The Christmas I managed to upset an entire congregation

It was Christmas 2001 and I had been invited to celebrate midnight Mass in a small, non-parish church on Dublin’s north side, a place I had never celebrated Christmas before. The year that was coming to an end had been a tumultuous one, with people still reeling from the events of 9/11 and talk about yet more conflict in the Middle East.

I decided that I would talk about how at Christmas, some people experience the absence of God more than the presence of God, how they can find it difficult to feel the joy of the incarnation. I used a story to make my point. It was one told by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who along with the other concentration camp inmates was forced by the Nazis one day to witness the hanging of a young boy in retaliation for an escape that had taken place. Being but skin and bone, it took the boy a long time to die. And as the child hung there, struggling between life and death, Wiesel heard another prisoner cry out: “Where is God now? Where is he?” And Wiesel found himself silently answering: “Where is God? Here he is. He is hanging here on the gallows.” 

The point I was making was that even in the darkest of times, God is with us.

As I preached, I could sense a shift in the packed congregation, an hostility almost. It was just as well that I was too obtuse at the time to pick up on this negativity, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish the liturgy at all.

When Mass was over, during the recessional hymn, I processed to the back of the church to take up position by the door to greet people as they left. I hadn’t time to catch my breath before an irate younger woman descended on me. “Are you saying Mass tomorrow as well, Father?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t. “Good,” she replied, “because you should never preach that again, especially to a church full of children at Christmas. It was totally inappropriate.” She stormed off, leaving me stunned. Not good at handling confrontation, I wanted to scamper to the sanctuary of the sacristy and hide there, but it was too late. By this time the congregation was filing out of the church through the door beside which I stood. There was no escape. 

They weren’t slow to make their feelings known. “Dreadful. Dreadful homily,” a man bellowed without stopping to talk or even look at me. Another older man said the same thing. His wife tried to soften the blow. “It was fine, Father. Don’t listen to him.” But her husband interjected. “No, he needs to hear the honest truth. It was the worst sermon I ever heard.”

By that stage I was so taken aback that I was physically shaking. Usually, I received praise for my preaching. I had never received criticism like that before. Christmas was ruined for me. I learned the painful way that people don’t want to be reminded of harsh reality at Christmas time. They want happy clappy, feel good, uplifting stuff. They want angels and mangers and shepherds and joy, and I gave them Auschwitz and public hangings. No wonder they were angry at me.

I learned my lesson. I preached many Christmas homilies in the years since 2001, and while I never danced around the challenges that confront Christians at Christmas, I have always focused on the positive. No more upsetting stories. No more graphic tales of execution. No more talk about the absence of God.

This Christmas I have been thinking a lot about the incarnation, the good news of God with us. I have tried to feel it, to sense it, but my physical pain keeps getting in the way. I feel God’s absence far more than God’s presence. All I can do is try to believe, like Elie Wiesel, that somehow God is present with me in my agony. I might not feel God’s presence; sometimes during the long, dark nights, I might doubt it or even deny it. But I’m sure God doesn’t mind. I will keep trying to struggle on, hoping for glimpses of God’s presence, hoping for any shaft of light to help me endure into another new year.

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Things that give my joy

A short list of things that give me joy (in no particular order):

• A Liverpool win

• A piece of chocolate of any kind

• Seeing my mother

• The end of another day, when I can fall asleep and escape from pain for a while

• A Munster or Ireland rugby victory

• A good homily well preached (or article well written)

• Any sign of renewal or reform of the church

• Family members doing well

• Receiving a thoughtful message or kind word

• A day when pain doesn’t spoil things

Pain has beaten me

Two months ago I thought I was gaining control of my chronic back pain. I had found a new physio, I had followed her recovery plan and had cut back on my medications. I had increased my exercise and stayed up longer each day. And it seemed to be working. The pain had begun to ease to such an extent that I decided I didn’t need more surgery after all and could live without getting a spinal cord stimulator. I began to look forward to having a reasonably active, good quality of life.

Now that hope is crushed. For the past six weeks the pain has been increasing again, so that now it is as intense as it ever has been. I was hoping it was a short-term flare up, and was determined to not panic. I continued doing what my physio has recommended. But to no avail. The pain is so bad I want the spinal cord stimulator to be inserted as soon as possible. It is the last shot I have at being set free from this prison. If it fails, there is nothing left, but that is okay. Then I can choose whether or for how long more I can continue to endure this torture.

