At the Christmas Eve Mass
December 24, 2021
The Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan
The Chapel of Saint James of Jerusalem
In nomine . . .
I was, as you would expect, a very ambitious student. Academic study was my area of great success growing up and thus also my greatest vanity all the way through school, college, and graduate school. My father used to joke that I was a “professional student,” and he was not wrong. But occasionally along my triumphant journey there was a crunch moment when I would feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that I had to do and the pace required to meet the standards that I had set for myself, which were in retrospect unnecessarily punishing.
One of these moments was on the 22nd of December in 1980 during my senior year at Harvard when I was alone on campus writing a graduate paper for a master's degree in history that I was pursuing in my fourth year because I had completed the credits for my bachelor's degree the year before. The consequence was that I was doing graduate work while my friends were doing undergraduate work, so I had to stay behind to finish a graduate project which was unique to me.
Because of this, I had a week of researching and writing all by myself on an abandoned campus in a Cambridge winter. It was cold and wet and dark outside, and I was tired and lonely, so naturally homesick. Feeling this way, I did what every homesick student does: I called my mother and whined to her about all the work I had to do and how cold and dark it was. I don’t think I admitted to being lonely; I was probably too proud for that, but she certainly knew.
Now again, remember that all of this was my fault, as our unhappiness so often is. I was the victim of my own inordinate ambition. I was trying to do six years’ worth of academic work in four years and expecting to do it perfectly. I was again a very foolish and vain young man.
But my mother did not point any of this out to me. She knew who I was, and she knew I was doing what I wanted to do. She also knew that I could do it, and she fully expected that I would get my work done, that I would do it well, and that I would fly home to Washington on Christmas Eve. I was just going through a hard time and feeling a little sorry for myself and needed her attention and her voice on the other end of the telephone.
And I will never forget what she said to me - at first because of how funny it was, but now because of how wise it was: “Sweetie, I know just how you feel. I have all this Christmas wrapping to do.”
Now, because I was young and arrogant and completely full of myself, I thought that she was being ridiculous. After all, I was at Harvard doing a master's degree in my senior year, writing an “important” essay on an obscure 19th century theologian whom none of you have ever heard of, but who was for me incredibly interesting and unfairly forgotten. She was just wrapping Christmas presents.
But I loved the way that she was so quintessentially my mother, and I was reminded as I laughed at her just how much I loved her, and I am sure that I felt reassured and comforted.
But I do think that I registered even then two points that I have remembered ever since:
First, like all good parents and good teachers, she reminded me that work is work, and sometimes it isn’t easy, but you need to focus on what you need to do and get it done. It’s part of life; handle it; and keep the task in perspective.
And second, she reminded me that Christmas is important.
And here let me tell you that for my mother, Christmas was by far the most important day of the year, and she went all out for it. We had Christmas lights and a Christmas tree and an Advent Calendar on the living room mantle with our stockings hanging below it. My parents gave a Christmas party for their friends, which was magical for us, and a separate Christmas Eve Dinner for the family in the dining room, which was the grandest meal of the year.
My mother spent weeks on her Christmas cards. The list was very long, and she wrote a note for everybody in her idiosyncratic and sometimes illegible left-handed handwriting. And everybody got presents - not just us, but all her friends and our teachers and our neighbors. And she always included her divorced and widowed friends at our family dinner who were alone at Christmas: Auntie Phyllis and Aunt Betty Hazelton and Aunt Betty Mooney, who added greatly to the company. She gave my sixth-grade teacher an amaryllis every Christmas until he died because he was Dutch and then to his widow after him “because she must miss him.”
And we woke up Christmas morning to find our stockings at the foot of our beds filled with presents, which she had spent the whole year before finding for us, and then came downstairs to discover five piles of presents, a pile for each of us in the living room. And we opened our presents with giddy abandon, while she wrote down the details for thank you notes which we would write the next day and my father gathered up the discarded wrapping paper. As I think about it, at Christmas, my father always had the supporting role, but he seemed to be up for it.
And this is why I always spent Christmas Day with my parents in the house where I grew up and then with my mother after my father died: I knew how much Christmas mattered to her, and I also knew that my siblings were celebrating with their families and recreating for their children what our mother had created so generously for us.
But during the last five years of her life when my mother was suffering from progressive dementia as my father had before her, our Christmases together became quieter and quieter. At the end, it was just my mother, her two devoted caregivers, and me, but she knew it was Christmas, as Linda and Adel had risen to the occasion and decorated the house. We shared a delicious Filipino feast together, and there were presents from them and all my mother’s children underneath the Christmas tree.
And it was at this, my last Christmas with my mother, that I finally realized the third most important truth that she had taught me when she comforted me over the telephone all those years ago.
And the truth was this: my mother’s work wrapping presents for other people was not less important than my work researching and writing a graduate paper which has only ever been read by my professor and me; it was more important, because she was working hard for all of us, whereas I was just working hard for me – for my own achievement and my own happiness.
And I learned this lesson at our last Christmas together because this was the Christmas when my mother no longer knew who I was but was still just thrilled to see me and delighted in all the presents which were now just for her, a sign, I think, of her reward to come.
It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive, as this great feast reminds us, because it is only by living generous and giving lives that we can shine with the one true light which this holy child has brought to us, the light of the star above his manger which reveals his presence with us, the light of Christ in all of us which alone dispels the darkness.
Merry Christmas to you all.