In the last years of her life, when she was completely bed-ridden, simple things gave my mother great joy -- The Great British Bake-Off contest on TV, the melody of O Tannenbaum resonating from a crystal snow globe, photos of nature, visits from family and friends, the El Salvadoran Nativity Tree displayed in this issue of SBT...
When I saw the tree in a UNICEF catalog, I knew this was the perfect gift. Not only would it be light enough to pack in my suitcase, but I could see it hanging above her bed, adding color, whimsy, and the daily reminder of the presence of Mystery, despite suffering and loss. Widowed after 71 years of marriage, my mother not only had to contend with debilitating illness but also with the terrible reality of my dad's absence. I knew she knew, though some thought she had been spared this cruel awareness. On my visits, I saw the tears in her eyes, though she said nothing and no one talked about my dad in front of her. Despite being able to stay in the comfort of our family home, with the best of caregivers, she often seemed sad, her eyes constantly drawn towards a pen and ink sketch of my dad as a dashing young officer in military uniform. My hope was that this gift would offer comfort, especially in the months between my visits. I instructed the caregivers to leave the tree in place even when the rest of Christmas had been packed away.
What did my mother see when she looked at the tree with its appliqued figures of sheep and shepherds, magi, angels, and, of course, the Holy Family? Did the star shine in her darkness, reassuring her that it would one day guide her home, to where my dad would be waiting for her? Did the angel offer tidings of Good News, the promise that a better world awaited her and that her time of suffering would soon be over? Did the shepherds invite her to join them as they left behind their old reality and plodded towards Bethlehem? Did the magi fill her with wonder as she looked at their magnificent robes and costly gifts? Did she smile at the silliness of the ox and donkey as they snuggled close to the manger? And how did she react to the Holy Family, occupying central place in the felt collage? Did Mother Mary welcome her? Did Joseph step aside so she could draw close to the Holy Child? Was she able to rock the Baby and sing a lullaby just as she had sung to us, her daughters?
I will never know the answer to these questions, but I believe that the same God who entered the human experience two thousand years ago also entered my mother's experience, comforting her in ways I cannot even imagine. I believe Divinity is everywhere, within all creation, and within each of our sacred stories. According to tradition, Jesus was born in Bethlehem; according to faith, Christ is born in each of us when we say "Yes!" to his presence. Given the aura of serenity that manifested in my mother's last months on earth, I know, beyond doubt, that she said that "Yes!"
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
What is the great Light that shines in our darkness, unseen? What is the hope that calls us into a new dispensation, into a new age of integrity and fullness of being? What is the "salvation" that is accessible to anyone of goodwill?
For some, the only good news that matters might be the ability to return to our old lives, to pick up where we left off, with everything exactly the same as it was a year ago. These days, "How I wish I had my old life back!" is a commonly heard refrain, but one doesn't have to be a prophet to know that old lives don't come back, especially now. The very places that offered comfort and familiarity are mostly shuttered, some never to return. Friends and family members whom we loved so dearly have passed on; our own health may have become so impaired that we now have to modify activities, abandon travel plans, perhaps find a new place to live. Jobs have disappeared, businesses have closed, homes are in foreclosure, and even the most vibrant of cities are like ghost towns.
No, our old lives are not going to come back, so we need to search for Light elsewhere. Darkness has stripped us of security, predictability, and the illusion of being in control. It has forced us to confront the fact that we are finite beings living fragile lives. At the same time, however, this darkness has invited us to question the meaning of life and our purpose here on Earth. It has helped us re-assess our priorities and to consider what is truly important. Some of us have grown closer to our loved ones; some have newfound gratitude for the blessings in our lives; some have become more compassionate and understanding, and some have found God.
In his beloved prayer, Laudato Si, Mi Signore, St. Francis of Assisi praised God for "Sister Death, from whom no one living can escape." Were he still alive today, no doubt he would also praise God for Sister Darkness -- the darkness that precedes creation and fertility, that matrix of new birth, that empty sky awaiting the light of a new star, that holy pause that has come to prepare each of us for the next phase of our journey as spiritual beings.
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