The Christmas that Changed Therese of Lisieux
Listen to this true story of a family on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you know it. On Christmas Eve in 1886, widower Louis Martin and 3 of his daughters, Léonie, Céline and Thérèse, attended the midnight mass at the cathedral — “but there was very little heart left in them. Léonie was covered in eczema and hiding her hair under a short mantilla, and her sisters were helping her get over her sense of failure and humiliation. She was recently home having lasted only 7 weeks in the convent.
The tradition for French children was to leave their empty shoes on the hearth, in anticipation of gifts, not from Father Christmas (Pere Noel) but from the Child Jesus, who was imagined to travel through the air bearing toys and cakes.” The youngest daughter Therese was 13 years old and a little bit too old for this tradition.
While she was going up the stairs she heard her father, “perhaps exhausted by the hour, or this reminder of the relentless emotional demands of his weepy youngest daughter”, say to Céline, “Well, fortunately this will be the last year!” Thérèse was devastated by hearing her father say this. She was her father’s princess and he was her king. She had begun to cry and Céline advised her not to go back downstairs immediately. Then, suddenly, Thérèse pulled herself together and wiped her tears. She ran down the stairs, knelt by the fireplace and unwrapped her surprises as jubilantly as ever. She later wrote: “In an instant Jesus, content with my good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do in ten years.” After nine sad years she had “recovered the strength of soul she had lost when her mother died”. She discovered the joy in self-forgetfulness and added, “I felt charity enter my heart, the need to forget myself to make others happy—She felt sad and was crying, but the reason she went downstairs was because she wanted to make her father happy and she did this out of love for him.
Christmas Eve of 1886 was a turning point in the life of Thérèse; she called it her “complete conversion.”
Years later she stated that on that night she overcame the pressures she had faced since the death of her mother 9 years prior and said that “God worked a little miracle to make me grow up in an instant … On that blessed night … Jesus, who saw fit to make Himself a child out of love for me, saw fit to have me come forth from the swaddling clothes and imperfections of childhood.”
A long, painful period of growth lasting almost ten years was now over for a girl who was on her way to becoming a declared saint of the church. St. Therese of Lisieux is also called the Little Flower. She discovered that freedom is found in resolutely looking away from oneself.. it is pure grace, a sudden gift.. It cannot be coerced, and yet it can be received only by the patiently prepared heart”. It is no surprise that her official name as a Carmelite sister is St. Therese of the Child Jesus.
Our traditions can give us a sense of who we are-our identity. This identity comes as members of a family, citizens of a particular country, having a common shared heritage, and even a uniqueness-of being someone special or different. The Martin family certainly kept their traditions even after their wife and mother Zelie died when Therese was only 4 years old.
What the Child Jesus revealed to Therese during her “conversion experience” is that she could imitate Him by emptying herself in love for another. God is love which is not self-serving but is active in going out of itself for the good of another. That is what we celebrate tonight… the very identity of God as Love, both human and divine.
The mystery of the incarnation affirms that we are all unique. Each one of us is special because God became one of us. He lived in a human family. His family had imperfections in it as indicated by the genealogy given in the Gospels of Matthew and in Luke.
The spirituality of St. Therese of the Child Jesus is called the Little Way. She shows us how to love as God loved us in Christ Jesus – in humility and in simplicity. She later wrote –
I understand that it was love alone that made the churches members act. And that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the gospel; martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. I understood that love contained all vocations. Love was everything and love embraced all the time and all places. In a word, love is eternal.
Traditions help us to live who we are. They can bring us comfort and joy. However, when traditions are broken or changed or outgrown like in the case of Therese Martin, they can bring us sadness and suffering and for some people maybe even anger. Maybe you visitors experienced this “wrath” tonight if you are sitting in someone else’s seat here in church. I am only kidding, but it does happen. Some people are creatures of tradition and habit. This sadness and suffering which affects many people especially at this time of year for one reason or another, can be transformed into growth and deeper faith. No matter what age we are chronologically, we like Saint Therese can grow up. We can encounter Christ Jesus in a more profound way lifting us up out of ourselves and helping us to imitate God even more closely. There is hope for everyone.
The Christmas story – the birth of Jesus – is very touching. It speaks to the human experience on different levels-the birth of a child, poverty, human unkindness with the rejection by the innkeepers, the announcement of the birth by extraordinary means to simple shepherds by angelic beings that terrified these men. Talk about conversion!
Jesus Christ is alive and well today. He is true flesh, body and blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. Again the tradition of our faith reveals a miracle that the all-powerful God has become vulnerable as body and blood. He also becomes flesh in you and in me.
At Christmas, we contemplate God made man, divine glory hidden beneath the poverty of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The creator of the universe reduced to the helplessness of an infant. Once we accept this paradox, we discover the truth that sets us free and the love that transforms our lives. I repeat again this quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict the 16th. At Christmas, we contemplate God made man, divine glory hidden beneath the poverty of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The creator of the universe reduced to the helplessness of an infant. Once we accept this paradox, we discover the truth that sets us free and the love that transforms our lives.