Tomorrow, Dec. 7, marks our "Tree of Angels" ceremony. We have been supporting and attending this beautiful, bittersweet ceremony here in Austin, Tex. for about a dozen years now. Except for one sad aspect (call it a sign of the times), not much has changed about the ceremony or about the emotions it evokes.
Therefore, I would like to share my thoughts and feelings about the ceremony as I wrote them down a couple of years ago and leave the sad change to an endnote.
The shock and pain I felt when I received that fateful phone call almost 19 years ago have been somewhat lessened by the intervening years. But every Christmas season, as loving, sometimes trembling hands carefully place their angel on the tree in our beautiful church, I not only relive some of my own sorrow, but I also wonder what tragic event, what unspeakable acts have prompted others to place their angel next to mine on this lovely tree. After tenderly placing an angel on the tree, tearful eyes look at the angel one more time, remember one more time, and pray and hope one more time before the owner slowly and sorrowfully returns to his or her pew.
And so it goes on for almost an hour. The angels are brought to the tree by the young and old; by men and women; by people who are dressed formally and others dressed casually. The horrific acts that have prompted this tradition, and those who committed those crimes, did not distinguish among them, either.
Some of the angels are very ornate, some simple. There are crystal angels, golden angels, and silver angels, large and tiny angels. Some have beautiful poems inscribed on them, some just simple words such as "We love you, Grandma," or "We miss you, Son." But all angels represent the same love, sorrow and almost unbearable sense of loss.
Eventually, the tree is almost full -- hardly a space remains. Nevertheless, they still come from the back of the church with their angels. Somehow, some more room is found on the tree, and the choir keeps singing beautiful, haunting melodies that muffle the occasional sob.
I glance at the other side of the altar. Another tree stands there, a nicely decorated tree, a "real" Christmas tree. That tree should be a reminder of the "season to be joyous." But this night it is a poignant reminder of yet one more Christmas that many of us will spend without the company, love and joy of a cherished son, daughter, brother, sister, father, or -- as in my case -- a loved mother. Because, you see, on this 17th annual Tree of Angels ceremony, most of the angels on this tree represent loved ones who have been suddenly, tragically and cruelly taken away from us -- they are victims of violent crimes.
Finally, all have placed their angels, their love, prayers and memories on the Tree of Angels on this chilly December night. The tree is now so full that you can hardly see the branches for the angels.
Sadly, not much has changed from that day 19 years ago when I received that fateful phone call telling me that our mother had been the victim of a violent crime.
Every year, more and more angels have to be accommodated on the Tree of Angels. Every year, more and more people crowd the church to pray, remember and pay tribute to loved ones who have become victims of violent crime. And, every year for the past 17 years, a wonderful organization, People Against Violent Crime, has provided a most reverent and appropriate forum for the families and friends of victims of violent crime, and some of the surviving victims themselves, to join together. The Tree of Angels has become a sacred place for so many of us to remember, to pray, to regain or reinforce our faith.
Partly because of this tree and because of the angels on the tree, those of us who have lost so much, so suddenly and so cruelly, can walk outside into the cold December night and begin to feel a warm glow in our hearts and can dare to hope again.
The sad change occurred two years ago, when a second tree was added at the front of the church, as one tree simply was not enough to hold the increasing number of angels that continue to be added every year. Now, even the second tree is becoming crowded. A Nov. 27 headline in our hometown newspaper perhaps said it all: "Austin's 35 killings so far this year are most since 1997." And it was only the end of November...