Christmas at Sunnyside

The late neurologist, Oliver Sacks, is famous for, among other things, documenting how music affects the brains of people suffering from profound memory loss, or amnesia.  He reported, for instance, that almost without fail music has a deep impact on people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and sometimes allows them to access memories that are not otherwise available to them.  Indeed, he said that hearing an old, familiar song can allow someone who has lost the memory of his or her own past, family, experiences, and history to “regain the identity they had when they first heard the song.”  Sacks said that such people have lost their own autobiographies, but music can “touch springs of memory and emotion which may be [otherwise] completely inaccessible to them.”  Let them hear the music of their own past, and that “past, which is not recoverable in any other way, is sort of embedded in the amber of the music.”[i]

In his books and elsewhere, Dr. Sacks provides case-study illustrations of this phenomenon.  But nowhere does he give the example of one Joseph, who, as the story goes, was a resident of the Sunnyside Rest Home, a long, long drive from here.

Joseph had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s young, in his early sixties, and by the time our story begins, he had been consigned to the home for several years.  An affable sort at the outset (before the disease moved in full-time) he had since become a recognizable figure to anyone who has ever visited friends or family in places like Sunnyside.  Although he was perfectly capable of walking, it was impossible to know where his steps might take him, and of course he might just fall, so the staff parked him in a wheelchair and encouraged to remain in it.  He seldom spoke any more; and when he did his words made little sense.  He could stare blankly into space for hours on end, while game shows played on the TV in the common room, until he drifted off to sleep, his chin on his chest, listing a little to the left, a line of drool dangling from his lower lip.

Sunnyside, like so many of these places, was owned by a church organization, I’m not sure which, but there was no question that Christmas would be observed.  And the staff were the type whose theological sophistication had never advanced much beyond the insights available from the annual Christmas pageant they remembered from their collective childhoods.  And it so happened one Christmas Eve that the staff noticed old Joseph lolling in his wheelchair, and beside him, there in the common room of the somewhat ironically named “Memory Unit,” a woman of about his age, who had recently been admitted to the unit with pretty severe dementia, whose name happened to be Mary, and who also was dozing.

There they were next to each other in the common room of the Memory Unit of the Sunnyside Rest Home: Mary and Joseph next to each other on Christmas Eve; who could blame the staff for coming up with an idea?

The idea was to conduct a Christmas pageant with the residents of the Unit.  We often think of the elderly as reverting to their childhood states, and treat them accordingly; why not put on a Christmas pageant with the demented and the amnesiac?  Such a plan is actually far easier to carry out than the traditional pageant with children, for the wheelchair-bound are far easier to maneuver, and are often more compliant than the youthful and independently mobile.  Plus, you need fewer permission slips.

The artificial tree and its glittering star would provide the backdrop for the pageant.  Simple costumes were quickly improvised from bed linens and towels, and a stuffed teddy bear was procured as a stand-in for the baby Jesus.

The staff were in no way motivated by cruelty or meanness, and they meant to inflict no indignity on the patients by thus manipulating them.  If pressed, they might have said that they hoped to stimulate some long-forgotten memory in their charges.  But mostly they just thought it would be nice to help these somewhat helpless folk celebrate Christmas.

And there were Joseph and Mary were parked in front of the tree.  The baby Jesus was placed between them in a milk-crate-manger lined with nursing-home bed sheets.  Some residents were cast as shepherds, others as the stable animals.  Three of these elderly souls were each given an empty box wrapped in silver paper, tied with red bows (of the type that go under the tree just for looks), and cast as the Wise Men, even though two of them were women.

A script was prepared that depended as much on what the staff could remember from the Charlie Brown Christmas special as it did on the Gospel of Luke.  But if you can remember Linus’s speech you are dealing with the Gospel, so you could do a lot worse.

And a CD was found with Christmas carols on it, and popped into the CD player.  And the staff stood behind the wheelchairs of the residents and moved them from place to place to enact the scenes, pushing Mary and Jospeh from room to room, asking for a place to spend the night, and getting every one out to join them in front of the tree, where they rocked the residents back and forth in their wheelchairs as the carols played, in between vignettes of the parts of the Christmas story.  And in a moment of serendipity, the carol that came up on the CD right after they had enacted the arrival of the shepherds by rolling two residents with towels draped on their heads and candy canes clutched in their hands over to the milk-crate-manger to adore the Christ Child/teddy bear just happened to be “Angels we have heard on high.”

In truth, the music had already had a subtle but positive effect on the residents of the Memory Unit of Sunnyside.  Everyone was awake and seemed generally more alert than usual.  Smiles could be seen on many faces, and some of the shepherds, and one or two of the Wise men (two of whom were actually women) were humming familiarly.  But at the start of “Angels we have heard on high,” Joseph’s entire being was altered: his eyes opened brightly, he sat up with a straight posture, and he looked around the room as if recognizing his surroundings for the first time in many years.

