Rediscovering Christmas (or How I Spent My Christmas Eve)

El Paso star
The El Paso Star atop the Franklin Mountains

Christmas Eve morning.

I open the doors of la sala, and the stench affronts my nostrils.

The odor of weary travelers who have not washed for days wafts through the air. I try not to breathe too deeply.  About 60 parents and their children sleep on blankets spread across the floor.

I am the shift coordinator at Loretto Nazareth. The person “in charge” for the next several hours. The one responsible for these refugees who were brought here last night to get them out of the cold after CBP deposited them onto the street. Combined with our other guests still sleeping snugly in their rooms, the number of people in my care totals well over 100.

Intake has not yet been done for those who arrived during the night. They’ll need orientation. Phone calls to relatives and sponsors will need to be made. Showers taken, clean clothing dispersed, and rooms assigned as available.

Because it’s Christmas, and because this situation has been on the local news, people continuously arrive at our door throughout the day. Some bring Christmas gifts. Toys for the children, new winter coats, fresh fruit, candy and cookies.

Others come offering assistance. “What can we do?”  They’ve left their Christmas Eve preparations behind.  One couple arrives with their adult son who’s visiting for Christmas. They help in the clothing room for a couple of hours before announcing they have to pick up their daughter flying in for the holiday. But before leaving, they ask if they can give any guests a lift to the airport. A husband and wife stop by to offer a room in their home. “We saw it on TV. We want to help.”

Nazareth winter coats 2018
Storing donations of 50 boxes of children’s brand new winter coats

The overabundance of gifts, the donations, the offers of help – one could simply attribute this to the Christmas spirit. But I know better. This is El Paso. This has been the community’s response for decades.

And what I am experiencing at Nazareth is happening in temporary shelters throughout the city.  Every day.  I only do this twice a week. Some do it every day.

But this special day happens to be particularly long.

Because it’s Christmas Eve, my replacement is with family. Other volunteers are ill. The Annunciation House volunteer in charge of scheduling us is doing her best to find someone. I wind up doing a 12-hour shift.Ruben G

Exhausting, but unusual for me. I think of Ruben, our director, and I wonder if he ever sleeps.

When I finally leave, feeling rundown and ready to crash, I consider reneging on my fellow volunteer’s unexpected invitation earlier that day. Discovering I’d be alone tonight, Yvonne insisted I share Christmas Eve dinner at her mother’s with her extended family.

I know if I go home now, I won’t eat. It’s better that I accept.

And I’m so glad I do.

Of Mexican-American heritage, Yvonne’s family treats me as their own. A stranger welcomed into their private lives on a very personal occasion. Yvonne even has gifts for me she somehow found time to purchase that afternoon.

Later at home, needing to unwind, I sit at the base of my Christmas tree where I’ve placed Yvonne’s precious gifts. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. For Yvonne’s generosity. Her family’s hospitality. For the people of El Paso. And for the sudden awareness of God’s gift in bringing me here. The amazing graces of this place.

It’s true, I missed being with my son. I didn’t get the warm coziness of Christmases past spent with my husband, the comfort of eggnog rum sipped by a glowing fire, Christmas carols sung outside my door, beautifully wrapped presents under the tree.

Instead I got something much more.

The gift of living out the Gospel narrative of the Nativity.

pregnant mary-on-donkey

I didn’t find it in the pretty, pale-faced figurines and the adorable sheep hovering over a babe laid in my manger beneath the tree. This romantic, cozy scene is nothing like the reality.

I found it in the remembered odor of la sala. In realizing that Joseph and Mary, weary travelers unable to wash for days along their long journey, would have had the same scent. Could their fears also be the same as our refugee families? Poor and away from home and loved ones, afraid in the night as they awaken in a strange environment?

I found it in the baby born in a dirty, smelly place in which his olive-skinned parents were only passing through. None of them were citizens of Bethlehem. Even the shepherds were nomads. Scruffy men adding to the stench with their wool coverings.

On a deeper level, I am shown God’s connection to the poor and lowly. God’s identification with the meek and uncertain beginnings of a child born not in his own land. Whether in Bethlehem or El Paso.

How could we celebrate Christmas and miss this message?

How could we miss the Christ born through the lowliness and surrendered “yes” of a young, migrant couple who listened, not to the law, but to their “inner authority”?

Yet, I am certain El Paso has not missed it.

