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Preparing the Way
By Kristina M. Santos
A chance encounter in church helped this woman prepare for Jesus’ birth.

Q U I C K S C A N


ILLUSTRATION BY JULIE LONNEMAN

I STOP by church to say a prayer on the day before Thanksgiving. I’m on my way to get groceries for our family dinner tomorrow—but I want to pause, hold off the holiday hurrying for a few minutes.

I make the sign of the cross with holy water, then settle in a back pew to kneel in the warm light of the church, to see the altar and, above it, the beautiful wooden cross with the figure of Jesus. I take in the flickering candle in the sanctuary lamp, the statues and the high ceiling, and think about all the prayers that have been prayed here.

I breathe in God’s grace and peace that live here. I think of a quote from Douglas Steere, one of the great Quakers of the 20th century: “To pray is to pay attention to the deepest thing we know.”

I soon become aware of quiet, but busy, movement up at the altar. A woman is bending, stretching, reaching her hands and smoothing the altar cloth. And I think: How nice it is to see one of the altar society ladies tending to the details of keeping things so pretty and neat in our church.

As I pray, the woman at the altar becomes a part of my prayers. It seems that somehow we are in this together, sharing this space, sharing our faith—and that her work is as much a prayer as mine.

She gives a last little pat to the altar—a loving, gentle touch—and now here she is, walking down the center aisle toward me, carrying a plastic grocery bag. I nod at her and smile, and she smiles, too. Then she stops and sets the bag on the pew in front of me. As I kneel here, with my elbows resting on the back of the pew, it’s as if she has placed this bag right before me like a little offering, a gift.

“I was measuring the altar,” she tells me in a confiding way, as if she is proud and happy to explain. She opens the bag and I see a yellow tape measure nestled atop white fabric.

“I’m making an altar cloth,” she says. “And I needed to be sure of the size before I finished stitching it. The corners are the hardest.”

She lifts out a portion of the cloth to show me. “I had to baste it first and then try it on the altar.”

The woman is petite, with curly gray hair. She’s wearing a thin, worn black jacket over a striped cotton dress. She tells me she’s made a green altar cloth—it’s presently on the altar. And she’s made a purple one which will soon be put on for Advent. And now Father wants her to make this white one for Christmas.

She gathers up a handful of fabric and makes a tight fist. Then she releases it, saying, “See, it’s wrinkle-free.”

I reach into the bag. The fabric feels soft and silky yet substantial. It’s weighty, too, as if it is worthy of the important role it will play in the life of our church, at the very heart of our worship celebration.

The woman walks away, a bent figure with a slight limp, as if from years huddled over a sewing machine, and with maybe a touch of arthritis, as well. The plastic bag rustles with her movement. She steps down the center aisle lightly, happily, as if joy is inside of her, love is in the bag. I have a sense that holiness glows and grows there.

In the afternoon sunlight, she is a holy woman in the tradition of the Old Testament “skillful women” whose spirits were willing, whose hearts moved them to use the skill of their hands on the articles Moses told them God had commanded be made for their holy place of worship (Exodus 35:20-35).

As the days of December fly by, during times of tiredness when I lose a little of my Christmas spirit or when I hear others complaining of holiday stress, I remember the seamstress in church. She was preparing the way for Jesus with such joyful devotion. Every careful stitch she made was an act of love, a whisper of welcome to Jesus.

St. Augustine says: “To prepare the way means to pray well”—and while there are many paths of prayer, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2672), in essence, God’s love is the source of all prayer. When we pray, we draw everything into this love “by which we are loved in Christ and which enables us to respond to him by loving as he has loved us” (#2658).

I think about this when someone has given me a bear hug, someone so happy to see me, so spilling over with love, that the hug seemed huge, more than itself even, a part of something majestic and beautiful. Surely I was being drawn into the love in which we are loved in Christ, and surely the person giving me the hug was loving in the generous way that Christ loves us.

Our lives are holy: All human experience is made holy through the mystery of the Incarnation. The love of Jesus, alive in each of us, helps us to reach out and gather everyone, and all that we do, into this love. When we respond in this way, we, too, are drawn in, and we become more aware of the love as it grows. We feel ourselves part of a widening embrace of responsive love.

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Waiting in Anticipation

In Advent, we sing at Mass, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Sometimes, we might sing it in a wishful or wistful or quiet way—but still, we are inviting Jesus to come to us.

Carmelite nun and poet Jessica Powers wrote: “Come is the love song of our race and Come our basic word of individual wooing.” It is our call for God’s presence in our lives, our hope for Jesus to be born anew in each of our hearts.

After the people heard John the Baptist preach, they were “filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah” (Luke 3:15). We, too, can wait with wonder and anticipation. If we push busy-ness aside for a while and abide in simplicity and peace, if we live with longing for Jesus, then our lives can become a “love song.”

Longing in itself is a prayer of great intimacy and intensity. “Longing for God,” said St. John Chrysostom, is “love too deep for words.”

On Christmas Eve, my husband, David, and I go to the 5:30 p.m. children’s Mass. There is a hushed excitement in the crowded church. So many of us are here, sharing our faith with a sense of joy. Finally, after all of our waiting, “It’s Christmas.”

At the front of the church, surrounding the altar, are pine trees with sparkling lights, candles burning bright and red poinsettias. And there in the center—white and bright and lovely—is the new altar cloth!

I think it must be the most beautiful altar cloth we’ve ever had in the history of our church. All 75 years of so many cloths, sewed with such care, in so many colors, for so many seasons of the church!

And here and now, this altar, with this new cloth, seems to shine not only with the love of the seamstress, but also with all of our love. For in coming to this Mass on Christmas Eve, we humbly bring all that we are to this altar.

We offer all of our efforts, all of the preparing that we’ve done during Advent. Every single one of our prayers is here: beautiful, hopeful, tear-filled, tired, lonely, joyous, quiet, boisterous, strenuous prayers. And our prayers-in-action are here: serving our community and Church, helping those in need and caring for our families.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), that human love can “blossom as a response within us” to God’s love. The beauty in our church reflects our love “blossoming.”

At Communion time we will come up to this altar. We will come with awe and reverence to receive the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, the great gift of life that Jesus gives to us. One after another, we will come—stepping into the heritage of our faith, joining the long procession of people who have always been coming to the altar of God, people who have prayed well and struggled to live in holiness.

Tonight, we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate that God so loved us that he “sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 John 4:9). In the days to come in the blessed new year, we will go forward, continuing along the sacred way of our faith, our lives of prayer ever proceeding from this love—this wondrous love!


Kristina M. Santos is a freelance writer from Patterson, California. She has had articles published in a number of Catholic and Christian publications, including this one.


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