Advent and Our Life in Christ

This week marks the beginning of the liturgical year as we await the birth of Christ. As I ponder this remarkable event, I look at the different ways the four Evangelists introduce us to the origins of Jesus Christ. Luke gives us the most appealing version of Christ’s birth which we lovingly perpetuate in carols and story. Son of God, son of Mary. The Holy Child is born into poverty and dependence, yet he is adored by shepherds and sages; by the poor and by kings.

I’m also given to understand how our own spiritual journey can resemble the very life of Christ, leading from the helpless dependency of a newborn to the power of the resurrected Lord.

The infant stage, bodily and spiritually, is totally egoistic. We have many wants and we cry until we get them. We don’t even know, much less care about what others might need from us, or what we might be able to give them. Spiritually, our most frequent approach to God is to ask him for what we want. If we’re given what we want, we’re happy. Fortunately, we usually have the goodness to say thank you. But if our request is denied, we can be less than gracious!

When we’re baptized, i.e. become newborns in the faith, we are totally dependent on others to teach us the basics of Christianity and to show us the way. We unconsciously drink in the milk we’re offered. It’s fairly easy to digest, and it will be a while before we can handle a richer diet. St. Paul uses this analogy in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, for you are still of the flesh. While there is jealousy and rivalry among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving in an ordinary human way?

Why does St. Paul scold the Corinthians for behaving in “an ordinary human way”? The same thing happened to Peter when he rejected Jesus’ prediction of his passion.  Jesus rebuked him: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” How many times do I hear myself or others say, “Well after all, I’m only human.”

We know we are forgiven for acting “in a human way,” – that is, imperfectly. But didn’t God make us human? So why this impatience with us for being human? And what is this “solid food” St. Paul speaks of?

Even in our “ordinary” human life we’re not expected to remain infants, and parents are deeply distressed if their infant fails to thrive. In fact, we’re encouraged to grow, to “act our age,” that is, responsibly, as an adult. Jesus and Paul are both talking about the same thing: We need to grow.

We have been “infants in Christ” long enough. In this Sunday’s Letter to the Romans, Paul urges us: “Now is the hour for you to awake from sleep.” Now we need to grow out of our spiritual infancy. Now we have the example of Christ to follow. Now we’ve been given truly solid food to eat: Christ’s own Body and Blood.

St. Athanasius (ca 298–373) made this outrageously bold statement: “God became man so that man might become God.” This doctrine is referred to as our “deification” or “divinisation.” Of course this doesn’t mean that we literally become God by nature, as Christ is, but that we are called to participate in God’s holiness by accepting and practicing the teachings of his Son.

 To those who accepted him he gave power to become children of God. (John 1:12)

 This, then, is our solid food: prayer, pondering the Scriptures, love of God’s will, love of others, and rugged introspection. This is what enables us to transcend our “ordinary” human-ness, and to be transformed into the likeness of God himself, just as he made us.

 Now, Advent, is the time to feed our inner infant more solid food. Now is the time for us to grow.

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Litany of Thanks

A fellow parishioner recently told me about one of her prayer practices. It consists of praying for people or gifts, naming one for each letter of the alphabet. This exercise has often saved me from a mood of self-pity. Here’s my partial list:

A – for the Air I breathe.
B – for Bob who’s recovering from hip replacement surgery.
C – for Christ.
D – for the Divine image in which I’m created.
E – for the Everlasting fidelity of God.
F – for my Family and Friends.
G – for Graces received.
. . . and so forth.

Needless to say, we could never exhaust the number of gifts to be thankful for. But how often (if ever) have we thanked God for difficulties?

Here’s something I learned from a nurse caring for my post-surgical husband. On her lap she had a folder full of papers which, as she moved, slid onto the floor and scattered. “Thank you, Lord,” she uttered as she calmly retrieved the papers. She explained that her mother had taught her this practice.

What a revelation! I thought this was definitely worth trying, so the next time I spilled juice on my kitchen floor, I repeated, “Thank you, Lord.”  Normally, I’d have expressed an angry, frustrated “oath.” The thank-you was much more peace-giving.

