Solemn Chapter of the Nativity
This morning after Mass we gathered in the Chapter Hall for the Solemn Chapter of the Nativity. The Fourth Week of Advent had barely begun when we shifted gears to celebrating the 24th of December! Solemn Chapter began with Sr. Mary Catharine chanting the Christmas Martyrology (you can read the text HERE) which places the birth of Christ in its secular context as well as its place in salvation history. As soon as the martyrology had been sung the community made the venia (Dominican prostration). A moment of silence follows.
The community is then seated and the Prioress invites the sister who has prepared the sermon to come forward. Who has been chosen to give the sermon is always a well-kept secret. This year it was our Octogenarian, Sr. Maria Agnes. Sister's reflection is below.
AN OCTOGENARIAN'S REFLECTION
ON THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTMAS
The mystery of Christmas celebrates the most profound probings of faith at the great coming of God into human history: eternally begotten of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary in time, and unceasingly born in the souls of the faithful. In the birth of the Christ-Child we see the birth of each one of us. because Christ sanctified all human births. All our beginnings are small—in some quiet home or a hospital room. All of us began our lives in the miracle of birth and received an abundance of grace in that event—our birthday. We have not earned it; it is graciously given to us! That ultimate mystery we call God has uttered us into existence and raised our human lives to an unthinkable richness. The dignity has been given and we accept and live that created dignity. That is why every year, every Christmas and every birthday, it becomes as important for us to stop, to slow down and to look deeply, and get in touch with a love that is true, a love that lives and gives life. By the grace of God we are each invited to become ministers of divine truth and love through the care and tenderness we show to one another. This is true throughout the year, but Christmas especially highlights it.
Mary is our model in her life of unceasing prayer, in her obedience to the Law, religious observance, and love of God and neighbor. Mary, faithful daughter of the Jewish synagogue and perfect Christian. Mary, who knows that God is outpouring love seeking entrance into her virginal heart. Her faithfulness to Yahweh grows into her unreserved Fiat, uttered in the name of the whole human race. Metaphors are literary devices used by poets and mystics to describe a reality. The American poet W. H. Auden, in his poem "For the Time Being" had described Mary's Fiat as the wedding ring at the bridal union between the divine and human natures in Christ. At the Incarnation and at the Birth of the Word of God, Jesus becomes the sole object of Mary's self-oblation. The life of Mary shows us how a permanent commitment is shaped and guided by the community. Then the time comes when she makes her contribution to the shaping of Israel's vision and of the world's destiny. Each of us at some particular moment in our lives is called to be a revelation of God to another individual and to our community.
This Christmas, I want to tap my childhood memoirs, frozen in time forever. I want to go back in time to that Christmas octave in 1937 when I was six years old. My piano teacher scheduled our first children's recital on December 28, feast of the Holy Innocents. We were 16 recitalists, ages ranging from six to twelve. We were required to play our piano piece from memory. Moreover, my teacher picked seven pupils to participate in a piano performance competition with prizes at stake: First Prize—a gold medal and twelve months of free piano lessons; Second Prize—a silver medal and four special tickets to a talent show of select children and teen agers at the Radio Station DZPI; and Third prize—a bronze medal and an album of classical piano pieces. My teacher had chosen me as one of the contestants and my piano piece was to be the famous Serenade by Franz Schubert. With joyful enthusiasm and a lot of confidence I set myself to hours of practice until I mastered my piece several weeks before the recital. I was determined to win the first prize. My parents encouraged and supported me. My mother made me a new dress in pastel yellow with puffed sleeves for the occasion.
My father had been called to his parental home to see his mother (my Lola) who was very sick, so only my mother accompanied me to the recital. My little sister was left to the care of a relative. At the recital, I had no stage fright at all. The photographers' flash bulbs did not distract me in my performance. Then the winners in the competition and the awarding of prizes were announced to the audience. I received second prize and my mother, with a radiant smile on her face, went up the stage and pinned the silver medal on my dress. I bowed to the audience without smiling and hurried out to the back stage. My mother later found me, weeping bitterly, behind the stage curtain. She congratulated me for a fine performance and reminded me that we had to attend the reception and the ice cream party for the recitalists and their chaperones I protested between sobs and sniffles that I deserved the first prize and that I had played the piano much better than that strange boy whose name was Lenny Chua and who won the gold medal. I bitterly complained that the board of judges did not know us well enough. Did not my teacher call me his star pupil in piano? Then why did I not get the gold medal? My mother quietly said we would talk about that issue at home. She wiped away my tears, made me blow my nose on her handkerchief; then she took out a powder puff from her bag, dabbed some powder on my red and swollen eyes. Then she gently took my hand and firmly, yes firmly, led me to the ice cream party where my piano teacher and the board of judges assured me that I had indeed played very well and that I would grow up to become a professional pianist. It was their first time to watch a six-year old play the expressive Schubert Serenade on a grand piano. But I did not show any enthusiasm at all because I was still thinking and pining for the gold medal and the one year piano scholarship that I had lost to that strange boy Lenny Chua.
When we reached home, my mother and I sat down for a small talk. I am now recalling and pondering the little Christmas sermon which my mother addressed to me: These were some of her lines: (Quote) "Yes, the board of judges know the contestants very well. You and Lenny Chua would have been tied for the first prize but the judges decided to give all to Lenny. He is Chinese-Filipino and has become an orphan when his Chinese fathe1r returned to China and joined his real wife and their many children, never to return to the Philippines. Poor Lenny has become fatherless; he needs the scholarship at least for one more year of free piano lessons. Whereas you, you still have your father and me. We love you and will take care of all your needs through high school and college, and through sickness and health. Do you remember your promise to the Christ-Child last Christmas eve when you prayed before the Belen (the creche)? You promised the Blessed Virgin Mother and the Christ-Child that you would be obedient, patient and generous. The gold medal rightfully belongs to Lenny Chua, but you are gripping it tight in your mind and clutching it tight in your heart. Remember God's word: 'Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's goods'. So let that medal go! Let it go now! Have you not already received two little gold medals in your Grade One Spelling Bee? Be thankful for what you already have. Hopefully, you will receive other gold medals in the future." (End of Quote). Now I remember how my 28-year old mother had implored me to change my ways, to give up my baby swaddling clothes and to stop being hypersensitive and weepy. In five days I would be seven years old. Seven! The age of reason and my mother wanted me to show good example to my little sister. I held back my tears and quickly hugged my young mother and said, Yes! Yes, I will it. Then Lenny's gold medal was no longer weighing me down. I had dislodged the medal from my heart and mind.
My mother's last words are deeply etched in my memory forever. She said, "There are many things in this world that are far more important and more pleasing to God than always wanting to be first in everything."
Sister Maria-Agnes of the Good Shepherd, OP