If you ask a Hawthorne Dominican what her favorite community tradition is, odds are she will say it is our Christmas Eve caroling. Instead of the traditional house to house caroling, ours has a unique twist. Before Christmas Eve Mass, the Sisters don their black cappas, carry lighted candles, and then process two by two down to the wards of the cancerous poor who live in our homes. The patient rooms are usually only lit this time of night by their Christmas trees.
The candles softly light the room as the Sisters enter and circle round their beds. The quiet of the rooms is gently broken by the singing of carols. After a couple of carols are sung in the ward, the Sisters will in unison say, “Merry Christmas!” And inevitably the patients will respond with a Christmas greeting to us as well, and then we process to the next ward until we have sung for each of our patients.
One Sister described the event in this way: “In Advent we read Isaiah calling us to comfort God’s people. And as we bring the candles, this light of Christ, and sing the carols we bring comfort to our patients. But, also, we are bringing comfort to Jesus in our patients.”
Cross and crib meet
Often our apostolate has been described as being like Mary at the foot of the Cross. We are there with our patients as they carry their cross of cancer and poverty. On Christmas Eve we also emulate Mary at the crib. Cross and crib meet as we bring the joy of the baby Jesus to our patients. They are able to lay their cross down by the wood of the crib for a time. So often their faces light up as we enter — for we keep our caroling a surprise for them! — and they have the restored youth of children at Christmas time upon their faces.
The joy we see on their faces is a foreshadowing of what will be, because for many of them this will be their last Christmas. They are in their final Advent, their final waiting for Jesus.
In that moment, they are not a cancer patient, but a child of God, rejoicing in the news of the birth of the One they will soon see. The joy we see on their faces is a foreshadowing of what will be, because for many of them this will be their last Christmas. They are in their final Advent, their final waiting for Jesus.
For us, our Advent preparations prior to Christmas are not compartmentalized away from our patients but bear fruit in our care of them. We have been preparing a place in our homes and in our hearts for Jesus, and as we go room to room we bring Christ to them and all comes full circle. God is never outdone in generosity, for they also teach us. They teach us how to wait for Him.
And somehow all the years’ labors, joys, sorrows, night watches, medication rounds, meals prepared, and all the workings of grace – everything we have experienced with our patients from sun-up to sundown is bound up in these moments on Christmas Eve.
Like Mary, we have kept all these things in our hearts, pondering them. As our voices swell softly, then more loudly, they carry along the rooms and down the corridors and release with them the love we have deep within for our patients. These carols help us to express what we may have not been able to put into words until then. We have known their struggles and are so happy to see them happy when we sing about the birth of Christ. And when the heart overflows like that, it usually causes a few tears along the way.
It is the simple and beautiful things in life that are real.
And the wonderful thing is it is so simple. It is so human. It is a far cry from our technological age that often manufactures emotions and creates an alternate reality. It is the simple and beautiful things in life that are real.
Like Mary’s Magnificat, it does not require lofty theological training: just women singing of their Bridegroom come to earth. And in singing to them about Christ, we receive Him too as they reach for our hands and smile. It is an exchange of love we look forward to year after year.
If you would like to know more about the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, please visit our website www.hawthorne-dominicans.org , or call 845-745-1319.