My first Christmas in the convent was last year. I had been in the United States only one month, and was far away from my home in Portugal. Those weeks before Christmas became the stage for me to ponder the question that Advent poses to each of us: What is Christmas?
As I found myself with my co-novices in St. Louis over Christmas, I sensed within me a reluctance or resistance to accepting that things in my life had changed so radically and so quickly. I began to wonder whether Christmas was what I had always believed it to be.
As the Advent season wore on, my inner struggle increased. Being stripped of everything I knew about Christmas—my family, my home, our traditions with our flavors, music, and decorations, my community, my country—my heart was stretched more than I felt able to bear. It seemed to me Jesus needed a space to be born in me, a space greater than the ocean I had crossed.
It was almost Christmas night when, I don’t know if I was feeling sorry for myself or being honest for the first time, I told Jesus I couldn’t stretch my heart open any more to receive him. If I stretched another millimeter I would break. After all, how could a child occupy so much space inside me?
In the silence, after all my energy had been used to really say what I felt, I heard Jesus say that he would stretch from heaven to earth for me. This immediately made the ocean that separated me from Portugal seem very small. And Jesus would do this for me, even if my heart was preoccupied, even if the only thing I had to offer, almost if only to avoid feeling guilty, was a stable…
And in that moment my heart widened another millimeter and did not break.
After that widening of my heart, I received a letter on Christmas Eve, a Christmas card from a sister in my community in Portugal, which reminded me about the One I was expecting, that One we are expecting on Christmas:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Each of us will be given this Child, who is born to be Light. To be the great light that guides us and illuminates the darkness that exists in our lives, in the darkness that exists in the world. And confident of this promise, on Christmas Eve, we go to church at night, so that this light may shine within us.
We go at night, because in us there is darkness that only the coming of Jesus can dispel. We go at night, because so often we do not see the way, and Jesus is born to give us the counsel. We go at night, because sometimes the future brings fears, and Jesus is born to give us the fortress. We go at night, because death makes us distrust the promise of God’s life, and Jesus is born to give us Eternity. We go at night, because divisions continue to exist in us and in the world, and Jesus is born to give us peace.
When I think of my first Christmas at the convent, I realize that the dispossession of all I knew as Christmas, far from moving me away from its true meaning, increased my openness to the mystery I was living. And it has increased my openness to a new family, a new home, new traditions and all that Christmas is, too.
It is true that the whole context helped me in this deepening, but I believe the first step of this journey took place within me. I have realized that sometimes we want to live Advent in a serious way and really take a spiritual path. We want to create this space for Jesus to be born within us and we come to Christmas Eve, and we only have a stable inside us to receive it. But Christmas is also accepting our poverty to welcome Jesus, yet still doing the best we can. Because we can trust that he, in his love for us, will come—no matter what.
And in this trust, everything we know as Christmas, family, traditions, decorations, presents, memories, can be lived as a gift. Can be lived with this deep understanding, that the ultimate end of every gift is to love God and our brothers and sisters. Anything that does not have this purpose is not a gift, it is not Christmas.
At Midnight Mass, I saw many families sitting together in the pews of the church, and for a moment I found myself remembering so many times in the past in which I had sat in the pews of my parish together with my family, celebrating the birth of Jesus. But with my new community, with my co-novices, with all those people from a parish that was not mine, I felt very deeply the joy of Jesus being born among humanity, I felt a joy that was greater than what I knew, I felt the joy of what I’ve believed as far back as I can remember.
A child has been given to us, the child of God who comes to save us!
by Sr. Marta Gaspar, novice, Daughters of St. Paul
image: Christmas at Faro, Portugal, wikicommons