The Little Way of Christmas

Don’t miss the moments of enchantment at family gatherings

Dr. Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the  President of the Preambula Group.

For families at Christmas time, the Church’s celebration of the birth of Jesus offers three moments of sublime enchantment in this life — that is, if we are paying close enough attention. The first is when we are little children and starstruck by the romantic wonder of Christmas Eve and morning. Assuming your family celebrated Christmas when you were a child, you probably recall the deep sense of marvel that bordered on the edge of mysticism. The lights, the presents, the special foods, the music and the gathering of family all came together to leave a deep impression on the soul.

On the surface, if I may speak on my own behalf, I was definitely excited about the presents, but the deeper significance of the celebration was not lost on me. My eyes were wide open and the apparent magic of it all stirred deep within my soul, leaving lasting impressions and memories I have not forgotten to this day. As soon as the weather turned, it was impossible not to look forward to Christmas from the first weeks of November. When it was over, it was difficult not to be let down.

Photo: Lightstock

The second great moment of enchantment is when, if we are so blessed, we get to create the same experience for our own children. Part of the draw is recreating for them the conditions we remember from Christmases past when we were little; except in the role of parent, one begins to discover the many little acts of love that were behind those childhood memories. All the work! Christmas is quite the production for parents but the key is for parents to recollect themselves enough during Advent to remember what it was like to be a child at Christmas.

Even more, to rise above the laboriousness of the Advent season, parents have to become children (as it were) and maintain the enthusiasm and joy that the run up to the celebration warrants. My mother always became very sick after Christmas — not a good thing. Yet now I know why; she expended a lot of energy to make Christmas wonderful and special for the family. When it was over, she was exhausted and worn down. It is a kind of birthing experience actually, to bear one’s children once again into the mystery and meaning of life. It is essential to a good life as an adult to see Christmas with the eyes of a child — full of wonder and promise.

The third moment is when grandparents get to watch their children replicate the wonder of Christmas for the grandchildren. Christmas joy is not only about the blessing a child receives in the presence of grandparents, but for the grandparents to watch their own children carry on the family traditions and allow childhood to reign continuously across generations. The joy children bring to grandparents is the free and joyful spirit of “littleness.” Children are unpretentious and free to love and express joy and excitement at the simple blessings of life. Somewhat less encumbered by the burden of the Christmas production, grandparents are relieved to hand it over to their children and once again experience through their grandchildren a kind of freedom to relish in the moment of spiritual childhood.

Photo: Lightstock

Christmas is thus all about the child and spiritual childhood. It is about being able to see life through the eyes of a child, to allow God to fill us with wonder and joy at the simple gifts he places under the tree of our life. Every morning we can awake to these gifts, open them up and find the true joy of our existence. Yet we have to have the disposition of a child to experience wonderment at those gifts and not take them for granted. St. Thérèse of Lisieux called spiritual childhood “the little way.”

The little way is the way of love, which we discover in the little acts of goodness we give or receive from others. Joy is not complicated, but so often we miss this profound truth, especially during advent and at Christmas time. Joy is simple. It arises when we have the open eyes and heart of a child to appreciate the little gifts of God that surround us — and just rejoice at them. Children have to show us — or remind us as adults — that spiritual childhood is the Way of Christian discipleship. As adults, we often have to resist the temptation to grumbling and self-martyrdom in the service of family. The call is always to build up family life with a generous and joy-filled attitude, especially during the holidays, which are meant to be “holy” days.

Photo: Lightstock

Christmas teaches us one of the most important lessons of life. To grow up and get “big,” we have to learn how to remain childlike and little. We have to cultivate the sense of life’s wonderment and mystery. No better way exists for doing this than to contemplate the gift of the child born to us in Bethlehem. We have to contemplate the mystery of God’s own infancy. The God of the universe came to us by the little way of childhood. Yet as adults, we tend to make life so complicated and too sophisticated; or we give up on child-like-ness altogether. Jesus entered the world as a little one and grew up in a family. In many other ways, God could have made his entrance into history. He chose this way of human childhood. As a baby, he reveals the deepest mystery of God’s love.

The divine love for humanity is completely free, uninhibited, generous, wide open and full of wonderment. It is enchanted, romantic and ecstatic. As a culture, we hang onto to these elements of the Christmas season and continue to celebrate them year after year because they speak to the deepest longings of the human heart. To love as a child and to be loved as a child of God — this is the mystery of human existence and the salvation we celebrate at Christmas. The Christ child is a revelation of our path to God. We have to be children of our Heavenly Father, that is, we have to be childlike in our relationship with our Father. This is the little way of Christmas and the meaning of following Jesus in our lives.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”