The Christmas tree is lighted in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 9, 2023. CNS photo/Lola Gomez

Christmas light shines amidst the suffering

By  Fr. Yaw Acheampong
  • December 14, 2023

“They shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us”
-- Matthew 1:23

Every year, the Church’s celebration of the last Sunday of the liturgical year (the Solemnity of Christ the King) points to the coming of a new liturgical year and a new beginning — the season of Advent. 

This year after the Mass in the hospital chapel, as I went around the units visiting and giving Holy Communion to the patients, I noticed that most of the units had already gotten into the spirit of Christmas with beautiful Christmas trees and decorations. Yes, in the hospital, despite our challenging situation, we also celebrate Christmas. And, just as we do in parishes, we observe the season of Advent in faith and love so that the patients, family members and staff may spiritually prepare to celebrate Christmas.

On the First Sunday of Advent, I preside at Mass for the community when there is the blessing of the Advent wreath and the candles. As we journey through Advent, I notice that more people would like to go to Confession and more patients would like to receive the Eucharist. There is an increase in attendance at Mass in the chapel.

Unlike parishes and in our homes, the celebration of Advent in the hospital is much simpler. There are not as many activities. However, some units participate in fundraising activities. There is also a “Door Decorating Contest” where staff decorate doors in the unit to win the top prize. One day, the Choir from St. Michael’s Choir School visits the hospital to perform some Advent-Christmas songs for us. It is also during Advent that the units organize their Christmas parties.

As Christmas approaches, visitors to the hospital notice the light, the joy and the beauty that we associate with Christmas. Patients who get well go home to celebrate Christmas, but new patients may also be admitted. I encounter patients who express their feelings of anxiety and the fear of having to stay in the hospital for Christmas. To many, being in the hospital is the first time they have been away from their parishes and homes at this time of the year. As a hospital priest, I journey with them so that they may recognize what can lift up their spirits. I visited a patient admitted one week before Christmas. He acknowledged with sadness that his medical condition might prevent him going home for Christmas. But he was ready to enjoy Christmas when it came, and asked me to bring him Holy Communion on Christmas Day. 

On Christmas Day, I preside at the Mass attended members of the hospital community. The chapel is decorated with a Nativity scene, lovely red poinsettias and a beautiful Christmas tree that shines with many lights. After Mass, I visit the patients to attend to their spiritual needs. On every Christmas day, despite a spirit of joy surrounding us, in the hospital we still encounter situations of pain and suffering that are familiar to hospital communities, including death. 

For those working in a hospital, we see the celebration of Christmas in a very different way. We tend to focus more on the importance of the spiritual significance of the birth of Christ — the Son of God — who has called us to care for the sick. The celebration of Christmas reminds me of my call to strive to be like Christ who came to minister to the sick with compassion, love and understanding.

Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), describes how accompanying others in different situations with compassion “heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life” (169). When we come to the hospital to care for those in need, we remember that Jesus lives among us bringing us hope and healing. At the hospital, during the Christmas season, a time of joy, the pain and suffering in the community may make us actually feel like people “who walk in darkness.” (Isaiah 9:2). However, the dedication of the staff and their selfless actions become something like a light of hope, peace, joy and love — shining brightly in our community. On behalf of the hospital community, I wish you all a very joyful and peaceful Christmas.

(Fr. Yaw Acheampong is a priest-chaplain at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.)