The greatest Christmas I ever knew was in 1964. I was four months into religious life, beginning my novitiate as a postulant in the Sisters of Mercy.
It was memorable not because of the surge of Advent purple. Nor was it because of the days of choir rehearsals of hymns with depth beyond the spritely shopping mall songs. It was because Advent preceded the sudden outpouring of love on Christmas Day, which came after the absence of many examples of simple human love. For in our novitiate, absence meant no mail from home. No candy treats. No premature green and red holiday decorations. No gifts to give or receive. In our novitiate we barely acknowledged the celebration of the birth of Jesus until Christmas Eve.
It was not that those of us in religious formation missed these outpourings of love. We didn't know yet what Christmas in the convent meant. We concentrated on awaiting the coming of the Messiah, the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. We sensed there was a purpose to these days, like fasting before a feast. But in our youth, we didn’t know anything was absent until the fulfillment of the season came.
Yet on Christmas Eve, when we walked into the novitiate community room that had been off limits for some days, what was missing became so obvious. Missing had been the signs of Jesus to an immature heart. There were letters from family and friends that had been piling up for four weeks, letters about everything from snowstorms to a new baby in the family.
There were decorations reminiscent of how the rest of town marked the season, trees and tinsel, Santa and elves, the Holy Family and Charlie Brown. There was candy.
An outpouring of emotions ran through our senses. Suddenly I felt an absence being filled with Jesus incarnate. We heard the warmth of Bing Crosby's crooning and the majesty of Handel's Messiah. We smelled pine and tasted chocolate and peppermint. We felt silk and velvet ribbons. We admired the crèche, awaiting an infant for its manger. I hadn't expected it. I was too naive to know what was possible. I knew the Christmas story. I knew Rudolph and his reindeers. I knew Frosty and his trek through town. But I didn’t know what all these parts of the novitiate scene would tell me about Jesus.
For until then I was unaware of the impact of His love, shown ironically through absence, an absence of the awareness of One so powerful in my life.
Life has taught me about absence since then, through deaths of loved ones and departures of friends who have moved away, for example, through job changes and graduations; but that first experience of absence has stayed with me. It has taught me to enjoy something as simple as a game of “Operation” with children on Christmas afternoon. It has called me to pause some seconds longer to look at the tree on Christmas night and to sit a moment longer at the table with family and friends.
Absence is about more than what is missing. We need to search for it, listen for its whisper, wonder when it might next come.
Can what is missing, or absent, be only moments away, like behind the novitiate door? In a letter waiting to be opened? In an "I love you" uttered once more?
‘Tis the season to be jolly, to make phone calls, to eat cookies, to sing carols. Perhaps it is also the season to listen or watch harder for what or Who is absent, yearning to be seen and heard.