Today is the Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas. At the oratory where I attended Mass this morning the priest announced prior to Mass that he would be saying the Mass for Sunday within the Octave as it is a feria and that Mass (Sunday) will not be said in deference to the Mass of the Circumcision of the Lord this year. That rustling sound you just heard was Harvey hurriedly flipping the ribbons in his missal.
Pray for Pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger. In the past few days I have begun to realize that the term “sedevacantist” might soon apply to me – not in the perjorative way foisted upon me and others who recognize, as I do, the total invalidity of the events of February and March of 2013, but in the actual sense. As in, there might soon be no pope. As there have been periods of sedevacant before, I am not worried. Our Lord is in control.
As I left Mass, thinking these thoughts, I noticed that the servers were setting up for a funeral. Death comes to us all. Are you prepared? Am I? Stay confessed, but more importantly, live your life at the foot of the cross! this way it won’t come as a shock when you find yourself there being judged by the One hanging from its magnificent wood.
I received a beautiful email from a reader today. A young child for whom I had been praying for a miracle in my St. Rita novena went home from the hospital today. Praised be Jesus Christ! Please continue to send me any intentions. I am nothing in this chain but a poor sinner who has received far more than I deserve. I promised to make known the favor of God’s saint and His miracles and this is what I try to do.
Later in the day I went to see my twin sister’s grave. This cemetery is a beautiful place. My sister and I drove around a bit, stopping to check out older sections of the place. It is located on a ridge overlooking Manhattan. This same sister, so many years ago, chose the site of our family plot at a time when we needed to purchase a grave immediately. No one plans for the deaths of small children. She selected the site because from the top of the hill, one could see the Twin Towers. My mother is a native Manhattanite. There was also a beautiful shade tree growing over the back of the grave. Beyond the city, one could look out toward the east, toward Ireland and Scotland and England, where our people had come from. In 2001, the cemetery workers cut down the tree and the Towers, well, we know what happened to them.
I mention the Trade Center because one of the sections we stopped at was filled with 9-11 dead. Yes, we are that close. There’s a memorial (I think it’s tacky but that’s just me – see below) and then rows of headstones. There are police officers and firemen buried here who died that morning.
Also in this cemetery are some examples of truly beautiful works of art in the form of headstones and monuments from an era when the faith was alive and symbolized in design.
On this next-to-last day of the year, when the pope may be dying, when a baby was healed, when the specter of death looms large but reminders of God’s love and mercy are still to be found; I found myself meditating on the words “You know not the day nor the hour.”
I just finished watching another silly Hallmark movie with my teenage daughter. This is a very peaceful time of year in our house. We’ve put away the schoolbooks for a while. The house is, mercifully, clean and also festive. Not to worry, my trad friends… We have not decorated the main tree yet. In fact, I’m inclined not to even put the main tree up until Christmas Eve; but the family in the parish who sells the trees needed to deliver them early this week. And so a seven foot Frazier fir stands proudly and patiently, guzzling up water every day, in the corner awaiting the lights and ornaments. I really love this time of year.
But amidst the burgeoning joy there is a twinge of sadness in my heart tonight for I am thinking of three people in particular who are not here this year. What’s funny is that I am not sad that they are not here. I pray for them and entrust their souls to God. But death has a finality to it that reminds this sinner that there isn’t much we can do about reversing the situation. And I am not even truly sad, simply a wee bit haunted at their memory and how very much it is tied to Christmas.
First up is the most recent departed. One year ago, while sitting in my pew during the offertory at Holy Mass, my phone began buzzing. As I silenced it, I noticed it was one of my sisters. She and I speak every morning. I figured that she had forgotten the time difference, turned my phone over, and went back to my missal. A moment later, she called again. This time I began to think it must be important. When two additional sisters called within the next minute, I knew someone had died. The thing is, I thought it was my mom. I made the decision, as I believe my dad would have done, to turn the phone completely off and continue with the Mass. As I said earlier, a person will not be “more dead” if I wait to hear the news. I offered the rest of my Mass and Communion for the soul of the departed, still thinking it must have been Mom. I was alone. There were maybe ten other people in the church including the priest and server. It was a crisp but sunny late December morning. In fact, I believe it was the hour of the solstice. The sunlight was pouring through the Crucifixion window to my right side.
I left the church and turned my phone back on to discover that Mom still walked among us. Instead, it was one of my brothers who was dead. And what bizarre circumstances, too… He had died six weeks earlier in a boarding house in Scranton, PA, succumbing to decades of alcohol and drug abuse. He died, in all likelihood, alone, unconfessed, and scared. It just so happens that one of my sisters had heard the news from someone who had finally found her number and with just days to spare before the order to cremate his remains was to be issued. I loved my brother, despite all his many flaws. He was at times a thief, a man who fathered and then abandoned three children, and had a tendency toward violence. Hence, he did not live with any of the rest of us for many years. In his right and proper mind, however, he was the most charitable of souls. He truly would give you the shirt off of his back if you needed it. He was smart as a whip, charming, and more talented in the ways of artistry than many I’ve met.
