“Compassion is something other than pity. Pity suggests distance, even a certain condescendence… Compassion means to become close to one who suffers. But we can come close to another person only when we are willing to become vulnerable ourselves.”
~~Henri Nouwen, Here and Now
Christmas Day, 2004
I went to noon Christmas Mass by myself today, the first time in years we haven’t gone to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass as a family, as my grandchildren, at age two, are too young to be out that late. Church was lovely, and, as I drove away, I took with me the special joy of receiving the Christmas Eucharist amidst the radiance of the beautiful sanctuary, awash with green pine garlands and banked with red poinsettias and white candles.
At the intersection of I-75 and Mockingbird Lane, I pulled up near a stop light beside a woman who was begging. I happened to have some extra blankets and sweatshirts in the car, so I rolled down the window as I approached the light and offered her a stack of these things.
The most beatific smile crossed her face as she took them, and, as she tried to thank me, I realized she could make sounds but was unable to speak. It seemed as if perhaps she was missing part or all of her tongue, I couldn’t be sure. But she opened her mouth and attempted to thank me, taking my hand warmly in her weathered palms. I was able to understand, “God bless you! God bless you!”
I pulled forward to the red light and turned to watch her as she walked away. She went over to a low concrete wall and laid the stack of clothes and blankets on it. Bending over the pile and beginning to sort through it, and evidently pleased with what she found there, she suddenly raised her arms and face toward the sky and began a joyous, wordless dance! I will never forget the look of bliss on her face, the brilliance of her smile, the ecstacy in her body over the stack of clothing.
I began to cry as I headed to meet my daughters and their families for Christmas lunch, and I couldn’t stop. There was something about this woman that stuck with me, the image of her wordless praise, her arms reaching toward heaven. She broke my heart and touched me so deeply that, opened by church and the Eucharist, I was suddenly emptied of whatever concerns I’d had before I’d met her, to be refilled with a scalding mixture of pain and joy that would sting me for weeks whenever I thought of her, which I often did — this miraculous Christmas angel.