Christmases were - and are- difficult for me. As an adult, I gathered together the best of family traditions from my mother and grandmothers. I did love the way the pine tree mixed with the aroma of freshly baked cardamom bread, I whiled away the afternoon decorating a gingerbread house with my daughter, but like so many people, I tried to make up for a hole inside my heart by buying too many presents for the people I loved. For years, the spirit of Christmas was lost on me because I thought that presents were somehow proof: proof of being loved, proof of loving someone else. There was all the anxiety of getting it right, and the sinking feeling inside when that didn't happen.
There were times in my life where I felt a deep sense of lack, of not-enoughness, of never-good-enoughness. But miraculously that really evaporated when I began to really pay attention to a question Brother Roger Schultz, the founder of Taize, asked himself every day. "Who is the neediest amongst us?". When Brother Roger first asked himself that question, it was in the midst of World War II, and as a young monk in France, his answer was immediate: the Jews, who were being deported to concentration camps. So young Roger risked his life to escort them to safety in Switzerland, an act of heroism that placed him on the Nazi wanted list. They broke into his simple home while he was on one of his missions delivering them to safety. The soldiers destroyed all his belongings and set a guard to report his whereabouts. He got word, and waited out the war in Switzerland. After the war, Brother Roger returned to Burgundy and asked himself the same question: who are the neediest amongst us? And this time, his answer was also clear: the German POWs. Brother Roger received permission to invite the prisoners to his home on Sunday evenings, to feed them soup, to sit in prayerful silence and to sing together simple chants. And he began this form of worship with the very same soldiers who had wanted to send him to Auschwitz.
Somehow in the midst of terrible hurt, suspicion and anger, he found a path of peace through silent prayer and simple song, and Taize grew to become a destination for thousands of pilgrims every year, of all faiths, pilgrims who were searching for hope in the midst of despair. And every year Brother Roger would continue to ask his question. Every year it brought him to spend a few weeks in a different place- in Calcutta, India where he became dear friends with Mother Theresa, to the slums of Brazil, to places beset by fear, violence and terror. He would live with the lowliest and sing and pray and listen. And then he would compose his end of year letter that was sent out to the world, a meditation on hope written from a place of witnessing horror.
I am no Brother Roger, and I am no saint, But I have found that when I began to ask Brother Roger's question at Christmastime, my own world began to look a lot less bleak. My most meaningful Christmas Eve was definitely the one when I bought a warm jacket and scarf to bring to Tara, the broken-toothed woman addicted to meth who sat on the steps of Grace Cathedral. I found her after midnight mass, and the way her face lit up with the presents I brought and the cookies I had baked outdid any Christmas tree I've ever seen. My favorite memory of Christmas morning is the one when the choir I directed, along with my daughter, went caroling at a senior care facility specializing in Alzheimer's and sang, including my favorite Christmas song, "In the Bleak Midwinter", with its concluding stanza:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.
In the coming weeks, I will be offering a candlelit evenings of Taize chanting at St. Paul's Episcopal in Healdsburg on Thursday, December 17 at 7 pm and on January 1 at 7 pm (with a labyrinth walk) at St John's Episcopal in Petaluma. No matter what happens on December 25, I know that I will find Christmas spirit alive and well in these gatherings of Taize, where we will come together to give our hearts and to remember what truly matters: music, love, compassion and sharing with the most needy amongst us. I hope you will join me.