Common Wisdom: The Gift

Here we are again. Christmas. No word triggers more images, more memories. Christmas present inevitably evokes Christmases past. From childhood to old age comes this birth date, this December 25th, this portentous spiritual intrusion into secular preoccupations.

That we are already heading into the red and green tsunami of Christmas — I write in October — is preposterous. It won’t be less so in November. Wasn’t it just yesterday we greeted 1994? Though lacking the academic credentials to validate my thesis, I nevertheless propose it: as time goes by, it goes by faster. We are accelerating down the super highway at such speed the scenery blurs. But one thing we will not miss, no matter our breakneck pace, is the exit marked specifically for each of us.

Some exit prematurely, according to our calculations, at once a shock and an admonition. August delivered such a blow. On one of those perfect bay area days which renew, in those of us who grew up elsewhere, the joy that we chose to live here, we assembled outside a church. Respectfully and tastefully attired, we complemented the day. We might have been a poster for California living, except it was death which brought us together. Meeting in sorrow, speaking in hushed tones, we gathered not to celebrate as we so often had, but to mourn.

The challenge was to confront the sight of the burnished coffin in the center aisle, with its graceful mantle of flowers. Surely Bill could not be there, inside. Not Bill the amiable, Bill the athlete, Bill the temperate. Bill, exemplary spouse and dad. Not Bill, achiever against tough odds, indefatigable writer of notes to encourage or to congratulate where appropriate — my son one grateful recipient. Bill the congenial, last seen on a social occasion, or, as likely, in the church where he now lay stilled, hidden from view.

It looked like Sunday Mass. But in the crowd were many non-Catholics, following our rubrics only to sit when we knelt. It was a subdued congregation, riveted on each minute of the ritual. A far cry from the mood of wedding guests, witnessing a beginning. We were there to acknowledge one mortal’s end.

The pastor presented as much a catechesis as a eulogy. Bill would have liked that. Deftly linking present to past he recalled, with a gesture, Bill’s regular arrival at Mass, “right over there, through the side entrance,” with the ancient promise of Christ in the Gospel of St. John, which explained Bill’s fidelity: “I am the bread of life. He who believes in me shall have everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Bill lived his faith, said the priest, and his faith lived in him. When he died, he was not a stranger to the Lord. Those who share in his convictions are consoled in the understanding that, for Bill, the promise is realized.

It was heartening that the celebrant did not belabor Bill’s qualities as a man which, after all, we knew, and for which not a word more could increase our admiration. Greater respect was shown him by spelling out, to this mixed congregation, the spiritual creed which animated his life. The priest spoke about the Last Supper, the mystery and nourishment of the Eucharist. In so doing he introduced to some, and clarified for others, the heart of Catholic belief and worship. He stated this in simple, intelligible language. Resisting sentimental tributes, he got to the core of this deceased man. He told us, briefly, why Bill had come to all those Masses. Not a fidget was noted.

We filed up to receive Communion, passing Bill for the last time, touched by the sight of his brave if diminished family in the front pew. We were glad we had known him. And we were inescapably reminded by his loss that one day others similarly would pass us by. Later, at the reception, one woman remarked she was “three for three this summer.” She meant three requiems, three marriages. At our age the film would more accurately read “Three Funerals and a Wedding.”

What does a death in August have to do with a birth in December? Everything. Who can look at the wood of the manger and not see the wood of the cross? The man born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago gained eternal life for the man born 58 years ago in Maine. Because of a death and resurrection in Jerusalem, life for the man who died in California was changed, not over.

We will hear again the seasonal slogan, “Christmas is for children.” Wrong — Santa is. A child cannot comprehend the creche. He is pleased by perishable goods, which is all the world can offer him. But the Holyday of Christmas is not about opening boxes. The single gift all men desire can only be given by the babe who lies in the crib. No assembly required.

Christmas, 1994 — trees lit, carols sung, the comfort of tradition. One week later New Year’s Eve — a leap from what has been to what is yet to be, from the familiar to the unknown. Throughout years of uncertainty the perennial narrative of the birth of Christ appears, and reassures us that our lives have meaning. Otherwise, we are little noted nor long remembered. We are unremarkable, really, except as heirs to a promise made to one man for all men, “this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”

God rest us merry, gentlemen, and may perpetual light shine upon those who have gone before us, especially Bill, who left us too soon. May we all, beneficiaries with him of unmerited joy, meet again in the place prepared for us.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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