This reflection was from three years ago, but is still very real every Christmas.
I’m starting to understand Christmas as the season where Christ comes to visit you in the most unexpected ways. If you can only quiet yourself for a few days–unplug the computer, forget your cell phone, and head to the ICU of a major hospital, where family members are praying besides the beds of their sick loved ones–he is there. He is more generous than Santa, more magical that flying reindeer, more beautiful than snow angels.
During my senior year of college, a priest friend asked me to give a reflection during one of our chapel services about what it was like volunteering every Friday night with the homeless. I drafted this piece about how wonderful it was to give back a morsel of what I have been given, how we are commanded by Jesus to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And then I ripped it up. Because the truth is, aside from the night one woman threw up all over me, I didn’t give them anything. It was they, who gave me a great gift.
Especially the artist who, despite his severe Parkinson’s, taught me how to draw exquisite birds with just a black pen, and then gave me five beautiful sketches to take home and frame.
That was around Christmas time. And I recognized the face of Christ in him.
Just like I did last weekend, camping out in the waiting room outside the ICU of a VA hospital in New York City, where one of my best friend’s husband lie fighting infection after infection, enduring surgery after surgery–on a ventilator, drip, and every IV you get to keep you alive–all brought on unexpectedly from an emergency gall bladder surgery.
It was one of the ugliest weekends of my life (keep in mind I’ve potty trained two kids): hearing tales of gushing blood, open incisions, jaundice eyes, and discolored urine.
I couldn’t help but curse God through some of it.
“What in the hell are you doing with this one?” I asked him repeatedly seeing the forlorn expression on Michelle’s face returning from her visit with Bob, her husband of 10 years, or from a chat with one of the five doctors who disclosed more bad news of infections, fevers, damaged organs, and bad white-cell counts.
I wondered how a person in such a situation, after seeing her husband–a pastor who has brought countless people to God–in such tremendous pain, could hang on to her faith. Because seeing this thing up close made me doubt my own.
In the days that followed the weekend, I found myself–after reciting my usual mantra “Take it, God”–saying, Yeah, but what about Bob? During the 265 times a day that I would get distracted in unhealthy thoughts–when I encountered a pothole on recovery lane–I was having difficulty telling myself to trust in God. What about Bob? What about Bob? What about Bob? Just like that Bill Murray flick, “What About Bob?”
“Aren’t you a tad ticked off at God?” I asked Michelle one afternoon at the hospital.
“Of course,” she replied. “I’m very upset with him. But not enough to throw out a half of century of faith in him.”
Nor did her tragedy interfere with her generosity and compassion towards others in similar situations. To the woman whose husband was fighting cancer she gave a signed copy of her book about cancer, “Every Day With Hair Is a Good Hair Day.” She asked the man whose wife had just had brain surgery if she could bring him some lasagna, at which point I started poking her, reminding her that his wife had graduated to the step-down unit, out of the fun corner of the hospital where you live minute by minute. In other words, SKIP THE LASAGNA!
On the way to the hospital, Michelle stopped by her church to drop off the 200 cookies that she had bought for their Christmas party for the homeless that she was helping to organize. And when one of co-chairs of the shindig, whom I shot a dirty look (“Hello???? Is your husband dying??”), asked her if she could also drop off the plastic cups, Michelle agreed to do that the following day.
I was dumbfounded. The entire weekend and after. By how a person, in the midst of such a heartbreaking catastrophe, could keep on giving. And believing. And loving.
And just like my senior year in college, when I thought I actually had something to give the homeless guys, I came away with a gift far more precious than any lasagna I could bake or soup I could drop off.
I saw the face of Christ. In Michelle. At one the saddest hours of her life.
By the time this post is published, Bob will most likely have passed on.
This will undoubtedly be the hardest Christmas for you, Michelle.
But please know that you have brought Christ and Christmas to me.