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By Catherine Sullivan

On a summer afternoon in 2018, my mother, sister and I drew close to my grandfather lying awake but tired in a hospital bed. My daughter toddled near the door to his private room while my husband gently monitored her safety. The atmosphere was calm but serious: In a few hours, an ambulance would arrive to transport my grandfather from the hospital to hospice care.

He had been sick on and off for a while; recently, he had fallen out of his wheelchair while alone in his apartment. After 93 and a half years, his strong farmer’s frame had been reduced to a skeletal state. It was time for him to go home, and we all knew it.

My mother leaned in and raised her voice a bit so he could hear her. “Your birthday is close to Christmas, and we know how much you love Christmas cookies,” she said. “Are there any particular ones you’d like us to bake each year to remember you by?”

Grandpa’s mouth, surrounded by stubble after several days in the hospital, quirked. With his signature wit and a noticeable twinkle in his eye he said, “Bake ’em and eat ’em!”

The gravitas in the room popped like a balloon as we laughed together — possibly for the last time. That was Grandpa — often quiet, but always ready with a quick quip to make us laugh and make us think.

The following Christmas, six months after his death, my mother, sister, aunt and cousins gathered for a day of baking Christmas cookies. We had always baked a wide variety of Christmas cookies, but not usually together. And anyway, this Christmas felt daunting. After losing our steady anchor earlier in the year, we needed each other more than ever before.

Before we began, my mother produced a large gift bag and called us to attention. Suddenly, lots of red fabric came forth — my mother had ordered matching aprons for all of us with the words, “Bake ’em and eat ’em” embroidered on the front. There was even a tiny one for my 18-month-old daughter. We laughed with delight, happily looped them around our necks and waists, rolled up our sleeves, and got to work.

Now, every year near Grandpa’s birthday, we make Christmas cookies in his honor. Some years we are able to gather on the exact date, December 21, other years it’s a few days before or after. Sometimes we bake ’em and eat ’em in our own homes, sending each other photos of peanut butter blossoms, chocolate chip shortbreads and mint brownie bites as they come out of the oven. It might sound sentimental, but no matter how we celebrate Cookie Day each year, it is wonderful every time.

That’s because that day in the hospital, Grandpa gave us a great gift that went well beyond a family inside joke. His memorable one-liner baptized an ordinary holiday tradition for us, making it special and holy. Instead of feeling far away from him on his birthday during the Christmas season, I now feel closer to him than ever, confident that he is with me still, keeping his promise to pray for me and my family.

In a sense this is what Jesus has done for us through the Incarnation. Because of his presence among us — long ago in Bethlehem and today in the Eucharist — now everything has the potential to draw us closer to him, even something as simple as the song on the radio, the plants in your garden or the cashier at the grocery store.

While we may feel far away from God at points on our spiritual journeys, the truth is that Emmanuel remains with us, beckoning us closer through the everyday moments of our lives. Remembering this reality gives me joyful hope during the holiday season.

Catherine Sullivan is a Catholic writer, reader and teacher. After earning a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame, she spent nearly a decade teaching religion and English to middle and high school students. She now stays home with her three young daughters and writes a monthly newsletter on the Catholic imagination called Wonder & Awe. Come say hi and find more of her thoughts on books and faith on Instagram @catherinesullivanwrites.