The tremendous gift of love displayed that Christmas night is made visible in El Paso.

In our community’s unlimited generosity and selfless giving. In our volunteers, supporters, and donors. Here I find the manifestation of the Incarnation.

And not only on one night. Day after day, year after year, El Pasoans show up to serve the poor and lowly. They are teaching me the meaning of love incarnated. And, through this ministry, God is teaching me how to love “the lowly.”

To love the Christ, in all His manifestations.

 “Only the humble believe God and rejoice that God is so free and grand, that he works wonders where we lose heart, that he makes splendid what is slight and lowly. Indeed, this is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly. ‘God has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.’ God in lowliness—that is the revolutionary, the passionate word of Advent.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Holy Night

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Holy Womb

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-son
Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

Call me crazy but I love this season of quiet waiting in darkness.

It beckons me to be still. To sit for a long while in the silence and listen deeply.  If I am wise enough, I heed that call, as I did earlier this month when I gifted myself with a three-day silent retreat at a nearby hermitage.

Some wonder, why do you need time in silence when you live alone? Believe me, it’s not the same. At home there’s the pull of ever-present concerns in my surroundings, the to-do list sitting on my desk, my phone’s popping messages that distract even when it’s silenced. Case in point – since returning from my retreat, it’s taken me weeks to be able to sit down to write about the experience!

But that has only given me more opportunities to “see” more deeply the powerful gift I was given.

At the hermitage I unplugged from everything.  Let go of the daily text messages and continuous needs of our refugee hospitality shelters. Let myself simply “be.” And, eventually, I was able to silence the inner voices. My hope was that, like Mary, I could even be silent enough and present enough to fully receive what the Spirit offered. And surrender to it.

As soon as I entered the hermitage, it struck me. A large reproduction of Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” – the same painting Henri Nouwen used on the cover of his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son – hung squarely on the wall facing me. It’s my favorite Nouwen book, one that speaks to all the parts of myself that need accepting and embracing.

Clearly this was no coincidence.

The painting begged for reflection. I knew I’d have to comply.

But it wasn’t until my third and final day that I received the real gift. The day I decided to pull the rocking chair up close and finally contemplate the painting.

It didn’t take long for me to see myself in all of the “faces” of the painting, from the self-righteous brother to the humbled younger brother soaking in parental love. Similar to Henri Nouwen’s experience, I was aware of myself in all of these “characters.”

But I waited, open and surrendered, to see what else might emerge.  In the upper, far left-hand corner, I began to notice the outline of a figure I’d not seen before. Barely visible in the painting’s dark hues. So faint, it could be easily missed.

The outline appeared unmistakably feminine. Its invisible face positioned high enough to “oversee” and encompass all the figures.

So insignificant. And yet…

The longer I sat, the more I saw in this mysterious image the dark and nurturing safety of a womb large enough and sacred enough to have room for all these “parts” of myself. A loving refuge, like God’s “Holy Womb.”

But could it be that I was this womb, too? This loving, nurturing “Holy Womb”?

kissing_the_face_of_God

I often think of myself as insignificant. And yet….

After returning home, a friend sent me a beautiful Advent/Posada message related to our ministry of hospitality here in El Paso. She noted that “genuine hospitality requires an openness of space, time, and hearts to those others have rejected – or find insignificant. Mary seemed like an insignificant woman and Bethlehem like an insignificant town. But we know God places great value in what can seem to many insignificant.”

My friend’s words stirred something familiar. What had at first gone unnoticed about the painting now became powerfully significant. The revelation of the Word made flesh happened in such a dark and loving Holy Womb as this.

Mary, who seemed so insignificant – young, poor, traveling on the margins – revealed herself to be the Holy Womb that births the greatest love the world has ever known.

Could it not also be that I am pregnant with God? Just like Mary. That all of us are? Including the refugees we serve? These people who travel on the margins, unknown to most of us, despicable to some of us. They seem insignificant. And yet…

Quotes_Creator_Holy Womb

In the days and weeks that followed my time at the hermitage, I have come to recognize how, like Mary, I have listened deeply, with the desire to say yes to the truest within me. I have been “obedient” to the deepest voices within me. How else would I have wound up here, in the desert? So far away from my dear Virginia home.

Like Mary, I have said “yes” without worrying about the consequences. Isn’t this how the Holy Womb gives birth? In me? In you? In the least among us?

Isn’t this how the greatest love the world has known is born? Again and again?