Column by Jonathan Nagy
Week after week and year after year for over a decade, I sit down at the organ at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel, say my prayer, and begin playing. This grand instrument, with literally all of its bells and whistles, hundreds of pipes, and brilliant sounds, is a musical wonder. But then, almost every time I play, I notice a nick taken out of this one, solitary, key.
At first, the nick bothered me. To me, it was like having a smudge on a piece of crystal, or a scrape on the paintjob of a new car. Something so great, so perfect, had this unsightly mark. No one else notices or comments, but I see it and know it is there. Eventually, the irritation of having this imperfection transformed from an annoyance to one of great mystery and lore.
I found myself thinking, “What could have made that mark?” This organ, which has been in the church for over 120 years, has had countless musicians play it. Could a book have fallen and created the indent? What hymn was being played at the time? What reaction did everyone have? Soon, I began looking at this mark as a badge of honor. This organ has been through so much and has provided music to thousands over the years, with the incident of the mark as a chapter in the story. This dent has become something I look forward to seeing every time, for it is a reminder that not even this magnificent instrument is perfect!
The leadup to Christmas is often an extremely stressful time for many people. Gift-buying, decorating, sending cards, cleaning, organizing, planning, hectic running from here to there – all of these can trigger stress in individuals. We stress ourselves because we want to make everything as perfect as we can. We want to find the right gift that will mean something to the recipient, we want our houses to look festive and orderly, and we want to squeeze in as many activities as we can. I can stress myself out in planning Christmas Masses and concerts. I worry before, during, and after rehearsals that there is still work to be done and songs to be tweaked. Christmas is a magical time for everyone, and yet I become filled with anxiety in making sure that what I am doing adds to the magic, not taking it away from it.
Here is the realization I have come to know; everything doesn’t need to be ‘perfect.’ If someone misses a note or two in a hymn, the Mass continues. If I can’t find the ultimate gift for someone, they appreciate the gesture and effort. If the house doesn’t look like something out of a Hallmark movie, well, that’s just life!
Reflecting on the first Christmas, I’m sure Mary and Joseph were stressed beyond belief. They left their home, traveled dangerous roads to a town they did not know, had nowhere to stay, all while expecting the birth of Jesus at any moment. Mary gave birth not in a hospital, but a cave, and laid her son in a dirty animal feeder. This sounds like anything but perfect to me! I’ve been on family vacations where items weren’t packed, we have had car trouble, and even once, had nowhere to stay! But I also fondly remember those trips, and those memories continue to live in my heart. I suspect the same was true for the Holy Family.
We often forget that Mary and Joseph were real, living people, with real problems. Riding a donkey over a rocky desert road while several months pregnant was probably not the most enjoyable experience. Arriving in an unfamiliar town alone was more than likely frightening. Giving birth to the Savior of the World in filthy conditions was not the ideal scenario either of them had imagined. Think about this – we worry about things like the lights on the tree not working. Here is Mary, about to give birth to the Son of God Himself, finding herself and her family in such squalor. We stress so much about the season and making sure it is perfect that we may overlook the fact that the Savior of the World was born during what is arguably the least perfect Christmas ever.
A phrase from Luke’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus has always stood out to me. After giving birth and all of the other happenings of that evening, Mary sat in the corner. Luke wrote in Chapter 2, Verse 19, “But Mary treasured all of these things, pondering them in her heart.” That phrase speaks volumes to me. After everything she went through, here is Mary, a teenage mother, appreciating everything they went through so that she could be in that moment with her son. I can just imagine Joseph, the dutiful husband, looking at her and saying, “Is this good enough, Mary?” Then, I can see her respond, “It is more than enough, Joseph.”
I recently asked one of my classes to write down what they believe, in their own hearts, is the true meaning of Christmas. Almost every single student focused on the same thing – family. They wrote about how Christmas brings their families together, how attending Mass as a family at Christmas has been a favorite memory, and how they love and appreciate each other and enjoy the company. Not one paper I read mentioned anything about gifts or decorations. I didn’t read anything about imperfections in the plans. Not one! One student wrote, “Christmas happened because God knew if He wanted families to be gathered, He needed his family to do the same.” Mary and Joseph looked past the imperfections and focused on what was really important.
A great holiday classic story is Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” At the end, after the Grinch’s conversion of heart, the narrator remarked, “He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought…doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps….means a little bit more!” My mother has had that quote taped to her refrigerator for many years and leaves it there year-round. It is a reminder to everyone that there is something beyond the wrapped packages and Christmas lights. There is a true meaning and purpose!
It took the Grinch seeing how people reacted to removal of what he thought Christmas was about to really understand the true meaning. I believe that God intentionally had Mary give birth to Jesus in the conditions that she did for her to truly see the meaning of what had just happened. Our world is so cluttered with noise and chaos that we don’t often get the chance to really absorb what God intends for us. We need to work to block everything out and just like Mary, contemplate things in our hearts.
I can’t honestly tell you many of the presents I have unwrapped over the years at Christmas. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate them or the fact that someone took time to think of me. The thought really does matter! The gifts that I do remember most fondly are the ones that didn’t cost a cent. Cards, notes, and even text messages sent to me from individuals, even from some whom I didn’t know ever thought about me. Invitations to join others when I have been alone have warmed my heart. The joy on the faces of my choirs after a job well done at Christmas Eve Masses stay with me. These moments and simple acts of kindness are the heart of what Christmas means to me.
The shepherds, the outcasts of society at the time, literally had nothing physical to give to the baby Jesus. They gave him the only things they could – their time and attention. Ostracized by people, they rarely came in from the fields and from tending the sheep, yet here they were on that night, dirty, smelly, and filthy, adoring God in the flesh. They were welcomed in with God, and he welcomes all of us in as well. We are all part of His family because each of us is a child of God.
So, go ahead and have yourself that ‘imperfect little Christmas.’ Stop and breathe and realize that little mistakes will not ruin the holiday. In fact, expect the imperfections, for they are the things that are often most remembered. They will become fond memories to reflect upon for years. Take the time to stop and be in the moment with the people around you and thank God for everything in your life – perfect and imperfect.
All of these thoughts bring me back to that organ key. I would like to think that the dent in the key was made by a book crashing down while the organist played a Christmas hymn. Many Christmas hymns speak of the imperfection of the conditions of our Savior’s birth, and I think it would only be fitting that during one of those hymns, that mark was made. Whether it is true or not, I will hold that belief in my own heart as a reminder that God doesn’t expect perfection. Whatever gifts we have to bring him, and whatever actions we perform for others, is enough for him.
I would like to wish each of you a most Blessed and Merry Christmas. As we bring this challenging year to a close, I hope that everyone can appreciate that God has seen us through and will lead us on into 2022. Life may not be perfect, but the love of God is!
Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.