December 16, 2022

Be Our Guest / John Shaughnessy

Questions of Christmas—and the answers we hold in our hearts

John ShaughnessyIf you could choose just one Christmas song to listen to during this season, what would be your choice?

I’m in awe of the harmony that the musical group Pentatonix brings to their stunning version of “Mary, Did You Know?” And there’s something about the classic duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie combining my mom’s favorite Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy” with “Peace on Earth.” And through the years, my appreciation continues to grow for the lively “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano.

Still—and it’s not even close—my favorite Christmas song is “Breath of Heaven” by Amy Grant, a song that tries to capture what a young Mary must have felt as she carried a baby, the Son of God, on the way to Bethlehem.

In the song, Mary shares these words with God: “Do you wonder, as you watch my face, if a wiser one should have had my place? But I offer all I am. For the mercy of your plan.”

In the same song, there are three short sentences that show Mary’s need of God and her faith in God. If you’ve ever turned to God in a time of need, you will identify with the three things that Mary pleads for from God. In this hauntingly emotional part of the song, she says, “Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me.”

Yet through it all, Mary continues to say “yes” to God. It’s a powerful example for all of us as we try to move closer to God during this Advent and Christmas.

If you could choose just one Christmas movie to watch during this season, what would be your choice?

In a recent conversation with friends about this question, Elf, The Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life were mentioned. For my wife, the Christmas season isn’t complete without watching White Christmas. And The Polar Express and Miracle on 34th Street deserve a mention, too.

Still, my personal choice is The Bells of St. Mary’s. If the true gifts of Christmas are faith, family, friendship, forgiveness, generosity and a path to redemption—all wrapped with love, humor and tenderness—then no film does it better than this 1945 classic starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman.

This movie also provides a heartfelt reflection of many of the positive qualities of what the priesthood and religious life can be—positive qualities that I’ve often seen in many of the priests and religious sisters who now serve here in the archdiocese.

If you had to choose just one family-related Christmas tradition connected to the Catholic faith, what would be your choice?

My choice connects to the scene of Christ being born in a manger in a stable.

When I was growing up, my mom and dad established a tradition at the end of the Christmas Mass we attended. They led their five children up to the altar where the Nativity scene was on display, surrounded by fresh straw. We knelt in front of the stable, focusing on Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the angels, the shepherds, the three kings and all the animals, as we each offered our personal prayer. And before we got up from our knees, we all reached for a single piece of straw—a reminder of the humble surroundings in which Christ was born, a reminder that even though all seven of us lived in one story of a home that had just one bathroom, we were richly blessed.

I still kneel in front of the stable after Christmas Mass. So do my children and their children—a connection across time of family and faith.

If you had to choose just one ornament that represented everything you hold dear about Christmas, what would it be?

This year marks 70 years since my parents were married. This year marks the third year since we haven’t had my father here physically for Christmas, although we believe he is still with us.

On my parents’ first Christmas as a married couple, they were given the gift of an angel that was designed to fit on the top of a Christmas tree. And every year since then—70 years!—that angel has continued to shine at the top of the tree.

It already lights up the tree in the home of one of my sisters, the home where my 94-year-old mother lives. As my mother looks at the angel, there’s no doubt that it reminds her of when she was young, when their marriage and their love had just begun, when there was so much of life ahead of them.

The years have passed by too quickly, she has told me often through the years. I’m at the point in my life where I understand what she means. Still, the memories, the traditions and the love endure. And they lead me again to embrace the true gifts of Christmas—family, faith and friendship.

I wish the same for you.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion newspaper.)

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