We flew East to give him a proper Catholic funeral and buried him in the family plot. I then found a priest through Fr. Z.’s site – a priest, it turns out – in Denmark, who offered 30 Gregorian Masses (TLM’s) for my brother. I continue to pray and fast for him and I invite you to do the same when you think of it.
Stay confessed. You know not the day nor the hour.
Her One and Only Christmas
The other two people will forever be tied to Christmas for me, though neither died at this time of year.
In March of 2008, as my wife and I eagerly awaited the birth of our first child, my sister (the one with whom I speak every day on the phone) was eagerly awaiting the birth of her fifth child. One morning in early March, she and her husband welcomed their fifth baby girl into the world. In the OR for the C-section were the doctors (high risk specialists), nurses, and our parish pastor. The baby was taken from the womb and immediately baptized. I hear that the surgeon cried. She was not dead but she was not long for this world. They gave her odds of about five hours. She showed them all wrong and hung on for five days.
The baby had been diagnosed in-utero with anencephaly, a fatal birth defect wherein the brain and/or skull do not completely form or close over. In her case, it appeared it was the latter as she had a pretty fully formed brain. Unfortunately, covering the back of her head where bone and skin should have been was a thin membrane. The issue is that in this condition, infection will likely set in quickly. They say she was in all probability blind, deaf, and likely had a host of other “problems”.
To me, however, she was the most perfect little girl I’d ever encountered. Her parents named her Bernadette after an old man in our parish (Bernie) who had been a pro-life warrior until the day he died. Into his 80’s he stood outside the abortuaries praying his rosary, even getting arrested for exercising his freedom of speech. Bernadette, I came to discover, also means warrior.
She never made a noise that I remember and she didn’t really open her eyes.
With a large and loving family such as ours, you can imagine that she was never alone for one second of her short life in this vale of tears. We all took turns staying by her crib in the NICU overnight so my sister and brother-in-law could get some rest one floor up. On the second night there had been a scare and we all came to the hospital thinking it was her time. When we realized she had some fight in her, another brother-in-law and I decided we’d take the night watch. We sat down on opposite sides of her crib. We would put our hands through the long sterile plastic sleeves to touch her face and hands so she knew we were there. But then sometime around 4AM exhaustion began to overtake us both.
My brother-in-law was a broadway actor with the finest voice I will ever hear. He had lead the choir at church for years. He was a good man and always tried to lift the spirits of everyone around him. It was no surprise, then, when he came back into the NICU with two cups of coffee and said, “Carols.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked. He replied, “it’s how we’re going to stay awake. We’re going to sing Christmas carols. Besides,” he added, “Every child deserves at least one Christmas.”
And for the next two hours we went through every Christmas carol in the book. At one point I believe I was making them up as I went along, slap happy from the lack of sleep. Little girl gripped my finger tightly as we sang. As the sun rose, we were relieved by another sister but I will never forget those two bourse singing with Dan and Bernadette about the Babe in the manger and the nails and spears that would pierce Him through as the cross was born for me and for you.
Two years ago, Dan was called to his own judgment. It was sad. It did not need to happen. Hospitals are terrible places that often spread more disease than they cure. He left behind my sister, three grown children, and thousands who loved him and will always be haunted by that rich baritone voice.
I like to imagine as he went before the throne of the cross that Our Lord, Who gave him the suffering he bore at the end, might have been holding Bernadette’s hand and telling him, “She tells me you comforted her in My name.” And more suffering there likely was because God is merciful and just; but that kind of charity covers a multitude of sins. Our Lord promised us that much and His word is true because He is Truth.
Just please don’t ask any questions when you see me bury my head at midnight Mass as the choir sings O Little Town of Bethlehem…
A quick but all too important thought at the end of this long day for me as I prepare to get my slumber before waking in the morning to attend the funeral of a friend’s father.
Death comes for each of us. It comes when God Almighty wills it.
I remember all too well the bleak January day almost six years ago. I was driving like mad through the spine of the Appalachians trying to reach New Jersey before my father’s imminent demise. Mom called me. I know I-81 like the back of my hand, sadly, so I took the call and almost forgot my driving for a moment.
It was how she described it that was so striking. “He breathed out a few minutes ago and didn’t take another breath in.” And I instantly hated that I had pulled into that rest area in southern Virginia to catch a catnap a few hours earlier. I was four hours away.
CS Lewis in Screwtape wrote to the effect that time is God’s. We didn’t create it. We don’t manage it. We live in it and He decides how much of it belongs to us. We get so mad when others “waste our time” or “monopolize our time”. It simply is not ours to begin with.
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