The Fourth Week of Advent! Before sunrise, on his way to prepare for Holy Mass, Fratelli detoured and took a quick stroll in his garden. Sure enough, two of the birds were there: the blue macaw called “Prince” and the green parrot Gianni had described. His blaring, red-colored head peered amongst the shrubbery. Waving his hands, Fratelli shouted at them:
“Go on, scat, you rebellious birds!!”
They must have heard for at once, they both flew away, high into the sky and out of sight.
Reaching the cathedral, he opened the grand doors and strolled into the coolness. In the broad aisle, Francesca and Iona’s husbands carried large pots of white flowers while their wives watched directing them where to go:
“A little more to the right, now to the left…yes, that’s perfect!”
Cardinal Fratelli smiled, seeing his family hard at work to beautify the church for Christmas Eve’s celebration. Thin rays of dawn-light began to dance, beaming through stained-glass, and turning the floor many colors. People began trickling in, townspeople and their families. Fratelli crept close as not to disturb them but Burt, Francine’s father, unseated from a pew and stumbled forth. Fratelli took Burt’s hand, steadying him as he spoke, “Your Eminence, I knew you would come see me.”
Burt reached to kiss the cardinal’s ring but missed, touching lips to his pinky- finger instead.
“Burt, why don’t you sit down,” Fratelli muttered nervously.
“I’m fine!” the old man shouted.
Fratelli shrugged and kept walking. Francesca saw him and ran forth then gave him a hearty hug. He froze awkwardly then eased into a smile. Seeing his awkward paralysis, Iona snickered then turned to scolding her husband for not putting a huge pot of palm-fronds in the proper place. Philomena sat distantly observing them and did not greet him. Fratelli forlornly remembered hearing years ago that she fell away from the Catholic faith. However, this was unthinkable for a traditional Italian family thus, she was sent to live with Burt and care for him. Things never felt the same between them.
He felt those dark eyes lay upon him then glanced away, towards the altar and walked towards it, his mind grasping for more prayerful thoughts. Suddenly, he turned back and asked Burt who stood nearby, “Would you like to visit the altar with me?”
Before Burt answered, Philomena came and grabbed the old man’s arm.
“No thanks,” she said, “I will take him… he needs breakfast.”
Silently, Fratelli watched Philomena guide Burt outside. More people began streaming in. Despite the crowds, sacred space silenced the din of their voices. Fratelli couldn’t help but think of Philomena, her probable bitterness. Frowning, he approached the main altar, bowed then kneeled.
“Lord, my cousin saddens me. If it is true she lost faith, please bring her to repentance. Nothing is more empty and destitute than being without you! I couldn’t imagine being without someone as wonderful as you, my God…is it vain or proud to pray that more would think like me? ”
He remained several minutes, head bowed saying nothing. Suddenly, he whirled at a crashing sound and saw Figaro standing astounded over a shattered pot. Dirt littered the floor and Francesca yelled at him. He apologized profusely as Fratelli neared.
“Calm down, these things happen.”
Soon enough, Father Rodrigo emerged with a mop and meekly began cleaning when Figaro snatched the broom away and said, “I’ll clean it Father.”
Hearing the clock-tower gong loudly, Fratelli stirred and swiftly walked away. Reaching the sacristy, a room where priests donned their vestments, the horrible thought struck him: he was going to be late for Mass!
Father Rodrigo appeared and helped him dress. Finally, he brought the bishop’s pointed miter. Fratelli paused a moment.
“Isn’t this the one that’s too big for me...I don’t want it because it keeps falling off my head.”
“No, Your Eminence, I altered it and it should fit now.”
Rodrigo started placing the miter on his head but now it was too tight. He had to force it down upon a wincing Fratelli who frowned. Worried about being later than he already was, he scurried outside and towards the rear of the church- minutes after the processional hymn had begun. The strains of “O Clavis David”, a song which brimmed with expectation of the Savior, rose high. White-clad altar servers and acolytes turned around briefly, eyeing him. Fratelli soon regained his dignity however, as he strode down the aisle, a regal, wooden crook in his hand, his eyes strait forward.
After Mass, while solemn bells still pealed in the air, Father Rodrigo approached Fratelli with a coil of measuring tape in his hand. The cardinal sat down and kept scratching his forehead which, was irritated from the tight hat.
“Stop it, Your Eminence,” Rodrigo said grabbing his hand, “You’ll make it worse.”
He sat motionless as the priest measured his head, pursing his lips in a focused expression.
“I don’t know why you keep changing the size of my miters…” Fratelli remarked.
Rodrigo murmured, “Maybe it’s your head that keeps changing sizes.”
Fratelli spun around, staring hotly at the priest who immediately fell quiet. Careful not to say anything else, fearing discipline had already come upon him, he resumed measurements.
