Years ago, we belonged to a parish where the pastor was an elderly “retired” French-Canadian priest. Monsignor Leo was a little rough around the edges and sometimes a bit deaf in the confessional, but we loved him just the same.
We especially loved him at Christmastime. Every year, at the end of the first Christmas Mass, he would stand before the congregation and sing “O Holy Night.” Without musical accompaniment and without a microphone, he would sing. With a clear, strong voice that defied his age, that tiny priest filled the church with a glorious proclamation of Our Savior’s birth.
Old ladies dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs while their husbands stood solemnly alongside. Children, in velvet dresses and corduroy Christmas suits, stood in reverent awe. When Monsignor Leo sang the final note, the entire church exploded with applause while he stood before us wearing a modest smile.
Year after year, what I found most magical about that moment and so captivating about that small man’s song was its earnestness. Here was one man’s simple expression of a great love he felt in his heart. Here was one man giving all of himself to God. God made him to sing, and so he sang. For God alone. With all that he had.
At Christmas, many of us feel pressured to do “great things.” We can’t send out just any card; we can’t give just any gifts; we can’t have just any celebration. We are commemorating, after all, the single greatest event in human history. This is Christmas, and what we do to recognize it must be great. Inevitably, though, we will fall short of the kind of greatness we have in mind.
Thankfully, the kind of greatness God asks of us is not as complicated as we sometimes make it ourselves. The kind of greatness God demands has nothing to do with ribbons or wrapping, packages or presents. The kind of greatness Christ seeks comes from small, ordinary things done with great love.
“We can do no great things,” Mother Teresa of Calcutta once reminded us. “Only small things with great love.”
Not too long ago, I happened upon some old video Dan and I took of ourselves about a dozen Christmases ago when we recorded the process of bringing a freshly cut Blue Spruce fir tree into our living room.
With a baby slung over one arm, I smilingly guided Dan’s maneuvering of the tree around corners and cooed at our “helpful” toddler. Dan groused a bit about the weight of the twelve-foot tree and the prickliness of its needles, but still he flashed a toothy grin as he passed the camera.
Oh my goodness, we were cute. The schmaltzy Christmas music, the drooling baby, the robust young dad, the fresh-faced, young mom wearing . . . what were those? Size 0 jeans? It was sickening.
We hammed it up for the camera, smooching the babies’ faces and telling made-up stories about the perils we faced when cutting down the tree. Then we hung lights, strung cranberries with popcorn, and shared an eggnog.
It wasn’t our wrinkle-free complexions that made me want to pinch the cheeks of our former selves. It wasn’t even those size 0 jeans that made us seem so attractive.
It was our simplicity. It was our earnestness. It was our simple, singular focus on giving all that we had to this thing — this family life — to which God had called us.
What I saw in that young couple was honesty, earnestness, and love. The same stuff I once heard in Monsignor Leo’s a capella rendition of “O Holy Night.”
There’s nothing wrong with the trappings of Christmas. As my own family has grown and my marriage matured, our own celebrations have become progressively more complicated with each passing year. We buy more presents, we prepare more food, we make more plans. Even a “simple” Christmas times eight kids is a complicated thing indeed.
As I go about my shopping, wrapping, baking, preparing, cleaning, and decorating this year, though, I am keeping in mind Monsignor Leo’s song as well as the smaller, simpler family we once were.
If I recorded this year’s Christmas preparations and played then back ten years from now, what would I see in our family’s days?
I pray that God will help me see the small things. And do them with great love.