Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary‘s Parish, Stockton
Special to Bilingual Weekly
Monday at midnight, a knock came on the door. “Who could that be?” we asked ourselves. Were we already close enough to Christmas that Santa might be here?Gathered in north Stockton with a group of young adults, having just begun to pray for a young man who seemed to be persecuted by evil spirits and for the home in which he’d had frightening experiences, I suspected that the youth were imagining a much less friendly visitor.
Rather than a jolly old elf from the Pole, could this be something sinister?
“There’s a total eclipse of the moon,” a neighbor’s voice whispered from beyond the threshold. Breathing a sigh of relief, we all shuffled outside.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The full moon was the color of rusty red, with a bright yellowish circumference, and as high in the sky as I’d ever beheld.
“This hasn’t happened for nearly four centuries,” someone reported. In fact, it had been exactly 372 years since the last time a total eclipse of the moon coincided with the shortest – and therefore darkest – day of the year, December’s winter solstice. We were witnessing history in the making.
What struck me was the fact that, just as we’d begun our prayer to ward off the negative forces or evil spirits that had been afflicting the young man, a knock had come at the door to alert us to the deepening darkness outside.
After a half hour of gaping in awe and wonder, I returned to the family room to be bit by the family dog. Though their large adopted cat —a tough fighter who’d seen rough times— and I hit it off right away, that Chihuahua must have been possessed by evil spirits, because all it could do was attack.
Checking out his teeth, I wondered if the eclipse had made them bigger. Then I felt mine. God knows that rat might have been watching Twilight.
During the prayer, I felt an oppressive spirit descend. I’d never intended to do this prayer in the presence of young people, but when I was able to visit the family who’d asked for the blessing, nearly a dozen were waiting there.
Before long, with the right kind of prayers and divine assistance, the fog of intimidation lifted. We sealed everybody with the Blood of Jesus; then, by 1:30am Tuesday, were on our way. Still, I sensed that something lingered on by way of presentiment. I felt that another light from heaven might be in danger. Maybe that’s how Joseph and Mary felt, as they made their way painfully from Nazareth to Bethlehem. With the Christ-child about to be born, and no place for them to deliver, every step of the journey was tough.
How providential that they didn’t know a king would try to kill their son.
I had been preaching, the Sunday before, how amazing and wonderful it was that Jesus even made it to Calvary. Beginning his human journey as a single cell in the youthful womb of a humble Jewish girl, threatened with persecution and death from the beginning, subject to exiles and wanderings and the dangers of the desert, the baby Jesus might at any moment have been snatched from the care of his parents and snuffed out before he could light the torch of our redemption. That he was preserved alive long enough to fulfill his public ministry and to die for our salvation amounts to a major miracle. The Devil is astute. He must have anticipated that obtaining the death of Jesus on Calvary would hardly be a victory for the forces of evil.
Driving home, I looked up to see the moon nearly full again. Freeing itself from the imposing shadow cast by our unredeemed world, the giant beacon once again reflected the sun’s light perfectly amidst the darkness of night.
The next day, I was hearing some of the countless confessions that Advent always inspires when my emergency phone rang. “Excuse me,” I told the next person entering. “It’s the hospital.” “Father,” the labor-and-delivery nurse told me, sobbing, “We’ve lost a full-term baby. Can you come?”
Following mid-day Mass, at which we recounted Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the elderly relative now pregnant with John the Baptist, who had cried out in joy, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” I sped off for the hospital. There, the dead baby awaited a blessing.
“We don’t know what happened,” the distraught nurse confessed. “The baby seemed perfectly healthy, and then…he was gone.” In fact, the child looked as if already a month old. At nine pounds, with long hair and ruddy cheeks, the handsome young fellow seemed ready to leap back to life, even as the tiny child in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy at Mary’s greeting.
I cradled the dead body in my arms for twenty minutes, unable to speak, as the mother alternated between pleading with God, wailing in pain, and then falling into a desolate silence. She had already lost a child before, and with a very difficult personal history, had been longing for this child with all of her heart. “How is it,” she protested, “that so many innocent children die whose mothers would do anything to save their lives, when there are so many women who don’t care for their children, and even have them put to death? Why, when I wanted this baby so much, was he taken from me?”
I didn’t have an intelligent answer to offer, so just remained quiet, listening to the despair behind this poor woman’s words. Later, there would come a time for speaking of hope, of redemption, of eternal life and the confidence we have in Christ. For now, all I could do was see the faces of the mothers of Bethlehem, whose baby boys were massacred by King Herod’s soldiers.
And I heard that scripture we read on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, “A cry was heard at Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel bewailing her children; no comfort for her, since they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Thursday, I returned to see that couple. For ten minutes, they sat there in silence, as two brothers and I discussed their plans for funeral services. It was only after the others left that this couple began to pour out their pain.
Yes, it was true. I had met them before, and in fact still had their number in my phone. The previous year at Christmastime, someone had broken into their vehicle and stolen everything of value, including a purse. It had taken them a long time to recover, despite our efforts to help financially.
That was only one of many, many heartbreaks that led up to expectations for a new, hope-filled beginning in the Christmastime birth of their baby.
As I left the hospital after talking with an administrator about this tragedy, I ran into the couple again. They were discharged and about to go home.
Before long, they will most likely be leaving our country, and returning back empty-handed to the homeland they left behind so long ago. Hearts broken, they’ll hope to find there a place to stay and a way to go forward.
In all of our services, I’m praying for that couple. As painful as it is to meditate on their grief during this most joyful of seasons, I’m reminding our people once again of the price of our redemption: the Father in heaven who sent His Son to earth to suffer and die for us, the earthly parents who spent so many sleepless nights knowing the awesome responsibility of caring for the Incarnate Word, the Child himself who knew he had come to offer his life as a ransom for ours. The death of the innocent baby boy in our city last Wednesday has reminded me to treasure life wherever I find it, and to let the light of what little faith I have keep shining in the darkness.
Realizing what care it took for the Holy Family to protect and nurture the Son of God in their care, I’ll be using this season of grace as a reminder for our people to care better for their children. We must never take them for granted, nor expect others to compensate for our lack of commitment or motivation in offering them the best of home environments and formation.
Christmas ought to be a time, not for excesses of indulgence and material consumption, but rather to celebrate the miracle of new life in our midst. We shouldn’t have to lose ours loved ones to see in them the greatest of gifts.