Christmas Eve holds a rich place in my memories. When I was a boy, my family would have a dinner of sea food and sausage, a Sicilian tradition I think, and open our presents in the early evening. Then we would stay up and go to Midnight Mass. As a teen, I was in my church’s youth group/choir and we always sang at Midnight Mass, which made the night all kinds of fun for my friends and me. One Midnight Mass story stands out in my memories. I think I know it more from the stories about it — than the actual memories of the night itself. My parents were founding members of St. Madeleine Church in Pomona, California, just outside Los Angeles. The new parish church was being built and as Christmas approached, the walls and flooring were in but not the roof. So, Midnight Mass was celebrated in the roofless church, beneath a cold, clear night sky scattered with stars. It must have been magical. My parents sure remembered it that way.
Another Christmas Eve story I love to this day is the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the first nativity scene at Greccio. Francis, son of a wealthy 13th century cloth merchant, rejected his family’s wealth and lived a life of voluntary poverty, preaching, and peacemaking. In 1224, recalling his trip to Bethlehem, Francis invited local farmers and peasants in the town of Greccio to gather at a cave where they would create what many consider the first nativity scene. My imagination has gone there many times– the cave, a poor, exhausted couple mirroring Mary and Joseph, animals, hay, just the kind of place a homeless couple about to have a child might go to for refuge.
The image of migrant people fleeing their homes, traveling in search of safety, might be more apt today than ever. Since the beginning of the Syrian War, millions of people are migrating in search of better lives, in search of safety and peace. From Syria into Europe, from all parts of Africa up toward the Mediterranean, from Central America toward the United States, because we have built such an unjust world, millions of people are willing to risk the walk, the danger, the fear of migration. While this image is not beautiful, it is central to the images of Christmas Eve.
When it comes to faith, I have more questions that answers. But if God were to become human, I find great beauty in the possibility that the incarnation would come in the form of a poor child, born in peril, on the road.
The experience of keeping vigil is central to Christmas Eve too. Imagine the world, on a silent night, waiting for something remarkable to happen, or working for something remarkable to happen. As a teacher and poet, whose work does not often yield obvious and immediate results, I am drawn to the experience of keeping vigil. Working, planting, then waiting to see what might emerge. As I spend this second Christmas Eve with cancer, I find myself keeping vigil: watching, strengthening, waiting, even within my own body.
This Christmas Eve, wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, I hope there is beauty in your life. I hope you can also experience the tension and peace of keeping vigil– an active, watchful, grateful presence over your own life.
Photo Credit: Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C. taken by J. Ross