It was 9:00 pm when I tiptoed into my five-year-old daughter’s room to put away the sweater she had left in the kitchen. “What are you doing mommy?” she whispered. Startled, I turned to find her in the dark. “Priscilla,” I asked, “why are you still awake? You have to get to sleep sweetheart, you have school tomorrow.”
“Scratch my back mommy. Please?”
Those eyes, so hopeful, stripped me of all excuses. My second-born, whose infancy was overlapped by her younger brother’s, had all of six months to be the baby before being bumped up by the brand new sibling forming with great speed in my barely recovered womb.
“Scoot over,” I said. And I snuggled in beside her, burying my nose in her hair, and softly brushing my fingers over her frail, bony spine.
“Sing me a song…a Christmas song,” she begged.
“How about a Christmas story?” I suggested. It occurred to me that she might not have heard before, in any kind of detail, the story of Jesus’ birth.
“O.K,” she agreed. “Then a Christmas song.”
I started with Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel, emphasizing her youth and her incredible faith in the midst of such a bizarre arrangement.
“And God sent His son, who was also God, down to earth to be born from Mary’s tummy.”
“So God has two names,” she verified. “God and Jesus.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
She listened intently, furrowing her eyebrows at the part of my narrative where a very pregnant Mary is turned away from inn after inn, until finally, they are given shelter in a barn with the animals.
“And Jesus, the creator of all the universe,” I went on, “was born that night without a crib, or diapers, or even a mattress for Mary to rest on.”
“Jesus did have a baby blanket,” Priscilla corrected me. “I saw Him wrapped in one in a picture.”
Nodding, I continued, describing next how the shepherds’ fear turned to excitement at the angels’ announcement. I told her about the bravery of the Wise men as they defied Herod by journeying in secret to worship the baby king. I was searching for ways, for words, to capture for us both the miracle so easily lost in the repetition of this account.
“It is easy to forget why Christmas is so special.” I lectured her. “We get excited by Santa Claus, the presents, and the treats ….”
“Not me!” she interrupted. “Even when I am opening presents, I always think of Jesus.”
This exclamation, spoken so quickly and on cue, was said for my benefit. Priscilla, out of love for me, and hoping perhaps for a few extra minutes of cuddling, fed me the words I was hungry for. Although touched by her efforts to please me, I still couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. Whether for her or for me, I didn’t know. How does a mother conjure up in her child, or even in herself, a passion for the incarnation that goes beyond lip service and correct answers? I don’t want Priscilla to simply inherit a hand-me-down belief. I would rather my children wrestle like Jacob with the soul-assaulting commandments of Christ, emerging from the battle bruised and transformed; wearing with zeal their tested faith like a badge of honor.
Every week, I endure the exasperated sighs from my kids at having to stand during liturgy, pray before meals, and listen respectfully to readings from the Gospel. “Don’t you get it? “ I want to scream, “this is God, that we are approaching!” But it is not my job to try and force feed an appreciation for the Church down the throats and the hearts of my family. I was blessed with the privilege of raising these sons and daughters, but they are not mine to control or possess. I can create a home environment that is honoring to Christ. I can live my life in such a way that legitimizes the eternal benefits of the Gospel message. I can pray with them and for them, before school, before bed, in times of joy, and in times of sadness. I can lovingly insist upon appropriate behavior without shaming them into resentment. From there, I can do nothing more but implore God for the faith of Abraham, trusting Him enough to offer up their souls as a sacrifice.
I sang that night every Christmas carol I could think of. Priscilla was lulled to sleep by my off-tune renditions of “What Child Is This?” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I hoped, as I slipped out of her bed, that she would forever equate Nativity with the intimate whispers passed to her from mother to daughter, our shared memory guiding her like a star towards Bethlehem.