Mid-December at the Maison Mère
There are pending projects on my desk but, given the season, I suppose all that can wait…
Early November found me marking the first year’s anniversary of my appointment to CIF (Centre de Formation Vincent de Paul, Paris) – has it been that long?! Even though living in France still seems a bit strange to me, even surreal (it doesn’t feel like “home,” at least not yet), I do feel grateful to be residing here at our Maison Mère, quatre-vignt-quinze, Rue de Sèvres, sixième arrondissement – it’s practically in the center of this beautiful “City of Lights.”
For nearly a month now the many corridors in this rambling, large house have been eerily quiet. Perhaps it’s our latitude – it’s so dark now, lasting long before we gather for evening vespers until long after we rise in the morning…. In fact, the darkness of winter seems to have slowed down everything – the multiple construction sites in and around our building complex continue, but they seem to start later and end earlier. Public activities within the house – Vincentian family meetings, neighborhood groups, etc. are few these days. Many of our resident confrere priests have left for the next two weeks, some to be with their families, but most to visit our mission houses (rural France) there to help out with the sacraments during this busy and popular season.
It’s rainy, gray and chilly most of December in Paris, but in the now darker evenings the streets are even more populated than usual: couples arm-in-arm, clusters of students, young families often with baby carriages, all out for the lights and sights. During my evening walks, despite the cold, I tend to stay out later now, watching the people and enjoying this picturesque place. But often enough – perhaps because of the season, I’ll find myself drifting, playing back times and places past, wondering about family and friends now far away, sprinkled throughout the Americas or Europe, India, Africa – what they are doing? how are they? what might these last days of Advent mean to them?
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them. [Luke 2:15-20]
As a child growing up along with my brother and sisters, in different times and with, what seems now, more imagination, I loved setting up the Nativity scene (crèche) in our family room, indeed, even a few others in our bedrooms. I suppose that there was the fun of collecting figurines, some of which were quite detailed and unusual and, of course, hordes of animals, adding more and more of them each year – but it seemed that we mostly enjoyed sitting quietly, just watching the scene… In the end it was all about imagining ourselves right there with Joseph, Mary, the newborn Jesus and that yearly increasing retinue of farm animals, baby Jesus fans and visitors… What really had it been like to be there, to know who this baby was? Was it not absolutely marvelous?! To simple, open children like ourselves, the scandal and the absurdity of God being born under such poor circumstances had not yet registered; this was about our own desire to be included, to be there with the baby Jesus and His parents and yes, with all those friendly animals! Our contemplation was a joyful longing.
Notably, even for that first Christmas, despite so many prophecies and all those angels. only a very few people showed up – a few land-less shepherds, eventually some outsiders, all foreigners. Perhaps even then, many people were just too busy with their lives, too worried about “urgent matters” to have time for such unexpected mystery. Are we so different two thousand years later? If our beliefs were to reflect headlines today they would mirror little more meaning than a growing sense of dread. That would be sad indeed, since we’d be risking never acknowledging or even noticing “God-among-us.” Yet that’s what we Christians believe and that is why we celebrate this feast. Even if we continue thinking of Him as hidden, God lives on! God loves us too much to abandon us to ourselves.