Persons, places and things: The gift of presence


Our son Patrick joined us for Mass last weekend, the fourth Sunday of Advent, which proved to be a blessing beyond his ability to be with us. The homily we listened to that Saturday night at Our Lady of the River Church in LeClaire included a reminder of the most important Christmas present we can give to someone.


The homily delivered by Deacon Matt Levy for Father Mpanda Apo spoke to Patrick. For the first time in several years, he will be able to accompany us to the Twin Cities for a brief visit to celebrate Christmas with some of our relatives at my parents’ home. “The best present we can give is ourselves,” Patrick said, reflecting on the homily afterwards. For Christmas, “we’ll be able to be in the presence of our loved ones. That’s what it’s all about.”

My husband Steve hoped we would stay home for Christmas. Weather conditions in late December can be brutal and we have experienced some white-knuckle driving during previous trips to the Twin Cities for Christmas. Steve is giving a little something more to make our Christmas presence possible.

For me, the homily inspired an idea for a gift exchange: picture frames for the photograph we intend to take on Christmas day of those of us gathered at Mom and Dad’s house. It is a wonderful way to frame a memory of our presence.


Memories not captured in photographs rise hazily to the surface of Christmas Eve spent joyfully playing with cousins at Grandma Arland’s house. The laughter still echoes and I can taste to this day the “overnight puff” cookies Grandma made — melt-in-your-mouth meringue treats filled with chocolate chips. In those days, our family attended Mass on Christmas morning. As a child, I did not make the connection between the celebration of the birth of Christ and the celebration of our own “Holy Family,” the domestic church inspired by Jesus’ gift of self. His continuing presence in our lives is an eternal Christmas present.

In the early years of motherhood, I did not make the connection between presents and presence while trying to accept my first-born son’s autism. When Colin was 6-½ and on medication for the first time, he appeared zombie-like at Christmas and the grief consumed me. Christ was present, even when I did not think so, and provided me with an evolving awareness of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Patrick was born 11 months after that blue Christmas and his presence brought joy to all of us. The baby in the manger and the baby on the play mat in our family room helped our family to appreciate in a deeper way the sacredness of human life.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent this year, our family gathered for dinner, as usual. Beforehand, we watched a story on NBC Nightly News about the Red Sled Santa Foundation and a compassionate Santa who took individuals with Down syndrome into his workshop to make and wrap gifts for families in need. These Santa’s elves expressed sheer joy at Santa’s attention and their own handiwork. “Santa doesn’t come down in a sleigh, he comes from the heart,” the Santa on TV said, placing his hand over his heart. No one said a thing about Christ’s presence, but Christ was there.

(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at

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