On the evening of December 23, 1976, my father underwent surgery to relieve the effect of osteoarthritis in the vertebrae of his back. The surgery was successful, but near the conclusion of it he suffered a major heart attack. Eight hours later, he suffered another one. From those two attacks he sustained massive damage to a heart that was already defective from an illness suffered in his youth. By the time we finally got to see him, wired and tubed and gray and unconscious, it was mid-morning on December 24, Christmas Eve.
"Magnificent time," I muttered to no one in particular.
My wife Pat and I stayed at his side all day, as much for my mother's sake as for my father's. He was not going to live, and at age 60 she had never had to confront that possibility in their entire married life. As evening came along, we took her to our home. She needed calming, and our three little children deserved some kind of Christmas Eve.
Pat had created a wonderful world of holiday tradition in our family and tried to do the Christmas Eve portion of them, but it was a pretty joyless exercise. We tried to laugh and sing, but all that these children understood was that their grandmother was crying, their dad was very sad, and their grandfather was somewhere alone in a hospital, not free for the Christmas visit that had been planed. After hanging just a few of their mother's annual Christmas Eve gingerbread men, they uncharacteristically suggested that perhaps they should just go to bed a little early this year, reassuring everyone that this was their choice ad something they really wanted to do. You can imagine how convincing they sounded.
At the hospital I sat and walked and read and walked and looked in on Dad and walked. He would not, in fact, recover from all this. I suppose everyone knew that, but the nursing staff were kind to me and gave me free access to him and to the entire hospital. A couple of nurses wore Santa Claus hats, and all the nursing stations were decorated for the season. During the course of the evening I think I checked them all out, and sure enough, on every floor it was Christmas.
You will forgive me if I admit that somewhere in the early hours of the morning I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. "Why does it have to be like this?" I thought. "Why does it have to be on Christmas Eve?"
Lying under that oxygen tent was the most generous man I have ever known, a Kris Kringle to end all Kris Kringles, and by some seemingly cruel turn of cardiac fate it was Christmas morning and he was in the process of dying.
Then and there--2:00 or 3:00 a.m. in a very quiet hospital, immersed as I was in some sorrow and too much selfishness--heaven sent me a small, personal, prepackaged revelation, a tiny Christmas declaration that was as powerful as any I have every received.
In the midst of mumbling about the very calendaring in all of this, I heard the clear, unbroken cry of a baby.
It startled me. I had long since ceased paying attention to where I was wandering that night, and only then did I realize I was near the maternity ward; somewhere, I suppose, near the nursery.
But whatever and whoever it was, God could not have sent me a more penetrating wake-up call.
"Jeff, my boy," my Father in Heaven seemed to say with that baby's cry. "I expected a little more from you. If you can't remember why all of this matters, then your approach to Christmas is no more virtuous than the over-commercialization everyone laments these days. You need to shape up just a little, to put your theology where your Christmas carols are. You can't separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane... It's of one piece. It's a single plan. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain and privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born 'away in a manger, [with no crib] for his bed,' makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see."
I have repented since that night. In fact, I did some repenting there in the maternity ward. If you have to lose your dad, what more comforting time than the Christmas season?
These are sad experiences, terribly wrenching experiences, with difficult moments for years and years to come. But because of the birth in Bethlehem and what it led to, they are not tragic experiences. They have a happy ending. There is a rising after the falling. There is life always. New births and rebirths and resurrection to eternal life. It is the joy of the stable--the maternity ward--forever.
Excerpted from "Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?" by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, published by Eagle Gate, a division of Deseret Book.