Father Rodrigo stayed behind, ordered to polish and wash the altar vessels after his pointed words to the cardinal. He did this gracefully however, taking the moment to be out of the house and free from hassle.
The hassles were just beginning…
Fratelli ate a quiet breakfast with his cousins. Their husbands came in late, hungry and finished what was left. When Fratelli went in the parlor to rest, Francesca and Iona fallowed him. He turned around and asked,
“Do you need something?”
Francesca swirled her heel sheepishly and glanced at the floor. Then raising her eyes, wearing the kindliest smile, she said, “We want to know what we are getting for Christmas…”
Fratelli thought for a moment. Taken aback, he replied,
“Why are you thinking about that? Is this why you have been so nice towards me?”
“Well, we do love you…our dear cousin…” Iona said sweetly.
“Get out of here you both,” Fratelli ordered chasing them out of the parlor, “Stop being greedy!”
Honestly, he hadn’t thought of what to get them individually for Christmas. His party was supposed to be the gift, a show of appreciation however; plans looked as if they were falling apart. Fratelli’s suspicions were confirmed furthermore when the violinist arrived and explained his whole troupe had fallen sick.
“How could all of you be ill?” Fratelli gasped.
“I am not sick,” the violinist replied then coughed, “But I fear I’m getting there.”
He promised if they recovered in time, they would perform. Fratelli didn’t mention it to Francine who visited before noon, singing praises about the party, her expectations high. Fratelli secretly wondered if this party had eclipsed the true meaning of Christmas- the birth of mankind’s Savior.
Fratelli came out his office weary and wiping his forehead as Gianni charged down the hall, blurring past him and bumping into Francine. She turned and scolded the boy.
“Be calm Francine,” he told her, then scolded Gianni himself, “What did we discuss about running in the hall? Now go outside.”
“What is that boy doing here?” Francine demanded.
“He has no parents,” Fratelli responded, “You are welcome to take him in.”
After Francine huffed and left, the cardinal sighed and gazed at one of the old paintings in the hallway: A well-dressed lady out for an afternoon, flashy, pink parasol in hand, a white poodle yipping at her feet. Strangely, it put him at peace. Dina came out of the kitchen bringing tea to Francesca and Iona who once again, gathered in the parlor talking about trifles and laughing. She bowed as she passed by, her hands bearing the silver teapot. Fratelli nodded back then walked the opposite direction, going outside.
There was no sign of the escaped birds in his garden and for this, he felt grateful. Perhaps they moved on to a better, greener place- or even returned home to their master.
Viewing the evergreens and glistening, holly hedges which began to produce cheery, red berries and hearing a squirrel scamper above, Fratelli wondered, “Lord, your creation is beautiful, why can’t we act more beautiful?”
Then, at once, he startlingly realized, he himself had behaved rather vain and self-centered the whole month. He crossed himself, wearing a shamed expression, and slowly headed towards the cathedral. In cool, dim light, he passed grey marble columns, pews and sparking beds of candles on his hesitant way towards the confessional where he knew Father Rodrigo waited.
Fratelli knelt in darkness and stated, “Bless me Father for I have sinned.”
Although Rodrigo heard the voice and saw a blur of bright red through the screen, he said nothing, pretending he didn’t know who was there.
“I feel as if I have been so harsh towards my family for their wanting to enjoy life… My vanity has gotten the best of me and all I can think about is how I wish everything to be perfect and it is not… My sins are irritability, self-love, pride and lack of charity. For these, I ask the Lord’s forgiveness.”
Fratelli didn’t move, bowing his head, feeling slight sweat upon his brow as he received absolution. He would try better this time.
Walking back to his villa, he felt a cool breeze and folded his hands happily, meekly striding through the door. Francesca’s yelling at once, greeted him.
“Stop trying to keep grandpapa to yourself and bring him over here. This is unfair!”
Philomena shouted back, “I’ve taken care of him for 5 years now, don’t tell me what to do!”
They kept arguing even as Fratelli approached. He waved his arms in the air saying, “Please stop it… I will tell Francine to bring Burt here.”
Philomena glared angrily at him but knew she couldn’t argue anymore. Instead, she stormed out. Fratelli sighed, looking at the window as evening shadows began to fall. He whispered a quiet prayer.
~ ~ ~
Christmas Eve! The day was finally here. Dina steadily cleaned the house with Gianni’s help. Rodrigo and Fratelli tidied the cathedral. Anxiously, the cardinal ran back into the house.
“I have a wonderful idea for my sermon!” he panted.
“I thought you already wrote it,” Dina said.
“I did,” Fratelli answered, “But it is not as profound as what I’ve thought of just now.”
He hurried into the office, searched beneath a pile of papers and found his written sermon. In an elaborate gesture, he tore this up, throwing the sheds away and began writing on a blank page. Dina closed the office door so he may have some privacy.
