Two months before Christmas 2012, my family suffered a tragic loss. My elderly mother was killed in a car accident as she drove on a winding Pennsylvania road to visit my father in the hospital.

Later, at home in San Diego, my husband, children, and I lit the pink candle in our Advent wreath on Gaudete Sunday.

We were reminded of its message of joyful expectation: “Rejoice in the Lord always. … The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4–7).

That night we sang, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with new fervor, mindful that “Emmanuel” indeed means that “God is with us.”

We went through the usual motions to decorate our home with symbols of the Christmas season, though more mechanically than previous years. We put up an evergreen tree in our living room, garnishing it with sparkling lights, treasured family ornaments, and a shining star on top. We adorned the hearth with green boughs and red ribbons while carols hummed in the background.

Most important was the crèche we nestled under the tree, the humble sign that in the fullness of time, on the darkest of days, Jesus, the light of the world, came into our midst for our salvation. Our days bore a darkness, yet our hearts were lightened with the promise of this scene of the  Nativity, with its figurines of Mary, Joseph, the donkey that carried her and Jesus to Bethlehem, the shepherds, sheep, and ox, all huddled together around the empty manger, awaiting the arrival of the baby Jesus.

But this year was different. We not only had an empty manger in the crèche, we had an empty hospital bed in our dining room, ready and waiting to welcome my father.

After suddenly losing his bride of 60 years, left grieving in a nursing home, he chose to come to California to be with my family. Too sick to fly, my father was being driven in a camper van on a 48-hour trek from Pennsylvania to San Diego.

As we converted our dining room into a hospital room, the prayers of family and friends became the star that guided my father to our doorstep. That he arrived safe and sound is still the best Christmas gift we ever received.

The crèche tells the story of the word of God made flesh, but the story also includes the Holy Family’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the Blessed Mother riding on the donkey, and their discovery that there was no room at the inn.

That Christmas, the story took on a special poignancy for my family. We were grateful to open our home to offer room and comfort for my dad. For us, the camper van became the donkey, the dining room the stable, the hospital bed his manger. His presence blessed us in ways that remain with us long after he was called home to God.

We had received Christ into our home and into our hearts, in the face of the sick, the invalid, and the homeless, as all Christians are called to do.

My father taught us that Christmas what it means to welcome Jesus in the manger. We learned in a most profound way, that it is in giving that we receive and in dying that we are born to eternal life.