Two Special Christmases
In this touching homily for 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A, Father Hanly talks about two Christmases which were very special to him.
Readings for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
- First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-14
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
- Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7
- Gospel: Matthew 1:18-24
I’m looking down at the four candles that are already lit, which is a sign that Christmas is here, and I’m wondering where the other three went so quickly. I still remember just one candle the first Sunday of Advent, and here we are very close to Christmas Eve.
I was talking to the children yesterday, we had the Children’s Mass on Saturday, and I told them of the two Christmases that remain in my own mind so surely. And those who know me very well will know the two Christmases I refer to.
But the reason I’m telling you these two things is because it seems to me, year after year, they keep coming back to me, and I know there’s some secret about the meaning of Christmas in both of them which I haven’t really quite figured out yet. But they go like this:
The first one was: the time is in New York City, in Brooklyn where I was growing up, and we were just little children. And my father was working. We were living in Hicksville, rather, at the time, but my father was working in New York City.
And the Great Depression came the year my father arrived in the United States. He was a rich man’s son who became almost immediately poor.
One time I said to him, “You know, you’re supposed to be rich when you get to New York, but you’re supposed to be poor in Ireland. And the idea is you’re poor in Ireland and then you come to New York and you get rich. But you got it backwards. You were rich in Ireland and you came to New York and became poor.”
But everybody was poor then because the Great Depression came and it was very, very severe.
And along came Christmas, and my father wanted to give us the Christmas that he always had when he was a rich man’s son, but he just couldn’t do it.
In fact, it got so bad that there was going to be not enough money to buy any gifts, maybe to put in a tree but that was it. Anyhow he felt terrible because my father was a Christmas addict in a way. Christmas was everything for him because it helped him to remember his days in Ireland, growing up there.
Anyhow, he came to us, lined us up, my big sister, my little sister and I, and said, “Santa Claus just phoned and he is very sick so he’s not coming this Christmas.” And we all thought this was a great loss, because Christmas meant Santa Claus and Santa Claus meant gifts, and that was kind of the end of a little dream that we had. But we were very stoic and we understood and we said to my father, “Will you say to Santa we hope he gets better, but it’s okay to skip one Christmas.”
About a week before Christmas came, my father was coming home on the train and the train ended up in a wreck. And he got home a little late because the doctor examined him and he found that he had bad bruises in the back but he was okay.
Three days before Christmas, however, representing the railroad, there was a gentleman knocked at the door, came in, and he said to my father, “Were you hurt in the train wreck?” He said, “Well, nothing really to talk about but there was a few pains but the doctor said I’ll be fine, thank you.”
And so the man said to him, “Would a cheque for $100 be enough?” Well, $100 American, in the middle of the Depression when you had nothing, was like $1,000. So my father said, “Yeah, that would be fine.” So he wrote out the cheque.
My mother tried to get the cheque from him because she wanted to buy the very important things for us like galoshes for our feet when we were going out in the snow and things like this.
But my father would have nothing. There was no Christmas magic in galoshes. So he wouldn’t give it to her. And he went down and he bought all the toys and everything for us that we might have a great Christmas.
And it was a great Christmas. And my mother gave in and she said, “Yes, Christmas is for children and children love toys.” And so we rushed down. Under the tree were all these boxes and we tore them apart and we saw all kinds of dolls and games etc, etc. And it was a great Christmas.
Now I think one of the clues was because when we looked at the Christmas tree it was nice. We looked at our mother, she was smiling. We looked at our father and he glowed. He was so happy.
And that was the first lesson that we learned: that Christmas is for givers. If there are receivers, it’s okay. But they’re for givers. Because God is the great giver. He gave us His Son to celebrate Christmas. And the little child, when he grew up, gave his life for us, and he wanted us always to remember that it is in giving that we learn to love and in loving that we learn to touch God.
That’s the first story.
The second one is when I was ordained a priest and I was assigned to Taiwan. It was called Formosa in those days by many people in the West.
And I had just arrived in September, studying Fukienese, when they needed help in the mountains. Up in the mountains were the aborigines, the original inhabitants of Taiwan, and they lived in the mountain country. And some of our priests were working there.
But they need a priest to say Midnight Mass in one of the centres for the aborigines. And so I went up. And I was brought in by a priest and he said, “Now you will have Midnight Mass and the next day you will say the morning Mass. But I’m sorry I can’t be with you because I have two other places to go to at the same time.”
And there I was, fresh out of New York City, looking up at all these people who were coming to Midnight Mass. Now the Mass was in Latin, so it didn’t matter about the Mass, but I couldn’t even say “Merry Christmas” to anybody because I didn’t know how to say Merry Christmas in the language of the aborigine people.
And they were poor. I remember how poor they were. They had the poverty of almost hundreds of years. And they came out into the beautiful little chapel, but they flooded it and they were all around and in their kind of bare feet and raggedy clothes.
And the catechist was trying to talk to me in Fukien dialect but I didn’t know enough. So I’m sitting in the middle of this place and I said, “Where are my parents?” My first Christmas away from home.
I went out and I began the Mass. And the Mass was in Latin. And we got to the “Lord have mercy” and they began to sing. And they sang the mass in Latin. And they sang it more beautifully than I ever heard it in the seminary when we were singing. And they sang the whole mass and it was so beautiful. And you looked out and you could see the fire in their eyes, the hope.
And then after we had the Mass we went outside the church in this very large setting and they all sat down in a circle. And they started singing and they were singing the aborigine songs in honour of God.
And then they stood up and they began to dance. And I’m sitting there just in awe, but I couldn’t join. And, all of a sudden, a hand reached down, took mine in one and another, and they took me into the circle and we danced and danced and danced. It seemed to be for hours.
And then finally the priest came back and he collected me, put me on the back of his motorcycle, and he said, “How was your Christmas?” I said, “It was the best Christmas I’ve ever had in my whole life.”
You don’t have to give things at Christmas but, if you give yourself, if you give everything you have, if you give the gift of love to each other, then that is the heart of Christmas.
God so loved the world He gave His only Son, who came as a naked little baby — no power, no glory, no money, nothing, just laying in the manger of animals. And the angels came to sing. And the shepherds, who were as poor as the aborigines, came to worship. And they left with great joy in their hearts because they knew Emmanuel, God is with us, and we don’t need anything else.
To have God with you, to be one with God and one with each other and gathered wherever it is, whether it’s a fancy place or whether it’s a humble, humble stable and manger, Christmas means God is teaching us how to love.
And to teach us how to love means to teach us how to give. And to teach us how to give is to become Emmanuel, God is with us, among all peoples.
I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a happy Christmas.
And remember, it’s not what you give, if you give your whole self, your whole heart and your whole soul to those around you, and then you will understand why the angels sing, why the shepherds dance, and why the world, for all its pain and sorrows and difficulties, is a wondrous, marvelous and great place to be.
Because we indeed have become Emmanuel, God with us and God with each other.