Thinking about life and end of life, I realize that I have been lucky in so many ways. I don’t have a bucket list of things I want to do before I die. I have done most of what I wanted. I have no desire to see how trump fares in office or how brexit works out. Indeed, the direction the world has taken of late makes it a far less attractive place to be.

The only reason I want to keep on fighting is for the sake of my mother and family. But the pain is beating me. All I can do is try to take each day at a time for as long as I can.

Remembering one of my worst days

I remember vividly almost every waking moment of this day last year. It was the day of my father’s wake.

Unlike the more common practice today, we decided to wake my dad at home. We wouldn’t take his body to a funeral parlor. We wouldn’t bring it to the church for an overnight stay. Instead, we would keep him at home with us in his own house for one last night.

So the house was open to all-comers. My dad’s body was laid out in a coffin in the middle of the sitting room. All the chairs were pressed back against the walls surrounding it, allowing for a free flow of mourners around the room as they offered sympathies.

In the kitchen off the hallway was all kinds of food, mostly donated by relatives and friends. The kettle was always on the boil. Neighbours, relatives and friends acted as hosts and hostesses. We did not have to worry about any of the catering or hospitality duties.

Our only task was to gather round my father’s coffin during the official wake period from 3pm to about 7.30 and receive those who came to mourn my father and to express sympathy. The circle of chairs was occupied mostly by the female members of the family, while the men – my dad’s sons, grandsons, and sons-in-law – stood by the wall in their black suits and ties. 

I did not stand with them because I was not able. I had come out of hospital just a few days before, after my third spinal surgery in six months, and was wearing a brace to support my back. Earlier that day, just before the wake started, I had sought and received a pain-killing injection from our local GP. I was also wearing two pain patches and had taken every medicine I was allowed in order to help me get through the evening.

But nothing made any difference. The pain was excruciating and unrelenting. People in their kindness shook my hand, but even the gentlest handshake felt as if my arm was being ripped from my shoulder. The combination of physical and emotional pain was almost too much to bear. Several times, I just had to go and lie down for a while.

The wake lasted for what seemed like an eternity. Though it was a dark, winter’s night, and our farmhouse is in the County Limerick countryside, people came in numbers touching a thousand from all over the country and beyond. It was testimony to my father’s popularity but also a demonstration of Irish culture and tradition at their best. People wanted the opportunity to express their condolences in person and to offer support and solidarity to our family in its grief. 

I knew only about 10 percent of them. Younger people came, flush with youth and life, friends and colleagues of my father’s grandchildren. The old came, now bent and creased by the passage of the years, friends and contemporaries of my father. And people of my generation came too, lots of them, now in mid life, friends and workmates of my brothers and sisters. From the well-dressed, well-spoken professional to the shaven-headed, tattoo-sporting construction worker, from my elderly priest colleagues in the Redemptorists to school mates of the younger grandchildren, they came – a true cross-section of that part of rural Ireland on that dark December night, 2015. 

It was wonderful that they came in such numbers, and my father would have been delighted, but in my grief and physical distress, I thought it would never end. I wanted people to come out in their droves to acknowledge my father and his goodness, but at the same time all I wanted was peace and quiet and the solace of my bed. My back was on fire, my arm hurt, and my emotions were in turmoil. I had been in hospital in Dublin when my father was taken to hospital in Limerick for what turned out to be the last time. I had never even got to visit him (we had no idea he was going to die) and how here he was being waked and I couldn’t even stand beside my brothers as a chief mourner to greet and thank those who had gone out of their way to stand with us in our loss. The only good thing I was conscious of was that if my father had died a week or ten days earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to attend his funeral at all.

Eventually, of course, the numbers tapered off as the clock approached 10pm, and the local priest led us in some prayers for his soul. We left my dad in the sitting room with a teddy bear his great granddaughter had put in his coffin to keep him company, and we struggled our way to bed, knowing that the next day, the day of the funeral, would be another test of endurance. I wouldn’t be celebrating the funeral liturgy but I was going to preach. I wanted to do that last thing for my father, no matter how difficult it would be, and I did. I’m glad about that.

Now a year has passed, and the shock and grief have passed too. We will gather for his anniversary celebration tomorrow with sadness but also in gratitude for the person he was and the impact he made on so many. While my emotional turmoil has eased, my health problems continue. Unfortunately, my back pain is one thing that has not changed since exactly a year ago.