still a lot of darkness of the night. The night is not over, but yet just breaking through barely is the light, the radiance, the hope, the promise of a new day,” he reasoned.
But – wait -- don’t we mess it up, buying gifts and turning what should be a sacred holiday into a very festive and commercial time where the Christ Child is nudged out? “Sometimes religious leaders, we wring our hands and we say ‘Oh there’s too much buying. It’s to mercantile. We’re stressing the material side.’
“What I’m grateful for is that it shows the giving, generosity-sharing, are at the heart of Christmas because, why? How appropriate. How providential. Because Christmas celebrates the most sublime gift of all – the gift of God himself to us.”
Earlier in the week Cardinal Dolan spoke about violence in the United States after conducting a funeral mass in Newtown. “It’s perhaps the most frequent comment one hears from people when asked about the Newtown massacre: ‘I just don't know what to say . . .’
“That’s actually a rather profound observation. As Pope Benedict remarked during a 2006 visit to Auschwitz, ‘In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence — a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?’
“Yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again,” Cardinal Dolan explained. “In fact, we’ve said a lot about the tragedy. It’s just that we haven’t used many words. St. Francis of Assisi used to remind his followers, ‘Preach always. And, only if you have to, use words.’
“Yes, the blessed, stricken town (of Newtown, Mass.) has said a lot, as have all of us, even though, ‘We don’t know what to say.’ Tears, embraces, silence and whispered, clumsy prayers really all speak louder than words.
Cardinal Dolan kept going. “Mother Teresa of Calcutta noted that, at the saddest moment in human history -- the death of Jesus on that hill called Calvary -- there stood Mary at the foot of His cross. And the Gospels record her saying . . . nothing. She just had to be there, with her suffering, dying son. Sob she did; speak she did not.
“Yet, anyone who has spent time in front of Michelangelo’s renowned Pieta at the Vatican, and who has looked at her face gazing at the broken body of her only child, knows that her heart spoke volumes. The only thing that has flowed more than the blood of those beautiful children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the adults who gave their lives trying to stop the horrific violence, has been the tears of all of us who love them and their families from afar.
“We Catholics traditionally recall a rather eerie, somber, chilling episode from the Bible every year in an otherwise upbeat, radiant, joyful Christmas holiday season, “ he said. “It’s found in the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:16-18), where the sinful, jealous, paranoid King Herod ordered the death of all the baby boys in the quiet neighborhood of Bethlehem, plotting to murder this rumored ‘newborn king’ who could, he feared, be a rival to his power.
“We refer to those little babies as ‘the Holy Innocents,’ and reverently recall them every Dec. 28, their feast day. St. Matthew the Evangelist, in relating this chilling episode, himself recalls the words of the prophet Jeremiah, ‘A voice was heard . . . sobbing and loudly lamenting: It was Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they were no more.’
“The hundreds of ‘Rachels’ in Newtown weep for their ‘Holy Innocents,’” said the Archbishop, “and we stand with Mary at the foot of their cross. ‘We don’t know what to say,’ so we simply pray with and for them, we emotionally embrace them, and admit that perhaps what we all need most right now is that ‘Silent Night,’ when the piercing cold became warm with love and the darkness radiant with angelic light, and a baby was born to bring peace and eternal life.”
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Thank you Archbishop. Thank you for helping us better understand our bittersweet feelings in a world of violence and showing how those of us who struggle mightily now for the firefighters’ families in Webster, N.Y., can still join in the song, “Joy to the World, The Lord has come!”