By Carolyn Woo |Catholic News Service
As we prepare for Christmas, I am sure many readers have had the experience of thoughtfully selecting a gift for a child and laboriously tracking down the item. The present, upon being opened, brings moments of squealing, then disappears into a pile of shredded colorful wrap, forgotten within the hour.
For the first Christmas after David and I got married, my mother sent from Hong Kong a one-of-a-kind embroidered, lace and crochet tablecloth. I was awed by its delicate touch and totally intimidated by its care.
I could also never see myself using such a fancy cloth for my homey fares. I probably had an attitude that my mom did not recognize the modern professional woman I had become: one no longer confined by the expectations for elegance, perfection and showmanship to be exhibited by a refined Chinese hostess.
After appropriate thanks, the tablecloth was carefully packed into a box that was lodged in basements and garages through decades of moving and relocation.
Not too long ago, I had the chance to forage among stacks of forgotten boxes. With anticipation, I reached into the one labeled "Lace tablecloth from mom." Out came the treasure, but in fragments of loose fabric and broken threads. A mouse had made a feast of the cloth!
As I tried to see what I could salvage: There was nothing. No segment was big enough as the mouse had created a hole through all the folded layers. After castigating this creature, I broke into a good cry and sank into a much-deserved guilt fest.
It was not the physical loss that hit me the hardest, but a sense of my thoughtlessness: how little I tried to take seriously my mother's efforts, financial sacrifice and intentions behind this present.
Her gift was an invitation for me to maintain some aspect of my Chinese culture and to grow into a hostess who could honor my guests through aesthetics by "pulling out all the stops." I regret not putting stains on the tablecloth from use and showing off not the tablecloth but my mother's love for her immigrant daughter.
Christmas is not just a time to give gifts, but also a time to receive. The ultimate gift of course is Christ. Many of us nod to this, warm our hearts to the beautiful Advent readings, and visit the nativity with nostalgia and a moment of prayer.
Then we busy ourselves with shopping, cooking, visiting, office parties, Christmas cards to ring in the spirit of Christmas until we are too exhausted to attend to the Christ in Christmas. Another Christmas passes. Like children, we too are distracted receivers: getting lost amid the bounty of things, failing to engage the giver, appreciate what the gift is about, what it does to us, how to use it and share it.
When the Christmas message becomes flat for me, I recall these words from American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner:
"The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.
"Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space/time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: 'God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God ... who for us and for our salvation,' as the Nicene Creed puts it, 'came down from heaven.'"
Woo is distinguished president's fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.