In Christmas symbolism, a reminder to see the sacred in life and work

December 15, 2011

Chairman of the CHA Board of Trustees

Christmas holds a special place in our hearts. Family gatherings. Christmas trees. Lights and gifts. But it is so much more. It is a time of renewal, of remembering who we are as children of God and what gives meaning and importance to our lives. 

My family is of Polish heritage and the focus of the Christmas holidays of my childhood was the Christmas Eve celebration of Wigilia. Translated as vigil or "keeping watch,"Wigilia celebrates the true and symbolic meaning of Christmas.

The celebration begins with the first twinkle of the evening star, symbolizing the anticipation of the birth of Jesus, our Savior. Once the star is sighted, the entire family sits down at a table draped with a pure white tablecloth, resting on a layer of hay. The tablecloth represents the swaddling clothes that warmed and protected the baby Jesus, while the hay symbolizes the humble beginnings of Christ's birth in a manger.

As a young boy, I remember that before the meal began, my grandfather, with a tear in his eye at the sight of his family assembled, initiated the passage of Oplatki or "Angel's Bread." This sharing and breaking of the unleavened bread wafer represents love and forgiveness and blessings to others. The Wigilia meal itself consisted of multiple meatless courses, alternating between sweet and sour, symbolizing the various stages of life. The table was set with an empty seat to accommodate the traveling stranger or homeless person, and everyone was asked to save a small portion of each serving to share with the animals.

A simple tradition? Yes, but one that has great meaning in our lives, and one that calls us to remember the real foundation of all that we are as members of the Catholic health care ministry.

The symbolism of the Christmas Eve vigil can be applied in so many ways to our ministry today. Like the first evening star, we await the beginning of a just and equitable delivery system, one that defines health care as a right, not a privilege, and one that provides equal access for all.

The tablecloth and straw remind us of our humble beginnings when groups of courageous religious women came to a new and yet untamed land in the 1700s to establish a health care ministry based on the healing mission of Jesus. In the centuries that followed, they wrapped this healing ministry in the swaddling clothes of charity, love, respect for life, and a concern for all of God's creatures, especially the poor. Our Catholic health care ministry today, one of the most influential in the world, finds its roots in this humble, yet awe-inspiring beginning.

And what of the meal itself? The sharing of the Angel's Bread reminds us that we are all one with God, and with each other. It reflects the good that can come when people and organizations work together. As members of CHA, we are called to bring our individual talents, resources and our faith together to work with all segments of the church in unity, harmony and friendship toward the advancement of Jesus' healing ministry. It is in this singular purpose that our individual differences will cede. Sweet and sour? Health care reform, new and ever-changing payment systems, complex technology, advances in medicine and complex sociopolitical questions are the sweet and sour of our ministry.

The road ahead will not be easy. But our lives and our ministry are the products of our beliefs and principles. The Catholic health care ministry has prevailed over the years, through good times and bad, because the wise leaders before us never lost sight of their focus on the healing presence of Jesus.

The Wigilia traditions of placing an extra chair at the table for a person in need and setting aside food for the animals call attention to our responsibility to love and care for all of God's creatures, especially the poor and disenfranchised. As Catholic health care providers, we must never lose sight of the 49 million people living in poverty in the U.S. who so often have little or no access to services. We are reminded that, regardless of the path that health care policy takes in the 21st century, we must remain anchored to the foundations of our ministry — respect for life and the value and worth of all people, and to our commitment to those who are poor.

This Christmas Eve, as that first twinkling star comes into view, let us all remember what Christmas is all about and how we can foster that beautiful and joyful spirit each and every day of our lives. Thank you for the wonderful work that you do for Catholic health care and for the people we serve.

May the peace of the newborn Jesus be with each of you and your loved ones during this blessed Christmas season and throughout the coming year.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.