In December 1997, my dear college friend and roommate got married to another friend of mine, and I was a member of his wedding party. In fact, a lot of our college friends were there for the three-day weekend of the gathering. It was a joyous time, as weddings usually are. Being December, the bride and groom had a minor Christmas theme going through the festivities, with holiday decorations, a horse-drawn carriage (a good approximation of a sleigh ride), and Christmas carols. It was the first time I’d been out of the city for a “vacation” in years, and it was also great to spend time with friends for such a jubilant occasion.
When I got home, there were well over a dozen messages on my answering machine — a rare occurrence. The first one was from my uncle, telling me to call him. The second one was also from my uncle, telling me again to call him. The third one was, again, from my uncle, insisting I call him. So was the fourth one, more insistent. I quickly realized that something bad had happened, and I called my uncle (while the answering machine continued to play endless messages from my uncle). My worst fears were revealed as I learned that my father had passed away, unexpectedly, from a heart attack.
I remain friends with that married couple even today. But, of course, my memory of that happy day is tinged by great sadness . . . and it’s a sadness that often carries over to the rest of the Christmas season.
This moment of my past came to mind as I reflected upon today’s readings. Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the infants and children who were slaughtered by the agents of Herod in his vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus before the young boy could fulfill the Father’s wishes. We’re on the third day of the Octave of Christmas, and this season is still a time of great joy. And yet, that exuberance in our hearts is tempered by this horrifically sad event. It’s also one reminder that people struggle with their own troubles, even amid glad tidings . . . which is echoed in the other readings.
The opening reading from the First Letter of John is a warning for us to remain vigilant in our hearts and deeds: “If we say, ‘We have fellowship with him,’ while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth.” Even during this joyful time, we need to ensure we walk with Christ.
The responsorial psalm proclaims, “Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.” As I reflected upon it, I recalled that — even during this festive holiday season – we still need to help those who have not yet fully accepted Christ’s message, who need to be reminded that kindness and respect should rule the day.
But most of all, my heart aches as I reflect on the Gospel selection from Matthew, and the story of the innocent martyrs whose deaths underscored the significance of one person. Though they, as martyrs, are all saints and with God, it would have still been heartbreaking for the parents and families of those children, even if they understood the reason for their deaths and their ultimate salvation (neither fact of which they would have been aware of).
The holidays are a time of great joy for many, but they can also be incredibly difficult times, with the cheerful cacophony of the holidays only serving to underscore heartbreaking losses, tragic stories, and dire sadness.
Let us, then, remain vigilant during this Christmas season not to become so enthralled with our own happiness at Christ’s birth that we fail to see opportunities to follow Christ’s commands. Don’t automatically assume that the season is a time of boundless joy for everyone, but remain vigilant for chances to help. Pray for those undergoing loss and sorrow, and give aid as you’re able. Offer a word of encouragement. Extend an invitation for a meal or a visitation. Provide your ear and listen — really, actively listen — to their hardships and troubles.
I can think of no greater gift I could offer to the baby Jesus than to use his birth as an opportunity to love God and love one another during a dispiriting time for a person in need. With God’s grace and our Christ-guided actions, perhaps those we help will have many happy Christmases in the future, using the flame of that love to spread the light of the season to others for years to come.