It’s been over a month since I sat down to write. December found Melinda and I a little busy with preparing for Christmas and for my daughter Mary’s wedding the Saturday after Christmas, and driving to and from Lake Charles, Louisiana for both.
In spite of all that activity, I tried to stay focused on the “Reason for the Season”. These were my first Advent and Christmas seasons as a Catholic and I wanted to make sure I experienced the difference between the two.
Although I didn’t miss a Mass or Holy day of obligation during the almost two weeks we were down South, there was so much activity that my daily prayer routine was seriously interrupted. By the time we returned home I desperately needed to get back into my faith.
Back at home, I made it to the New Year’s Eve vigil Mass but by the time Epiphany Sunday rolled around I came down with a case of bronchitis and was struck with fits of such violent coughing that I decided to stay home and not ruin other folks’ worship that morning. It was a little disappointing to me because it was the first Mass I had missed since becoming Catholic last Easter and only the second time since my decision to convert in April 2012.
But, by the next Wednesday I was feeling well enough to get with the men’s bible study group I meet with every two weeks. After the scripture discussion we went around the room and, as always, volunteered our “God-moments” – those times when God shows up in your life and graces you unexpectedly. I told the guys that over the two weeks I was gone I really hadn’t noticed any God-moments – none had jumped out at me. Then, as the others related their God-moments, I began to think back and I realized, again, that I didn’t see them because I wasn’t looking for them. In fact, I wasn’t just not looking for them, I had instead been so occupied with other things that I had literally closed my mind and heart to them. And, as I relived our trip, I came to see how there were many God moments that passed undetected right under my nose:
Jesus was with us in our car that first day of driving as we struggled through eight hours of torrential rain and storms between Ohio and Southeast Missouri where we spent Saturday night at my folks.
Attending the only Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Dexter, Missouri would have put us in Lake Charles very late that night. So, we skipped it and hoped to find someplace else along the way. Looking ahead, I estimated we could be near Hammond, Louisiana around 5:00 p.m., so I checked masstimes.org to see if there were any Sunday evening masses in that neighborhood. I don’t think it was dumb luck that there happened to be a Mass at the Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Hammond at 5:00 p.m. I plugged the address into my GPS and nine hours later we arrived at 4:50 p.m.
God was speaking to me through Fr. Robert Merced, pastor at Holy Ghost Church, when he elaborated on the Gospel reading, Matthew 1:18 – 24, for this 4th Sunday of Advent. In it, Matthew describes, “…how the birth of Jesus came about.” I had already spent much time marveling at the caliber of man Joseph must have been to forgive his betrothed and marry her instead of “divorcing her quietly” or, worse, having her stoned. But Fr. Merced opened my eyes to the fact that Mary’s faith was equally strong. As a young woman, she knew that to be unmarried and be with child was an offense against the Jewish laws punishable by stoning until death. Yet, through her faith, she still said, “Yes”.
On our first morning in town we met a friend for breakfast at a local café. We briefly chatted over coffee about children, but then our friend moved right into a heartfelt discussion about preparing our hearts for Christmas and not getting caught up in the busyness and commercialization of the season. With only two days to go until Christmas, and a wedding looming just three days later, she somehow knew what we needed to curb our mounting anxiety.
The next morning, Christmas Eve, found me, my soon to be son-in-law, Michael, his father, and a fishing guide skimming across the marsh hoping to slay some redfish. It turned out to be one of the best fishing trips I had ever been on. We limited out on reds, and caught several speckled trout and flounder as well. I won’t be so bold as to say that Jesus helped us catch fish like he helped Peter, but His love was there in an unexpected way through the opportunity for Michael and I to get to know each other much better. I caught a bunch of keepers that day but I also confirmed I was catching a keeper son-in-law.
We wrapped up Christmas Eve by enjoying a traditional Christmas Eve dinner with our close friends who were graciously putting us up in their home for the week, and then attending the Christmas Vigil Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Lake Charles. It was a beautiful Mass and celebration of the birth of our Lord, in a beautiful church, with an angelic A cappella choir.
Christmas day was a relaxing one with the morning spent in the company of Mary and Michael, Michael’s parents and the three of us opening gifts and having fun, followed by a wonderful dinner in the afternoon with more relatives, and with plenty of time to contemplate why we were celebrating in the first place.
On Thursday, we were blessed with the safe arrival of our other two daughters and their husbands, my parents, my brother and sister and their families for another round of gift giving and a delicious fish fry from the fruits of our catch two days earlier. We gave sincere thanks for everyone’s safe travel and “…these Thy gifts…which we… received, from Thy bounty”.
When Friday rolled around the wedding preparation activities picked up speed. Since Mary is my third daughter to get married, I knew what I needed to do: stay out of the way, do what I was told and be an efficient gopher. I know some dads who have found the role of being the Father of the Bride daunting. I have found it to be immensely pleasurable. It gives me a chance to see the joy and hope in my daughters’ eyes and in their smiles, and one last chance to get comfortable with the idea that life is turning out like God intended – that they found someone to love and spend the rest of their lives with. Did I get sentimental? Yes, but my happiness for her far outweighed any last moment feelings of selfishness.
Friday also saw dozens of other relatives arrive safely into town from around the country. When we finally assembled that evening for the rehearsal dinner, Mary and Michael had about sixty relatives surrounding them. God was there in the hearts of everyone as there were many reunions that night. And He was there in the smile on the face of my 15 month old, first and only, great-niece when I met her for the first time.
Saturday, the day of Mary’s “big event” arrived and it seemed to fly by without a hitch. We arrived at the church at the appointed time, and before I knew it I was walking down the aisle, arm and arm with Mary looking as beautiful as I’d ever seen her. My only thought as they opened the doors for us to process in was a prayer of thanks to God for blessing me with such a wonderful loving daughter and the opportunity to be her father and make this walk down the aisle with her arm in mine.
God was there with us as we reached the altar and I turned to Mary, hugged and kissed her, and told her I love her, and she replied with, “I love you, too, Dad”. And, He was there with us when I turned to hug Michael and asked him to please take care of her, and he replied with a sincere, “Yes sir, it will be my pleasure.” Lots of dreams came true in that moment, and not just for the bride and groom.
Unexpectedly, the priest revealed to us that that particular weekend was the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family, a fitting time to become united in the first step to starting a new family. It also struck me that both the bride and groom have good role models in their parents and grandparents. Both sets of parents have been married for a total of about 65 years, and for Mary, at least, her grandparents for 110 years.
Following the wedding ceremony, everyone reconvened at the reception venue where the first order of business was the traditional first dance by the bride and groom. God was here, too. As they began to dance to the song, I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz, I looked up onto the DJ’s stage to see my youngest daughter, Grace, with microphone in hand and performing the song live, unassisted by any lyrics on a karaoke machine, singing her heart out in front of about 350 people. I knew she had a pretty voice but I didn’t know how beautiful it really is because I had never heard her sing like this before. This was her debut and she looked and sounded like an experienced professional. I had earlier fought back tears when I entrusted Mary to Michael, but I couldn’t hold them back listening to Grace sing. It was a beautiful moment.
I was able to curb the tears before honoring the next place on Mary’s dance card – the father/daughter dance. For years Mary told me she wanted us to dance to Paul Simon’s Fathers and Daughters, and we did. I think the only thing that kept me from losing it was that my happiness for her overcame my own sentimentality. Still, we both knew, “As long as one and one are two, there could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you”. That kind of love can only be a gift from God.
So, to my bible study buddies, “Sorry, guys, I lied. On second thought, I did have a God-moment….or two…or fifteen”.