Joseph gazed warmly at Mary, seated across from him, and looked down without the slightest confusion at the teddy bear/Christ neatly swaddled in a pillowcase and laid in a milk-crate at his feet.  And when the refrain of the hymn came around, he opened his mouth and sang out with a clarity that had been lost from his voice for years, “Glo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo-ria, in excelsis Deo!”

He looked intensely into the eyes of Mary at the end of the first verse, as if inviting her to delight in this song as much as he was.  As you know, there are four verses to “Angels we have heard on high,” and Joseph didn’t remember all the words to all the verses, but it hardly mattered, because each time the refrain came around, it was as if he was a church organ, and another rank of stops was added to his voice, and his singing became louder and more confident, and encouraged others around him to do their best in joining in, which they did.

As the last verse was playing on the CD player, it was obvious that Joseph was ramping up for something big.  And just before the refrain started, he stood up out of his wheelchair and he spun lightly on his feet as pushed Mary around as if dancing with her in her chair, and sang “Glo-ooooo-ooooo-ooooo-ria, in excelsis Deo!”  And as he did, everyone looked up, because they could have sworn that night that they heard Joseph’s voice joined by other stronger, angelic voices from a source they could not identify.

The carol came to an end and the CD stopped playing.  Still standing, Joseph looked around at expectant eyes all focused on him.  And, as if scripted, he recited his own passage of the Christmas Gospel, “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

And Joseph sat down in his wheelchair, breathing a little fast, beaming.  And Mary was beaming, too; everyone was.  And the staff brought around eggnog flavored Ensure, and apple juice, and Christmas cookies.  And the normally un-sociable residents of the Memory Unit chit-chatted about Christmases past, and hummed little snippets of carols, and everyone marveled that the music had touched some deep memory in Joseph, almost as if he had been there all those centuries ago when Jesus was born.

But before long, heads began to grow weary, and eyelids closed, and the residents of the Memory Unit were taken to their rooms and tucked into bed until Christmas morning, when some would have family visitors who’d bring slippers wrapped in cheap paper, and some would bring cookies, and most would leave with a kiss on the forehead, and a sigh at the loss of so much among those living in the Memory Unit.

Once a year, on this holy night, you come, if you are so inclined, and if God has urged you to do it, and you check yourself in to this Memory Unit for a couple of hours, in an uncomfortable pew, at a time that is too late, when you would otherwise be sleeping.  And we acknowledge here that the world is demented and amnesiac, and has so often seemed to lose track of its own autobiography, nearly forgetting who we really are.  Certainly we Christians are inclined to this forgetfulness, prone to wander around as though lost, as though we are not, in fact, children of God, not the blessed company of faithful people who follow the Way of Jesus.

Our mobility here in this temporary Memory Unit tonight is restricted, our diet is simple, and the food is not very tasty, neither is the little sip of wine.  But it will suffice.  We come here, perhaps frightened that we have forgotten some of the most important things we ever knew about ourselves and the world we live in; hoping to come into contact with some deep memory of the past.  And we come here confident that that past, which may not be recoverable in any other way, might at least be embedded in the amber of the music.  For while we know that God’s truth is also embedded in his Word and in his Sacraments, there is something about music- and especially about the song of the angels, sung to simple shepherds – that reaches deep down into the past and retrieves the memories we most need to recall.

We don’t really know what causes people to lose their memories, to forget their own identities.  And we don’t know why it is so easy for us to forget who we are, who God made us to be.  We lose track of the meaning of Emmanuel – God with us.  We forget why it seemed important to us that God should be with us, or why it seems important to God.

But tonight we rejoice to discover that God has left open a window to the lost memories of his love for us.  He has, in fact, made it easy: you don’t have to know what to believe about the Scriptures, or the Sacrament, or the Creed, or anything else.  You don’t even have to know what you believe about Christmas.  All you have to do is sing, and if you can’t do that, then just listen to the music, the song of the angels, and see if you can’t hear them singing too, on this holy night.

We are made in such a way that when all else is lost to us – even the memory of who we are - God has given us a secret path to remember, to reclaim our identities for a short time, at least, and to rejoice.  This is why we can never allow this night to be a truly silent night: we have to sing about the silence.

Because God wants us to remember the message of the angels.  He wants us to know that through the birth of his Son he promises that he is with us in life and in death – God with us.  He wants us to understand that he will never allow us to truly forget.  And he wants us to hear the angels singing a song that we know from our past, even though he knows that tomorrow we may start forgetting all over again.

Shepherds, why this jubilee?  Why these songs of happy cheer?

What great brightness did you see?  What glad tidings did you hear?

To answer those questions, all you need to do is sing with the angels, and remember!  And by God’s grace, perhaps, although we have forgotten so much, we may for a while tonight, regain that ancient identity we had when shepherds first heard the song, and we may go with them to the manger and find that Jesus Christ is born!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Midnight Mass 2016

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia




[i] uploaded to YouTube by Knopfgroup of Random House Publishing, 22 Sept 2008

Posted on December 25, 2016 .