It was a word I heard but I wasn’t sure I heard it right. Fr. Joe was describing the Advent season and all the events leading up to Christmas Day. Hmm, I thought, “miraculum,” is that like “aquarium,” or “columbarium?” Could a “miraculum” be a container of miracles? In a way, it is. The word comes from Latin and simply means “miracle” or “a wonder” or “wonderful thing.” Fr. Joe referred to “the whole miraculum” of this time of year, in an earnest and somewhat exhausted effort to draw our attention to the positive power inherent in a time of wonder.
I refer to myself as a Christmas sap. But my loyalties to the powers of Christmas go beyond mere sentimentality. There’s a sense of magic, joy and goodwill inherent in the season that makes, if we so choose, the miracle of being moved or touched in the tender places very possible. When people say Christmas is for the children, they forget that kids are capable of wonderment far more easily than harried and busy adults. Perhaps Christmas is a time when children remind us that life itself is a miraculum, filled with little wonders everywhere. I see Christmas as an opportunity to cop a ride on the wave of wonder.
Whenever something synchronistic or uncharacteristic happens around this season, my sister Joanne and I joke that it’s the “Christmas Miracle”: Dad and I don’t bug each other, her son puts on a suit, someone put a huge pot of coffee on for us all. “Why’s he being so nice?” We might say about a typically grumpy person. Then we’d look at each other and chime together: “It’s the Christmas Miracle!” Where there wasn’t one, we’d make one. Because we were going to have a merry, meaningful Christmas, despite how others faced the season.
Christmas falls on the day when we start to see more light on the horizon. For me the whole idea of Advent is to shift our mindset into seeing life as potentially a movement toward lightness – both in terms of luminosity and buoyancy. We can choose to step lightly, beam a bright smile at folks; we can give ourselves permission to lighten up.
I have started recording my own Christmas Miracles. I doubt any of them would pass the tests of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but then I’m not looking to be canonized. If I can leave this life having made people happy more often than sad; if, at the beginning of the day I can be “calm and bright”; and if at the end of the day I can fall asleep “in heavenly peace” – I will consider my life a miracle.
One definition of miracle that I like is “a shift in perspective,” usually a big enough shift that we suddenly forget our fears and resentments and we open to the subtle beauty that is right before our eyes. Often the miracle lies in the overwhelming sense of gratitude or joy we feel when we open to seeing things differently, or are shown a different way of seeing things. We can become curious and awe-struck all over again.
Sometimes you have to create the conditions for miracles to happen, put yourself in their path, develop rituals and traditions that nurture wonder or appreciation. When we were little, after decorating the Christmas tree, mom would turn off all the house lights and we’d lie beneath the tree and stare up through the blinking bulbs and twinkling icicles and shiny baubles. When we were older we became a family choir and would sing at every midnight mass. I recall many forty below nights, huddled together inside the chapel while the wind howled outside. Directed by mom, we’d do three-part harmony renditions of old carols: “Carol of the Bells”, “The Huron Carol” and “The Coventry Carol.”
We no longer sing as a family, but when we do get together, we try to find time for “A Christmas Carol.” After Christmas dinner, stuffed and sleepy, we plop on couches and the floor, and watch Dickens’s story of Scrooge’s “reclamation.” His resultant joy and giddiness is the ultimate transformation story, where a man’s entire perspective shifts from miserliness and miserableness to generosity of all stripes. We have come to quoting the movie to each other if an occasion arises.
Just last week I came across a copy of Dickens’s Christmas stories while unpacking, and underneath that was a CD of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” I texted Joanne with “I must stand on my head! I must stand on my head!” Not everyone would catch the reference, but I know all my siblings would. Along with: “Label, label, label,” and “I must be fed, or I stay at home.” And of course, the heart-wrenching: “Can you forgive a pig-headed man for no eyes to see with nor ears to hear with all these years?”
Over the years I’ve come to expect the miraculum of Christmas will render up a gift of sublime beauty and harmony if I simply await it, open and alert. Here, in the country, where you can roam the hills covered in twinkling lights as the rising or setting sun hits the snow or hoarfrost, it’s not hard to feel touched by the Mystery. But it’s in the city where you can see the effect of the season on humanity, because a change of pace and demeanor is far more noticeable amid the rush of shoppers and traffic.
Years ago, on a rainy Christmas Eve in Vancouver, I ducked into an Italian cafe for a cappuccino. While the espresso slowly dripped into the cup my gaze drifted to a tableau unfolding on the TV screen usually reserved for soccer. The scene was of a mother and newborn child and a choir was singing Silent Night in Italian in the background. I looked around the room and all the patrons, mostly men, were staring up at the screen and even a few were humming. As my coffee cup overflowed, the man behind the counter, also looking up, laughed, and started over. Nodding at the TV, he whispered in a hoarse voice: “Is beautiful, non?”
One big city miracle sticks with me: It was when I was living in Toronto. I was working late at CBC on a live Christmas concert that needed editing and mixing. Everyone had long gone home. I was in no big hurry; there was nothing and no one to rush home to and, besides, the neighbours below me had been fighting for over a week now. Every evening he would return from work and they would start. At first I thought maybe they were just yelling to each other from the shower or over the noise of the stereo, turned up full blast. But then the slamming doors started. Usually, they made up, or so it seemed. But that night, being so close to Christmas day I just didn’t want to pile misery on loneliness.
I decided I’d walk along Queen and go for coffee across from City Hall. I could watch the skaters from the warmth of the café. Maybe I’d write some Christmas cards. I’d try to get into a headspace wherein I let nothing dismay me, to paraphrase a popular carol. In front of the café was a heating grate and on that grate slept a man without a home. He’s there all year round. He’s still there, in fact; I saw him last month. The young lady at the counter made my coffee and then I asked her to make one for the homeless man. “Oh he prefers hot chocolate,” she smiled. “This one’s on me. And could you give him these?” She reached under the counter and pulled out a bag of pastries. “It’s the end of the day, I’m not selling these tomorrow.” As if she had to explain her generosity.
The gentleman was sleeping so I lay the food and drink beside him and wished him a safe and warm Christmas, patted his arm, then went back into the café. “There but for Grace go I,” I thought. Prone to bad habits, as likely to get a bad break as anyone else, my miracle was that I had a great job, a warm bed, and people who cared about me. But then the real miracle occurred.
A group of guys, walking past the café, looking like they were headed to a party, stopped at the traffic light and were good-naturedly shoving each other back and forth. I suddenly realized one of them was the guy from the downstairs apartment. While the others ran across the street when the light turned green, he walked over to the homeless man, took off his snazzy, puffy ski jacket and lay it on the man’s shoulders. He rested his hand, for just a brief moment, then bolted off to catch up with his pals.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.