By Brian Paulson, SJ
For those of us privileged enough to have some time off around Christmas and New Year’s, Christmas break is a tremendous gift. Our time off usually begins a few days before Christmas at the end of Advent. At this time of year, while the outside world becomes noisier with flashing lights, jingle-jangle music and a seemingly endless merry-go-round of holiday gatherings, our liturgy becomes quieter as we prepare to celebrate anew the birth of Jesus. As with all gifts, St. Ignatius would want us to savor our Christmas break. How do we savor time off at this sacred time of year? The short answer is that we are invited by God to use it well. What does it mean to use our time well? Well, each of us needs to discern that for ourselves according to “time, place and circumstances,” as St. Ignatius would want us to do. It has a lot to do with the decisions we make about how we use our time and who we choose to spend our time with.
Through it all, we want to stay connected to God — that’s the most important thing! — so it is counterproductive, from a spiritual point of view, to load up our schedule with so much activity that we do not get enough sleep and rest to recreate ourselves over break. It is important to listen to our bodies, minds and hearts and ask ourselves, “What do I need out of this upcoming break to help me in my relationship with God?” Some extra sleep? Check. Some time for physical exercise? Check. Some time with dear family and friends? Check. Who might have a particular “claim” on my time during Christmas break? We can’t do it all, so we need to make choices.
Married people and parents of young children and teenagers need to make these plans in dialogue with their immediate family — their “domestic church” — the people who have a primary claim on their hearts and their time. For me, parents of young children are the true heroes of Christmas break, figuring out how to make the time special for the children and immediate family, balancing that desire with the desire and obligation to spend time with extended family and friends. For sure, it’s a balancing act that calls for prayerful discernment among multiple goods.
As a Jesuit who is single and does not have a family of my own, I have a certain freedom about how I spend my Christmas break compared with my friends who are young married couples with school-aged families. I come from a large family, so I try to see my family in the area and enjoy a good meal with them. I’m also blessed with a mother who is still alive, late in her ninth decade of life. I choose to spend a good amount of time with her during Christmas break because having her in my life is a gift which I do not take for granted. I also privilege visiting other older relatives and close friends who do not leave their homes very much anymore (especially in winter). I find it a blessing to spend time visiting with older folks “on their turf.” In certain years, I will celebrate a home Mass for some of these friends who are homebound.
A few years ago, on Christmas Eve 2021, I brought Communion to a dear friend named Pat in her apartment who I had not seen for two years during Covid. She was deep into dementia/Alzheimer’s, pretty much bedridden, well into her 80s. Pat was no longer verbal but she had a sweet smile and gentle disposition. Her youngest daughter, Rachel, and her live-in caregiver were there. I wore my Roman collar which I believe helped Pat to recognize me through the fog of her dementia. I read the infancy narrative from Luke. Together we prayed an “Our Father” and the “Lamb of God,” and all four of us received communion together. Then we sang two verses of “Silent Night.”
Pat was able to say those prayers and mouth the words of that beloved Christmas carol. Rachel told me that her dad, Pat’s late husband Paul — the love of her life — used to sing a solo verse of “Silent Night” at church each Christmas Eve as a part of the choir. It was deeply moving for me to see Pat mouth the words of “Silent Night” on that holy night which would be her last Christmas Eve. It was the last time I was with Pat before she died a few months later — a Christmas gift if there ever was one. I savor the memory.
May each of us make good and holy choices about our use of time this Christmas break.
Brian Paulson, SJ, is the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. Fr. Paulson has previously served as the provincial of the USA Midwest Province, the president of Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago and as vocation director for the Chicago Province. He earned his bachelor’s degree in international economics from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service before joining the Jesuits in 1981 and later earning a master’s degree in education from Harvard Graduate School of Education.