Media CenterCarolyn Woo’s CNS Column – Christmas Presence

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By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo

December 2014

As I write, the Christmas season is fast approaching. My thoughts, like those of most people, have turned to Christmas presents. What would be fun and useful for my team members at Catholic Relief Services? What would not be merely shelved but stay in sight and mind and bring a smile? When would I have time to shop? What about my family with grown sons, nieces and nephews? And so many good friends who honestly do not need anything? All these deliberations we go through to help us convey our affection in an explicit way, with special expressions, to let people know how much we appreciate their presence in our lives.

Presence: this is what Christmas is about. Christ, the son of God, comes into our world to be present to us: to know us intimately, not from afar but amidst us, sharing all the experiences we have: joy, sadness, friendship, loss, temptations, anger, rejection, acceptance. His engagement with us is physical as he puts his arms around us -- healing, teaching, sharing our tables, coming to our weddings and listening to our squabbles. He cried for us, and he cried because of us. While he came at one moment in history, he promised that he is always with us; that he would never abandon us; that at our worst and most vulnerable, there he is. Why wouldn't we be singing our hearts out for this feast?

But presents that come from the exhausting and fretful process of shopping and the logistics of wrapping and mailing can drive out -- and sometimes be an unsatisfactory substitute for -- authentic presence; for undistracted attention solely for the other person or for God. There are so many wonderful traditions of Christmas that are meant to turn our attention to others and to God, but somehow they become acts of duty or tradition that are empty of their intended spirit. I never understand the purpose of Christmas cards (usually from business contacts) that have no Christian message, no name of the recipient as in a "Dear xxxx," and a pre-printed signature of the sender. Coming closer to home, so many of us line up to admire the elaborate crèches in our parishes as part of the Christmas decoration without stopping for a moment of prayer and awe for what it stands for. We love the beauty of candle-lit midnight Mass without noting what it means in our lives for Christ to be the light that dispels the darkness.

Guilty of the frantic "preparations" for Christmas, there is one Christmas practice that I cherish. At home, I collect all the Christmas cards unopened in a big basket, growing with anticipation as the cards fill to overflowing. On Christmas afternoon, after the morning present exchange and dinner, I sit down in a quiet spot and slowly open each one, looking at the address label to identify the sender and try to remember where his or her life was from the last Christmas message. Reading and pondering the cards is like entering into the next chapter of a dear friend's journey, noting the incredible privilege of sharing in the joys, challenges and changes of their family. Across time and geography, as some of these come from students and colleagues I have not seen in decades, there is a bond that allows us to stay in each other’s lives and recognize each other as gifts and companions on the same journey. I say a prayer for each family and know that in many different ways, God has been present to me through them.

Merry and Holy Christmas!

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service. You can follow Dr. Woo on Twitter at @WooCRS.

Read Dr. Woo’s previous columns

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