My 10 years serving as diak in a Ukrainian Orthodox parish brought me into contact with a wonderful Eastern European tradition for Christmas Eve, called Sviata Vechera, or “Holy Supper”. The basic idea is this: twelve courses of food are served, one each for the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. Since the Orthodox faithful tend to take fasting rather seriously, no meat or dairy products are used for the dishes served that night, nor indeed for the 40 days of Advent that precede it. During the serving of the supper, an extra place is set at table for the Christ Child, and a single candle burns in a window of the house, symbolically lighting the way for Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem. Over the years, several good people from that church told me stories of strangers who, having seen the candle burning in their window, knocked at their door and actually asked for food or assistance. The more discerning among these later realized that the Christ had actually come into their homes in the guise of a stranger that night.
While raising my three sons, I incorporated elements of the Sviata Vechera tradition into our family, with a few changes. First, there was simply no w ay to celebrate Christmas without meat, specifically prime rib–at least not in the eyes of my boys. That was our first change made to the tradition. Second, instead of twelve dishes honoring the Apostles, I chose to do fewer courses, honoring family members or friends who were important to us. We had Grandma Pearl’s stollen, Cousin Teri’s green beans, fresh oysters from New Orleans (where we vacationed over spring break) and Dad’s herb-rubbed prime rib. Everything was served on Grandma’s dishes, the ones she had scrimped to accumulate during the War, when money was tight.
We always lit a candle in the living room window, and an extra place was set at table for family and friends no longer with us: “the ancestors”, as Chris, my eldest, used to say. The opening toast was offered by my youngest son, who never forgot to wish us a very merry Christmas and to remember all those who had come before us and had left us their love as our most precious inheritance. We toasted and ate and laughed at family stories, and we got teary remembering Christmases past. And after dishes were done and everyone had gone to bed, I would pour myself a glass of wine, turn off all the lights except for the tree and with a heart filled with joy, nostalgia and little sorrow, I would have myself a good cry.
But this year, I am struggling. This will be the first Christmas since 1977 that I won’t have a son living with me: my youngest moved to Michigan earlier this year. It will also be the 8th Christmas since my son Chris’ death, and the hole he left inside me looms darker and emptier at this time of year. My friend, Patt, having battled uterine cancer last year, in now recovering from a mastectomy and is unable to return to her teaching job in Qatar. Then, too, I look at my country and I see the triumph of people of ill will and malice who label themselves “Christian”. I see intolerance and narrow-mindedness on the increase in the attitudes of some of my colleagues and students, and I despair. I see and hear hatred expressed towards gays and lesbians more than ever. Friends are still dying of AIDS and other diseases and I am still singing their funerals. G.I.s are still dying in a war that makes no moral sense, while victims of hurricanes still cry for justice. The national deficit now has more zeroes in it than my high school algebra scores. There’s a former Nazi in the Vatican and George W. Bush is still in the White House. I can’t sleep some nights: how can I possibly celebrate the Sviata Vechera this year??
To be fair, there is more than darkness and stress in my life; there is abundant grace and light as well. My primary relationship is still crazy good, much better than I ever thought I deserved. My second son, Phil, and his wife are celebrating their newly combined families, and their love is as pure and bright as fresh-fallen snow. My two grandsons, Bradley and Jacob, are growing up so fast and they seem so much wiser than I was at their ages. Then, too, my friend Patt, after a rough summer of chemo, is doing incredibly well and is expected to recover fully.
In the larger world, gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts and Canada and may become legal elsewhere. A former student, one who came out to me last year and attempted suicide over the summer, is in a relationship that is nurturing and life-giving. The congregation at Unity Christ Church, where I have served for the past 6 years, continues to be so loving and supportive of my ministry and music that I am continually awed by their collective spirit of generosity. My friend Dave, at Community Harvest, tells me that Fort Wayne people continue to be incredibly generous and that 30,000 families continue to be fed each month because of this outpouring of love. Evidently there are still Christians more interested in serving God’s children without regard for their social status, sexual orientation, race or level of need. All of this helps me appreciate the fact that really important work is still being done, with or without federal funding, with or without George W. Bush’s knowledge or consent.
Life and hope and trust and love go on, no matter how dark we sometimes we perceive the present moment to be. Above all else, this is the lesson, the spiritual and ethical inheritance I want to leave with my sons and grandsons. And so, this Christmas I will again keep the feast and celebrate the Sviata Vechera with my family. My two remaining sons will come home, accompanied by my daughter-in-law and the two young grandsons. We will eat prime rib on Grandma’s dishes and we will set a place for Chris and the ancestors, and all those who have left us their love as our inheritance. We will burn a candle in the window as a sign of welcome to the stranger-Christ among us. We will toast and eat and laugh at family stories and we will get teary talking about Christmases past.
And after the dishes, after everyone has gone home, I will pour myself a glass of wine and turn off all the lights in the house except for the Christmas tree. I will turn inward and face the fears and disappointments and unfathomable sorrows of past years, but I will also bask in the light of immense joy, boundless love and continuous nurturing that I receive in so many ways. And with a heart renewed, I will have myself a good cry.
(This article was originally published in December 2005, in The Rainbow Reader.)