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Christmas: La Vie est Triste

Christmas can be an especially difficult time for those who have recently lost a loved one. Amidst the family celebrations, that loved one’s absence is more pronounced than their presence, although over the years one discovers how different family traditions and even attitudes persist in such a way as to make the loved one’s presence felt acutely.

But, it is not the same. It is never the same. And this year, for no particular reason, the absence of two loved ones has been acute.

All through Advent, I found my thoughts drawn to memories of Father Joseph Kugler. He was the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Willimantic when I was a teenager and was kind enough to let me practice on that church’s organ. I wrote about that experience last summer, about how the mystic chords of memory made Joe seem very present. I credit Joe with being the principal instrument of grace in keeping me within the Church at a time when many young people leave and never look back.

In Advent 1993, my mother called one night to say that at the Saturday night vigil Mass, they had prayed for Father Kugler: He was missing. I called the rectory at the church where he had become pastor after getting off the call from my Mom but the phone was busy. I tried back a little later and was told they had just found his body. In a freak accident, he had been hit by a train. I do not remember ever receiving such a blow. It felt like a physical blow. Nor do I ever remember crying so much in my life. I had lost other friends, many of them in fact. During the AIDS epidemic, running a restaurant in a neighborhood with a large number of gays and lesbians, it seemed like I had been going to funerals about twice a month. But, in each of those cases, you knew the person was sick beforehand and that their health was declining. The news of Father Kugler’s death was a shock as well as a sadness.

Last year, in November, one of the priests who had served with Fr. Kugler at St. Joseph’s in the 1970s was named pastor of the same church, Fr. Larry Lapointe. After Joe’s death, Fr. Larry became our family’s chaplain: He preached at my Uncle Bob’s funeral and at my mother’s funeral, I always stop by for at least a cup of coffee with him or take him out to lunch when I come home, he looks in on my Dad. I stopped by the rectory a few days before Christmas and he told me that last year, he had just arrived back at St. Joseph’s and was consumed with all the details of assuming a pastorate after many years in campus ministry. This Advent, he too had felt Joe’s omnipresence at Advent and told me a very funny story that Joe liked to tell about a melancholy rector at the Sulpician seminary in Paris, which Joe had attended, who began every Christmas sermon with the words, “La vie est triste.” We both laughed as he told the story, but then there was a silence. We both knew that through the story Joe had just spoken to us. And, in that moment, I realized just how much I still miss this wonderful priest.

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The other person I am missing a great deal this Christmas is my Mom. I went to her grave on Christmas Day but felt inside as it felt outside: cold. A variety of family stresses combined this year to frustrate the sense of togetherness the holiday wants to call forth, and my Mom was the only one in the family with the stature, and the instinctive nature I suspect only mothers possess, to enforce the rules of comity in the face of any threats to familial peace. We still decorated the tree with the combination of blue and silver ornaments she loved. But, this year we did not need her good taste, we needed her tough love and its absence was palpable.

I felt that absence acutely at several times but most forcefully, and most unexpectedly, at the UCoon Co-op bookstore. I was shopping for a cookbook for my niece and came across the newest Mari Batali cookbook. I had listened to an interview with Batali a few weeks ago on the radio and he had said that he always leaves his restaurant to go home and cook dinner for his family before returning to work. He said that he thought a family meal was the most important gift he could give his children, that as a boy growing up, it was at the kitchen table that he had learned he could bring all of his triumphs and all of his defeats, and that they would be met with acceptance and encouragement, sometimes with constructive criticism, always with love. It was at the kitchen table that he learned how to help others bear their burdens and how to let them help him bear his. Batali said that he doubted he would have the self-confidence he now has without those kitchen table meals and that he worries that too many families no longer make the family dinner a central concern.

I listened to Batali on the radio and realized my Mom was speaking through him. But, the kitchen table was filled with my Dad’s papers and getting my nieces, who understandably like to stay up late at night yacking, on a sufficiently similar time clock so that we could all eat together is akin to herding cats. My Dad was going to a friend’s house for Christmas Eve. I went to Christmas Mass alone. Having recently been visited by my Mom via Chef Batali, I sat in the pew at St. Joseph’s and felt her absence acutely.

But, there I was: In a pew at St. Joseph’s. It was Christmas morning. Father Larry gave a splendid homily on the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel – my mother used to love Fr. Larry’s sermons. She would say, “I always feel like he is speaking directly to me.” The organ played, reminding me of Joe. Larry preached, reminding me of my mother. And the Gospel – “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” – reminded me that we are never alone, that the Lord Jesus still dwells among us even, perhaps especially, when we are missing those we love. It is only at Mass that we can be truly with those we have loved and who have died. My mother’s body may be in the ground at the Old North cemetery in our town and Joe’s body may be in Sacred Heart cemetery a few towns away, but they are with me at Mass, united by the sacrifice of Christ which alone serves as a bridge across the abysmal loneliness that we call death.

And, then, as if to give a direct answer to my sadnesses, we sang “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” The last two verses of that Christmas carol deserve careful attention – and church educators and pastors should pay attention to the catechetical value of such hymns (Luther was right about THAT!) – because, in that moment, my hymnal open, the organ lustily carrying the tune, my heart found the peace of Christmas that had eluded it so far:

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
Now ye hear of endless bliss
Joy! Joy!
Jesus Christ was born for this
He hath ope'd the heav'nly door
And man is blessed evermore
Christ was born for this
Christ was born for this

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
Now ye need not fear the grave:
Peace! Peace!
Jesus Christ was born to save
Calls you one and calls you all
To gain His everlasting hall
Christ was born to save
Christ was born to save

I had to catch my breath when we got to “Now ye need not fear the grave.” I caught more than my breath. I caught a bit of the Spirit’s breath too. Not enough, perhaps, for a Merry Christmas, but enough for a Blessed one.

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