As someone who loves this time of year, I was beginning to worry that the “Christmas Spirit” was going to pass me by this time. I definitely got caught up in the rush of my work activities, was sidetracked by too much travel, and then got knocked off my feet by the passing of my 91-year-old mother.
My mom played a central role in my development – I think more than most mothers – and I will miss her dearly. She lived on her own until her last day, played golf and bridge to the end, and had recently served Thanksgiving dinner to the family. I am thankful that she was well-cared for by my siblings and others, and her passing was filled with peace and grace. I still want to talk to her and see how her day has gone, but I am left just grateful for a life well-lived. I know that she and my father are re-united and that is a grace in and of itself.
So in the maelstrom that became the first three weeks of December, I found myself running from pillar to post just trying to get things done – lost in a sea of action items, year-end meetings, and “holiday activities” that didn’t really have much ho-ho-ho and certainly lacked the contemplation that should come with the time of year. I was reminded why the holiday season is so stressful for many.
I believe in serendipity and serendipity saved Christmas for me. Although we are not regular symphony goers, we were invited to the Seattle Symphony’s presentation of Handel’s Messiah and had the pleasure of sitting in the 6th row. I’ve experienced Messiah before but for some reason this performance was different…it penetrated my soul, lifted my heart, and removed what felt like 10 tons of bricks from my chest. The music and singing were powerful and transformative and surrounded me with an energy that was literally moving.
So what is Christmas? As a life-long Catholic, I’ve been taught that Christmas is the culmination of advent, the beginning of the liturgical year. Put another way, it marks the beginning of our journey from Christ’s birth to his death and resurrection at Easter. While the terminology is not all the same, something similar can be said for Christians of all types around the world. So for billions of people the origins and deeper meanings around Christmas relate to faith and their beliefs in a loving God.
And Messiah is certainly a religious piece – an English oratorio based on verses from the Bible and other Christian works. But on that night at the symphony, it was not the religion alone that inspired me. There was something even deeper and more universal than a specific faith or an event in the Bible. “Hallelujah” is one of those words that speaks for itself. By its very structure and tone, it is a word that demands liberation, it shouts for joy, and it cries for peace all in one expression. And when you combine it with Handel’s powerful composition and the chorale arrangement of voices from across the musical spectrum, something special occurs. Somehow the music does more than lift us up – it is in fact the human spirit itself. There is a story told about Handel’s assistant finding him in tears and asking him what was wrong – to which Handel holds up the score to the Hallelujah movement and says, “I thought I saw the face of God.”
Christmas can and must be more than just a Christian ritual. In a world that is plagued by terrorism, cruelty, homelessness, refugees, and hunger, Christmas must be about the human spirit and our common humanity. Like the chorus, the holiday season must raise all of us up to a higher level, enable each of us to see others in a new way, and inspire entire communities to see a better path forward.
Which brings me back full circle to my mom. Like all of us, she had weaknesses and did some things I may never completely understand. But she was an amazing woman, born in the depression, tested by the war, and led a family in the nuclear age. She raised five wonderful kids (at least we all think we are wonderful), created a legacy that included 15 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren, and taught us all what it meant to live a caring, loving life. As I describe in my book, she gave me the faith and strength to pick up the pieces and move forward at a time when I was surely falling. To me, she was a mother, cheerleader, golf partner, advisor, and friend. To that I say, “Hallelujah” indeed.