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Scrooge, Grinch and Saint Jeanne Jugan

Text of our Advent video series, week 3

I’d like to share another one of Pope Francis’ stories with you:

Once there was “an old grandfather who got dirty while eating because he couldn’t easily bring the spoonful of soup to his mouth. And his son, that is, the father of the family, had decided to move him from the dinner table and set up a little table in the kitchen to eat alone, so he couldn’t be seen. In this way he wouldn’t make a bad impression when friends came over for dinner. A few days later, he came home and found his youngest child playing with some wood and a hammer and nails. He asked him: ‘What are you making?’ — ‘I’m making a table, Papa.’ — ‘A table, why?’ — ‘To have one for when you grow old, so that you can eat there,’ the boy replied.”

Society marginalizes the elderly, and we have to admit that we sometimes do it too. During the holidays many of us tend to shy away from or even hide away those who are frail, disabled or just odd. We don’t want them to ruin our picture-perfect Christmas. This tendency is even found in our holiday stories: The Nutcracker has the strange, one-eyed Uncle Drosselmeyer; Dickens’ Christmas Carol has Scrooge and Doctor Seuss gave us the Grinch. They’re all ornery, isolated old men who inspire fear.

What we don’t take into account is that avoiding those who are odd or lonely just pushes them further down the road of isolation and despair. Saint Jeanne Jugan founded our Congregation by gathering up all the homeless elders she found in her midst and giving them a home.

Many were alcoholics and beggars, the misfits and undesirables of her day, but that made her love them all the more.

Because she loved them she was able to draw them out of their misery. In her care these elderly misfits were so transformed that the townspeople no longer recognized them. Thinking about Jeanne Jugan’s first home for the elderly reminds me of a popular song from the 1940’s:

You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you

You’re nobody ’til somebody cares

You may be king, you may possess the world and its gold

But gold won’t bring you happiness when you’re growing old …

You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you

So find yourself somebody to love.

Christmas reminds us of Christ’s universal yet personal love for each of us. In truth there are no undesirable human beings, because everyone, even the most ill-mannered or unattractive, is a someone for whom the Son of God entered the world and gave up his life.

This week ask yourself the following question: “Who is the elder in my life that I would least like to spend time with this Christmas?” Start praying for that person right now and then come up with an action plan to spend some quality time with him or her.

Here’s another suggestion for this week. We would never dream of excluding the little ones from our family gatherings, so we kid-proof our homes before they arrive. What about our frail elders? Give some consideration to how you might make your home and your holiday plans more accessible to the oldest members of your family, especially those whom you might be tempted to exclude because welcoming them takes extra effort.

Be practical and think about everything from bathroom accessibility to your menu. If your loved one is in a long-term care facility ask the staff if they have any special needs. If your holiday plans are too fancy for Grandma and Grandpa, then they’re probably just too posh, so scale back! Bring your loved one home for Christmas — even if it’s only for a few hours — and create some new memories!

Despite your best efforts, if your loved one is unable to leave their care facility, or if they prefer the quiet of their own home to the chaos of a house full of kids, don’t feel bad. Just don’t let them feel forgotten! Maybe your family can coordinate a series of visits during the Christmas season so that your elderly family member will know they are loved.