Monsignor Barolo arrived late in the afternoon. He wore black robes, a silken purple cloak and a perfect, felt hat. Still, he leaned on a cane, growing weary easily and was assisted by a younger priest. Fratelli came from his office and greeted him.
“I am glad you arrived early,” he said, “I know it’s a day’s journey from your home.”
“You think I’d miss out on the feasting?” the monsignor laughed.
Fratelli darted back, grabbed his newly-written sermon and met Barolo in the parlor where he read it aloud. Delighted to hear Fratelli’s delicate words, he requested that he read the same sermon for tonight’s midnight Mass. Fratelli smiled, hardly able to contain his excitement.
More excitement and clamor ensued that night as five cooks came marching into the kitchen, ready to prepare tomorrow’s food. This way, it would be easily and swiftly cooked by noon. They gathered in, wielding differently-shaped knives, some fat and short, some long and narrow then set upon chopping vegetables. Chef Tontino barked orders as they hurried frantically to accomplish all in time. Suddenly, one of them had a suggestion…and Tontino wasn’t one to take suggestions. Angrily, he demanded his subordinate be quiet when another chimed in. More suggestions- and opinions. At once, they began bickering and fighting.
Wondering about the yelling, Fratelli opened the kitchen door and narrowly evaded a flying tomato that splatted against the wall.
“What on earth?” he stammered.
Tontino trudged forth; clutching his white apron in his hands, and irately threw it down.
“I cannot work with these impudent men!” he shouted.
Fratelli started speaking but he’d already left. One by one the cooks asserted they could not work with eachother and left, eventually deserting a young baker who obliviously wadded dough in his hands.
“I suppose you will go to?”
As night fell, Fratelli waited anxiously for the hours to pass. It felt necessary to get his mind off the party, how it had been likely ruined. Nervously, he ironed his fresh white, gold-threaded vestments… then ironed them again. Dina had to stop him before he burned a hole in the precious fabric.
“Your Eminence, go do something else!” she cried, “For goodness sake, you are making me nervous!”
Finding Burt sitting by himself in front of the window, touching his fingers to the cold glass, Fratelli helped him up and led him into the cathedral. Standing by the great entryway, he saw groups of children making their way to a house nearby, singing loud, joyous carols in Italian. A small group of people passed him nodding with respect. It was almost midnight. Retreating to the cathedral’s sacristy where those beautiful, white vestments waited, he could feel excitement mounting within his soul.
Cardinal Fratelli’s nervous excitement almost carried him away while he stood, fully attired, hearing the beautiful hymn “Adeste Fideles” ring out, calling all the faithful to worship. As the cathedral’s bell-towers sang into the night, so did the distant clock-tower announce midnight. He trembled in anticipation. However, his energy focused once time came to deliver the sermon. Instead of sitting and preaching as he usually did, Fratelli walked to the high pulpit, straitened the miter on his head and spoke:
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, The prophet Isaiah, of old, once said, thousands of years before the birth of Lord Christ:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, and that preacheth peace: of him that sheweth forth good, that preacheth salvation, that saith to Sion: Thy God shall reign! (1)”
On this night, I say to you as we have heard in the Scriptures:
“For a CHILD IS BORN to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace (2).”
What are we to make of all this? Surely our minds and hearts are dizzied by the news: Our Savior has come! He is given to us. Given! And he shall reign forever! When we see the sadness and brokenness of the world, it becomes obvious that mankind longs for a Savior. We long to be rescued and delivered from evil, the wickedness of others and most importantly, our own wickedness. Don’t deny it, dear children, for soon as we think ourselves perfect, we have fallen.
But do not despair in the pit of sorrow, do not yield to your sin and say “It is hopeless” -good news has been announced to us! We have a Savior and moreso, not a Savior who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who was made like us in all things- but sin. This is wonderful! Do we realize that death and sin have been answered, have been challenged by the cry of a tender babe in Bethlehem?
His cries echo our cries and He will deliver us! I say to you: Open your hearts for Thy God, the Prince of Peace, shall reign!”
A long pause. He had finished. What else could he say? He uttered a silent thanksgiving he didn’t trip or stumble nor make any mistake. Sitting back down, Fratelli wiped sweat from his cheek- or was it a tear?
Collecting his dignity, Fratelli changed into regular garb and walked
home. Tiredly, he laid down on his bed in total darkness and while hearing many voices downstairs, drifted asleep.
After next morning’s Mass, while still dressed in bishop’s finery, he distributed brightly-wrapped presents to Lucca’s poor and homeless children. Standing amongst them, handing a brilliant green parcel to a smiling girl, he felt as though he were some odd echo of Saint Nicholas, young and un-bearded, of course.
