Family always has held a most special place in my heart and life. That never resonates more than Christmas week, when we enjoy one family gathering after another.
This year, that will take on more meaning than in Christmases past.
On Christmas Eve, we will get together at my parents’ house for dinner and gift-opening. Present will be me, Donna, our four children, two sons-in-law, a “significant other” and our two grandsons – and Mom and Dad, of course. On Friday, there could be almost 100 people at the Knights of Columbus hall in Flint Hill, Mo.; that will include my aunts and uncles, my first cousins and their families, my two sisters and their families – and Mom and Dad, of course. On Sunday, we will gather at my parents’ house for a traditional Polish Christmas meal, this time including my sisters and some of their families …
And Mom and Dad, of course.
I say “of course” with a sense of renewed appreciation. This year, I’ve learned that I probably shouldn’t assume such a thing. I’ve learned not to take things for granted. Mom and Dad – Madge and Jim Eisenbath – have been at the center of every one of my Christmas celebrations for all of my 53 years. I haven’t really thought anything else was possible.
There are no such guarantees, I know now. I have friends and relatives who haven’t been so blessed. They have had empty seats at their Christmas dinner tables. There is sadness amidst their joy.
At the Eisenbath parties this year, we will embrace the joy a bit more tightly.
Mom had surgery about 11 months ago to remove a baseball-sized tumor from her brain. The recovery has been slow at times, but she has come a long, long way. Looking back, we know it’s possible she wouldn’t have survived the tumor or the surgery. Dad has had some health problems, too, but Mom’s issues have changed his life most dramatically, as he has had to do things like cook dinners, wash clothes, shop for groceries, make constant runs to the drugstore and figure out how to dispense medications, and listen to more medical information from doctors than he ever could have imagined.
Oh, and he has had to learn some humility. He has had to accept that people want to not only offer help but actually help. He has – grudgingly at times – allowed people to bring meals!
My mom and dad have been shown a great deal of love this last year. The pile of cards Mom received is enormous. Those first few weeks and months, the phone rang constantly and she had a lot of visits from friends.
But the love shown by family …
Just no way to express it in words. My sisters both have made more visits than years past – Marcia from Kansas, Patti from Connecticut – and stayed extended periods in order to be at Mom and Dad’s side during the recovery, rehab and adjustment to their new life. My kids and my sisters’ kids have called and visited often. And there have been my aunts Betty, Doris and Kathy – my dad’s sisters – who have provided invaluable support. My mom has been spending one day a week with each of them so my dad can go to his cattle farm.
That was my obvious thought this week during my Lectio Divina prayer time with the Scriptures that we will hear at Mass this coming weekend – what the Church calls the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. If you would like to read those Scriptures, click here: Sunday, December 28
It’s an amazing thing to consider God Made Flesh. That’s what makes Christmas so special, as we try to comprehend the Son of God entering our world as a baby who cried and was completely dependent on other humans. We find we can relate to him in some surprising ways, because like us he got hungry, he felt sadness, he laughed, he played with friends, he worked, he slept, he got sick.
And he had a family. Mary and Joseph and grandparents and, most likely, aunts and uncles and cousins.
Jesus probably felt that unconditional support that generally accompanies family life. He got together with them for holidays, weddings, birthdays, funerals … In Luke’s Gospel, we will hear about Mary and Joseph bring 8-day-old Jesus to the temple for a traditional Jewish ceremony; our family has enjoyed similar days of joy for baptisms and first communions. Simeon and Anna utter prophesies about Jesus that surely made Mary and Joseph a bit curious, to say the least, but also proud; we all have busted our buttons upon hearing flattering words about fellow family members.
In Jesus’ family, they likely were by each other’s side when someone needed help. They lived through things similar to what we lived this year.
I like what St. Paul said in his Letter to the Colossians. He tells them to put on:
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another.
That’s what we all hope we can find from family, isn’t it? I know that the fact is many, many families don’t experience any of that. There are so very many broken families, where anger and animosity rule the day. There are families marked with abuse and addiction and chronic illness and poverty.
Families can be filled with so many challenges because we are so close, we know so many secrets, we can get in each other’s way, we can have unrealistic expectations. Sometimes, it can be tougher to forgive family than it is to forgive friends.
Life in some families can be difficult – especially those families with empty seats at the table for Christmas dinner.
I will look at my mom and dad with grateful eyes this holiday season. I will praise God for their presence and try not to take them for granted. Same for every other family member.
Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness …
St. Paul said we are to put on those things because we are God’s chosen ones. Chosen – like family.
We don’t necessarily get to choose our family. But we can choose how we deal with them. We can choose how we treat them. We can choose how we express love for them – even when it’s difficult, perhaps even feeling impossible.
Funny as it sounds, Jesus understands. That’s what makes the whole thing that much more incredible.