This past week, I was alone without a tree and nothing to open Christmas morning. Now, don’t get me wrong here: this is not your very own personal invitation to my “New Year’s Pity Party.” Hardly. I am the most blessed man I know, and I mean that sincerely. People who know me often comment that I am the strongest, most patient and courageous person they know, and believe me, that’s nice. While I strive to live up to that daily, some days and years are better than others; which brings me to this past Christmas.
Sometime after Thanksgiving, I could tell it was going to be a struggle. The last eighteen months or so had been delivering slow growing pressures seemingly from every direction. There was disappointing news at least every month, issues with no apparent resolution in sight and just a mounting challenge to get up every morning to face the same thing, all over again and again. I decided to spend the weeks before Christmas to move out of myself and find all the opportunities to give and share and be joyful with others, no matter where I would find them. I especially thought of those who clearly had a much harder time with life than I was having, and even deduced to leave carrots and celery for this little wild rabbit visiting my backyard patio from time to time. And you know, it all worked. The height of all this reached Christmas Eve where I spent awesome quality time with family and dear old friends practically all day culminating with Mass followed by a sumptuous dinner. What a blessing! I went to bed like a five-year-old child, full and happy with a large grin on my face. It was good.
Then came Christmas Day morning. Uh oh! I wasn’t ready for it, and can’t explain why. Because of space and other constraints, I decided not to have a tree but still decorated festively, not sparing any empty corner or shelf space available. Thus, the childhood ritual of waking up and going straight to the Christmas tree did not happen. And although there were a handful of cards, email messages and texts, and some nice bottles of wine, this was the first year where there was nothing to open on Christmas morning. Before allowing myself to wallow in self-pity, I quickly returned as many emails, text messages and phone calls as I could and by noon it was time to deliver a couple of turkey dinners to home-bound people, then get back in time to prepare a luscious Christmas dinner for a couple of good friends. I went to bed exhausted.
For the next couple of days, every time I walked back into my home after a full day at work, I caught myself thinking about this past Christmas and how silly and selfish it was for me to frame the experience in terms of the absence of a tree and brightly wrapped gifts. I kept trying to think of all those who certainly had much less than I do. I wanted to remember those in hospitals and prisons. I continued to recall the great outreach and memories that had been made. But, I’m sorry to report, there was still that nagging and irritating emptiness that was simply not going away. I begged Jesus to help me and then resigned to simply accept all this as part of life and then, as soon as possible, to start packing away the decorations and try to move forward. “I am good at that,” I thought. On the fourth day of Christmas, it all finally made sense: it was about five in the morning and I was wide awake. I tried to go back to sleep but it was futile. There were a number of powerful dreams that made for a bit of interesting interpretations and a lot on my plate for the upcoming day so I decided to make a fresh cup of coffee, sit outside, drink it with Jesus and watch the sunrise. The first thing I noticed was that my little rabbit didn’t make it to the porch for his carrot and celery salad and hoped that he was still alive somewhere. It was then that I saw something moving by the only tree in my back yard. It was that silly rabbit, caught in between some plastic netting and the fence unable to break free. While I carefully walked over on this rescue mission, I knew I could very well scare it to death so I had to be quick. Taking some kitchen shears from inside, it was a simple maneuver to snip the upper part of the plastic cords with one clean cut, which worked and the little guy took off like, well, “like a jackrabbit.”
“Merry Christmas, Bugs!,” I called out. Freedom for Christmas, what a gift. It was then, in the last few moments of darkness as the sun began to peak over the horizon, that I could see in my mind’s eye, the little Baby Jesus opening his arms to me. It was as if He was saying to me “this is what you open on Christmas, not paper-wrapped boxes.” There was a Christmas tree for me this Christmas and there was a gift for me to open. It just took me some time to find them.