Returning home, Fratelli was surprised to smell cakes baking in the kitchen. Dina, Gianni and Barolo’s attendant brought them out to the hungry family who had been fasting since last night, as was customary in Italy. In the sun-soaked dining room, savoring the plainly cooked breakfast, they ate. Francesca’s children were even at this moment fairly quiet, shoving eachother and whispering. Twelve wilted pots of poinsettias decorated the two, long dining tables, which had been brought together in the parlor. Fratelli blessed the food and poured the tea. This also being something he customarily did.
“The first shall be the last” they chanted and allowed Francesca’s youngest child, Anna, to sit in Fratelli’s usual place of honor. She giggled and kicked her feet while chewing on a golden brown cake.
Francine sat beside Father Rodrigo, who sat next to Fratelli with Monsignor on his other side. She frowned, seeing no violinist or exotic birds but stayed quiet, containing her upset within. Fratelli almost frowned too. His party came to nothing, the décor looked sad, not cheery, and no music lifted their hearts.
Michele and Ernesto met him outside in the garden. His brother put an arm around him and said: “I know you tried, Your Eminence…but I think things turned out fine.”
Because the cooks left behind so much uncooked food, the whole family joined together in preparing it. Yes, they made everything simple, no cheese-stuffed meat or chocolate cannoli, just simple dishes and simple bread. Francesca’s children lent aid however; they made things quite messy by dropping a few eggs. They set these dishes down on the table, putting the golden-yellow butter squash casserole between Fratelli and Ernesto, who sat across from him. The two brothers simultaneously grabbed for the serving spoon, trying to shove each other’s hand aside and both took heaping portions.
Although they grew tired by noon, the Fratelli family still gathered, each holding a box in their hand and began setting up the crèche.
Francine placed a beautiful painted cow and statue of the Virgin Mary in the manger first; her three daughters positioned the three wise men. Smiling radiantly, laughing, Michele put down the pearly-coated lamb. Ernesto followed with Joseph. Burt un-wrapped his figurines: the two shepherds. However, where one of the shepherds should be, was a naked statue of Venus!
Fratelli blushed seeing it and Michele laughed girlishly. Monsignor Barolo, who watched from a distance, cracked his face in a smile.
“Umm, Burt?” Francine said, quickly trying to snatch the statue.
“Let go, I’m putting the shepherds in!” he insisted irately then put nude Venus down next to the lamb.
They didn’t say anything but collectively snickered. Once everyone calmed, Fratelli silently removed it.
Into the manger-scene, he lastly placed the fair, innocent-faced baby Christ. For a tranquil moment, they crowded around, in silence, adoring the infant Savior. Next, the children lit candles, sang a traditional Italian carol and set them in each parlor window. They gave Gianni a candle. He hesitantly set his down last.
Dina entered with mixed-wine. They drank and talked. Suddenly, Fratelli stood, drawing silence from the crowd. Even the children quietly wriggled in their chairs.
“There is something I wish to say…” he began.
“Say it!” Francine shouted anticipant.
He continued, “As you know, my dear family, I had planned a splendid party for today’s celebration with music and entertainment- a day you should always remember. Due to unforeseen circumstances, this could not happen and I apologize….and since this was also intended to be a gift for each of you, I have nothing else to give…”
Michele gently stood up and hugged his arm.
“It’s okay Angelo, we are all here,” she assured.
The cardinal moved away and she sat back down. The he paced back and forth a bit before he spoke again:
“Dina, you have worked for me tirelessly over 3 years and never asked for anything in return besides your rightful pay. My heart sinks, because I never gave you one Christmas present.”
She began to speak but he interrupted, “I know how much you care for Gianni and wish to have a son of your own… so I will help you adopt the boy…and with the money I did not spend on music, entertainment and such, I decided to purchase that house across the street, as Michele doesn’t require it anymore, and give it to you.”
Dina froze as all eyes fell upon her.
“Your Eminence- you are a saint! That…that is all I ever wanted…” she rambled, stifling tears.
Bashfully, she covered her face and ran from the room. Ernesto stood ready to go after but Fratelli stopped him.
“Give her time.”
Francine then unseated.
“Well, I didn’t forget to buy presents…” she declared with pride.
She passed around small, brightly colored boxes to each person, even the many children, and watched the family open them. Looking into his box, Fratelli saw shiny, red house-slippers, without holes in them.
“New slippers!” he cried like a young boy, “I have badly needed these.”
His lips curled in silent gratitude. Picking up on this joy, Anna scampered across the floor and curled beneath his arm. Together, they shared such happiness. Perhaps, Fratelli mused, this fared better than a huge, splendid party. This, after all was the peace he sought on Christmas Day.
As the entire family walked outside, through the gardens, raising a song, the cathedral’s columned façade sparkled in sunlight. Atop a spire perched three colorful birds watching, one white, one blue and the other green with a splash of red.
~ The end.