Here’s a litany of negatives common to every life and which, on the face of it, would hardly appear to be graces:

  • For the nuisance of being stuck on a two-lane road behind a vehicle driving 10 miles below the speed limit. — Thank you, Lord
  • For disappointment over a long-anticipated event that has fallen through. — Thank you, Lord
  • For an illness that gives me the opportunity to practice trust and patience. — Thank you, Lord

Again, I find myself quoting little Thérèse who transformed all events into a grace. I leave it to your imagination to create your own litany. And to all you readers,

I do not cease giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.
(Ephesians 1:16)

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Stranger at the Door

“I was a stranger, and you welcomed Me.” (Matt. 25:35)
“Let all guests . . . be received like Christ.”   (Rule 53 of St. Benedict)

When St. Benedict wrote about hospitality 1500 years ago, it was an especially timely virtue, filling a need unique to that era. As a place inhabited by men or women living a life dedicated to the Gospel, the monastery was viewed as a safe haven for travelers. Nowadays, we have an array of motels on brightly lit highways, plus maps, mobile phones and our trusty GPS. In our day, admitting a total stranger into our home obviously defies prudence!

So how can this rule, first voiced by Christ himself, be applied to the Benedictine Oblate and other laity in the 21st century?

There are two tiers to this virtue: the natural (Good) and the grace-filled or supernatural (Best). outdoor-partyWe practice natural hospitality with our friends and neighbors all the time: inviting them in for a chat, offering them something to drink, and so on. This is a good thing to do.

It’s easy to be warm and mushy with our friends. We love them; they love us. We know them. We’ve probably known them for years. We know what to expect from them: their taste in movies, football teams, politics. Disagreements are handled in a joshing, loving way. Mostly, we agree with them and love them because they’re like us, and by golly, we’re just right about everything!

To understand Christian hospitality as a grace-filled virtue, we have to focus on the key words Jesus uses: stranger and welcome.

This level of Christian hospitality must be interpreted as wholeheartedly accepting those who are not a member of our social circle and who might even be at odds with most of my oh-so-correct thinking. This is the Stranger whom Christ tells me to welcome. He tells me to make myself lovingly present to such Strangers, sharing myself with them out of a desire to be Christ for them, especially when they are ignored or cut off from others, or even  if they adhere to a different set of values. We’re not told that we must agree with them, but merely to be open to them!

Jesus was open, as we see in this Gospel passage where John, newly returned from his first mission, complains to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.” (That is, he’s not one of us!) Jesus answers, “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50)

Jesus cautions us about hosting social events when our motivation is personal gain. (Luke 13:14). A few examples: I give a party because I want to have the favor returned; I want other people to see and admire my home and possessions;  I want to cater to those who can help me get ahead. These are self-centered actions, posing as hospitality.

There are numerous everyday situations where simple welcoming actions go a long way in letting others feel loved. The phone rings. I spot the name of an individual whose typical conversation can be quite dull, needy, or long-winded. I try to remember to connect, listen and respond. The Stranger might be the person new to a social gathering, standing alone with no one to talk to. The space around that person is waiting to be filled — by me and Christ. The most difficult stranger to welcome is the one who (I think) doesn’t love or admire me.

welcome-home-12976716Christianity, after all, is not rocket science. It’s a way of life, a way of being Christ to others; a way to let others see Him in us, which is the only way Christ can be visible in this world.

Treasuring the Ordinary

Scrapbooks may be becoming a thing of the past. Almost everybody can capture a person or event with their smartphone. These digital pictures will no doubt eventually disappear into cyber-space.

What brought me to dust off the many photo albums on my shelves was to honor the memory of my recently deceased step-son. I wanted to collect some printed photos to send to his children, my grandchildren. I still haven’t finished the task; it was too emotional. The good thing was that the experience became nourishing food for thought.

Here’s the thing about scrapbook photos: they’re taken to memorialize significant celebrations – mostly happy – with friends and family. We’re all together: eating, playing croquet or cards, turning cart-wheels, blowing out birthday candles, sporting a diploma.

I mused: what about the ordinary times? Is there anything memorable about people going about their everyday tasks? For that matter, what about this very moment (already gone!) as I’m able to type these words, encouraged by Beethoven in the background? Such a non-event, we might think, is hardly worthy of being captured and framed.  

Well, perhaps we don’t need to take a picture, but the moment is worth capturing within our spirit. For it is of such moments that a life is made.

If we could only become more aware of what each moment contains! If we could only know that the grace of God is packed into every second of our existence, that it’s all important, even what might at first seem dull, unappealing or difficult.

The ability to see with the eyes of the heart is what St. Ignatius called seeing God in all things. This is what Thérèse of Lisieux meant in her discovery that everything is a grace! These saints – and many others – knew what it was to see behind and beyond the commonplace, and to recognize that the commonplace is no less than the extraordinary  and dazzling presence of God. It’s really all we need.

This moment as I write and as you read, is much more than ordinary. It can be one moment out of many that all together bring us to a greater understanding of how God is acting in our life. This now is a little embellishing grace note in the symphony of our lives: precious, fulfilling, and worthy of being created and noticed.

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