As Christmas Day draws near, our hearts once again swell with joy. In the Christ Child in the manger, we encounter our redemption. Words alone don't suffice to explain this great gift. Some carols come close, but even the best of these leave gaps.
My favorite carol is "Minuit, Chrétiens," written by Placide Cappeau in 1843. The English version of this carol is "O Holy Night," a good rendition of the original French but not packing the strong theological wallop of the original.
Take, for example, this phrase in the original French: "Où l'homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous, Pour effacer la tache originelle." In English, it reads, "The God-Man came down close to us, to erase the stain of Original Sin!"
In just a few sung words, profound theological truths are shared. God's gift of a redeemer in Jesus is proclaimed, and humanity's cleansing from Original Sin is praised.
This carol is a heavyweight theological tome set to moving music. "Minuit, Chrétiens" is a treasure trove of profound truths. One example is not enough.
Consider this powerful message addressed to the world's elite: "Le Roi des Rois naît dans une humble crèche, Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur, A votre orgueil c’est de là qu'un Dieu prêche." In English, it reads, "The King of Kings is born in a humble trough. Today's mighty, proud in your greatness, from his manger, God preaches to your pride."
Of all the things we often miss at our Christmas celebrations, one is remembering how low God put Himself to become a human being. You can't get much lower than to come into this world and have a feeding trough for a bed.
Christmas crèches festooned with gold trim, numerous figurines and glitter miss the mark of how truly meager that first Christmas was. The lyrics' subtlety convinces all of us to consider God's gift of the Redeemer, Who entered into this fallen world in abject poverty. If our God can be humble, we can and should be humble as well.
"Minuit, Chrétiens" was also a favorite of my French grandfather, David Noel Couturier. I still can hear my grandpa singing this song in his clear tenor voice as he did chores on the farm on Christmas Eve. In the process of bringing hay down from the loft, he explained to us little ones the importance of Christmas, of being good and of not misbehaving during midnight Mass. He had to say this to me often! As chores were being done, I learned from Grandpa some of our Faith's most profound truths.
My grandfather regularly remarked that I was one of the naughtiest little ones in Church during Mass. As I write this, tears come, as Grandpa never lived to see me ordained a priest. But he now knows that I am a priest. I pray for him daily in the evening — using his supersized black Rosary.
As a soldier, my uncle Rayfield bought this Rosary in Rome after World War II. Upon his return to the United States, Uncle Ray gave this Rosary, with its large wooden beads, to my grandfather as a souvenir of his travels during the war.
In those first couple of years after the war ended, in an effort to be as American as he could, Uncle Ray anglicized his name, from Raphael to Rayfield, and he left speaking French in the past.
Uncle Ray died shortly after, at age 26, from cancer. After his death, Grandpa treasured Uncle Ray's gift of the Rosary from St. Peter's.
Grandpa often talked to me about Uncle Ray. He said that I had his complexion and looked like him, although this was hard to confirm from the sepia-colored and black-and-white photos from those years.
These days, when I say my evening Rosary and finger the beads of this family heirloom (the same one my grandfather used to say his prayers for the greater part of this last century), I pray for the numerous deceased members of my family. I remember their lives, and I ask God for the grace to follow their example.
At this stage of my life — I am in my 60s — I have lost my grandparents, parents, many of my uncles and aunts, and even one of my own brothers. These days, Christmas, although one of the holiest of our holy days, has many melancholic moments for me. Although our family Christmas table is populated by my brothers and sisters, their children, and their children's children, there remain conspicuous absences.
No one can replace my father and his corny singing of "The Great Amen" after the meal prayer. No one can come close to my Aunt Ely running around the dining room trying to give each of the little ones a special Christmas kiss, and no one sets a Christmas table more resplendent (and full of delicious food!) than my Mom. "It's all made from scratch — nothing out of a box," she would say.
At this juncture in my life, what gives me great consolation is Our Lord's promise to return and to usher in the new creation. To envision a sumptuous banquet, as Jesus described in the parable of the wedding feast in the Gospel of Matthew, helps me get through the depressing moments of the holidays. Yes, we must remember the glorious first coming of Our Savior, but we must also go beyond this and envision that great day when Christ will sit down with the just and the heavenly angels to start the eternal supper.
To counteract holiday melancholy, we can envision that glorious banquet table, resplendent with delicacies of all sorts, with our loved ones in their prime, enjoying themselves in God's presence.
So this Christmas, be joyous. Brush aside all sadness and gloom, and turn on the Christmas tree lights. Remember, as you sing your favorite carol, that first glorious Christmas when God gave us our redemption by giving us Jesus.
And if you are mature in age like me (with a few gray hairs), take courage. Jesus promised that, one day, there will be a glorious heavenly banquet — in which the stuffing isn't burned, the turkey isn't dry and the family is all united once again. I can't wait!