It’s Christmas Eve during the Vigil Mass in my parish. There’s a good crowd of parishioners (including loads of kids), and my wife’s children’s choir is singing. They sound terrific. The readings are being prayerfully proclaimed. But as I stand for the Gospel, the phone on my belt starts to buzz.
Who could be calling me? I only get about three cell phone calls a month. I check the screen. It’s my mom. Maybe she’s calling to wish us a Merry Christmas and doesn’t realize we’re at Mass. But maybe something’s wrong. I fret about it as our pastor preaches. My son, Michael, and I exchange whispers, trying to figure out what to do. I should call her back, but how’s it going to look if I get up in the middle of the pastor’s Christmas homily and leave the church?
We stand for the Prayer of the Faithful. I use the moment to duck out the nearest door and call my mom back from the stairway.
It’s a good thing I did. She’s suddenly lost the sight in her left eye, she tells me. She’s on the way to her eye surgeon.
It had all started routinely a month before. A retinal specialist she was seeing about some floaters had recommended that she have a “piggyback” lens put on where a cataract had been removed 30 years before. It should dramatically improve your sight, he said.
And it did. She had the lens put on at the end of November, and she was thrilled by the improvement in her vision, which seemed to get better and better as the weeks went by.
Then, Christmas Eve morning, the eye seemed a little blurry. By evening that eye could only see shadows. She called her surgeon. He told her to meet him at his office, and she saw him that night.
It’s a very rare occurrence: A bacteria got into the eye, probably during the lens procedure. It bided its time and then for some reason exploded into a massive infection on Christmas Eve.
Her surgeon gave her antibiotic drops and sent her off to see the retinal specialist at 9 a.m. Christmas morning. The specialist looked at the eye and told her to go to the hospital and prepare for surgery. As soon as we heard the news we jumped in the car and headed for the hospital too.
It was not the Christmas day any of us had expected. Instead of angels announcing glad tidings, there were the occasional paging calls over the hospital PA system. Instead of shepherds, there were nurses and doctors. Instead of Mary and Joseph keeping watch over their infant, there we were, huddled about my mom. Instead of a newborn babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, there was my mother wrapped in blankets in a hospital bed. Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there was paperwork. And rather than a Christmas feast, there were the apples and muffins in the family waiting room, and a lock on the cabinet holding the coffee as we anxiously awaited the news.
No, it wasn’t the Christmas we expected, but it’s the Christmas we got. And while it was far from a pleasant experience for us — and downright horrible for my mom — it was in many ways a sacred experience: sacred in the love and support we shared, sacred in the care the hospital staff took of her (and us as well), sacred in the prayers that rose from our hearts in this fearful time, sacred in the courage my mom showed and the trust she put in God. No, it was not the Christmas we expected. But it was Christmas. Christ was being born in the third floor surgical suite of Yale-New Haven Hospital that day just as surely as if we were gathered around Mom and Dad’s dining room table at home.
Memories of our unexpected Christmas come back to me now, not just because my mom’s ordeal is still continuing — with less and less chance that she’ll regain any sight in the eye — but because the unexpected Christmas has led into an unexpected Lent.
Actually, let me rephrase that: It’s the Lent I’ve grown used to experiencing, but it’s not the Lent I hoped for. This year, like every year, I had high expectations. I was going to make time for a more extensive morning prayer than my usual “Thank you for another day! God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” I was going to make extra time every evening for prayer, and to spend part of my lunch hour reading and pondering the Scripture (maybe even in French: why not combine prayer with a little language practice?).
We’re 7 days into Lent as I write this, and I am humbled to report that, once again, my grand Lenten plan didn’t last the week. I’m not very good at Lenten discipline to begin with, and it’s been a really frantic time with a lot of unexpected events and challenges. I get busy and then I get tired, and somewhere along the line the extra time I planned to spend in prayer fades away, or the special activity I planned starts to get skipped.
I don’t lose hope, however, or consider my Lent wasted, for two reasons. First, sincere failure, if nothing else, shows me how much I still need God’s help. Carrying through a Lenten discipline successfully can open one’s heart to God. But, it can also give us a misplaced sense of personal achievement as if we make it on our own, as if salvation is something we can earn. But we don’t come to God on our own, no matter how disciplined our Lent is. Jesus is the one who wins the battle in the wilderness with Satan — not Moses and the Hebrews, not you and me. To sincerely try in Lent and fail can be a powerful and humbling reminder of how much I need God’s forgiveness, how much I need God to save me.
Second, though it is not the Lent I hoped for, it is Lent nonetheless. And every disruption (I’ve been interrupted four times since I started this sentence), every person who comes into my office with a new challenge, every unexpected situation at home, becomes a potentially sacred moment and gives me a new real-life opportunity to enter into the very heart of Lent — to practice understanding and compassion, to be present to others when needed, to treat others as I would wish to be treated (or, even better, as God would treat them), to minister to the sick and comfort the grieving, to build peace where I can, to learn to die to my own selfish desires in order to serve others, to do whatever I can to build the kingdom of God in my locality, to seek forgiveness from God and others when I screw up — in essence, to enter into Jesus’ redeeming life, death, and Resurrection and to practice being the disciple I promise to be every year when I repeat my baptismal promises at Easter.
I keep trying to get back on track with my Lenten disciplines. In the meantime, while this may not be the Lent I had in mind, may not be the Lent I hoped for, it’s the Lent I’ve got, and God is giving me plenty of opportunities to make the best of it.
How is Lent touching your life so far? Please let me know.