Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a time that invites nostalgia.
These thoughts come from a Christmas past, shortly after my return to the Faith.

nativityOne of the blessings of having reached a certain age is the ability to look back at the many twists and turns of one’s life. At this holy season of Christmas and especially on this holy day celebrating Christ’s birth, a number of memories fill my mind.

I see myself in a classroom, dressed as an angel – complete with halo – waiting to be called to sing onstage for the grand finale of the Christmas pageant. I fast forward many years to a time where I am directing my four children in decorating Christmas stockings that I’ve sewn. They each choose a liturgical scene appropriate to the season. Or I’m in the kitchen with trays of cut-out cookies that my children “paint” with colored egg yolk. Or I’m in the living room, fragrant with fresh pine, filled with the happy mess of toys.

But none of these Christmases has had the joy of the feast this year.

Many Christmases were spent in distress, in spiritual and personal trials, while love – true  love that is of God – eluded me. Nothing is so empty as the heart that has lost God.

But God does not want to remain lost. In spite of ourselves, he gently pursues us, woos us, seduces us, and sweetly captures us at last.

This year, I have been tutored in the spiritual joys of the holiday. This year, I have been given a deeper grasp of the marvel of Christmas: the gift of Christ Himself.

Christ who came to teach us what true happiness consists of.
Christ in whom all good things exist in a visible, tangible way.
Christ in whom all things were made, and to whom all things ultimately tend.

Christ. The one Word that speaks all to us.
The one Word that contains all that is good:
love, holiness, mercy, compassion, generosity,
forgiveness, kindness, enlightenment, joy, wisdom,
love again,
and yet more love.

And the greatest marvel of all is that he did not come just once at a moment in history that is forever gone. He comes in an unending presence to fill and transform our spirits and, through us, to fill and transform the world. He will never again be absent from our life. While we await a second coming, he is nevertheless here.

christmas-message

Gallery of Photos taken in the Holy Land.

Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
14-point star, signifying generations of families of the House of David
Revered as the site of Jesus’ birth. 14-point star, signifying generations of families from the House of David
Crypt, Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
Crypt in the Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
“In this place was once St. Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church”

The Word Was Made Flesh

Rejoice!

 

I’ve been struggling to write about the first sentence of John’s Gospel. I started by pointing out how extraordinarily different it is from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about Jesus’ human origins – wonderful, of course. Matthew lists the genealogy so we know that Jesus was indeed descended from King David. Mark recounts the very start of Jesus’ earthly mission as he’s baptized. And of course Luke gives us the most familiar narrative of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.

But John, that Eagle, soars over these “merely” earthy origins, bypassing them to place Jesus in the very center of the Trinity, creating and enlightening the universe before time!

As I was trying to write  this, the academician in me crept out. It went in different directions – all related to Jesus’ amazing beginning – which was not really a beginning because it was outside of time. Because we, on the other hand, are very much creatures of time. I had opened the proverbial can of worms. How does one wrap one’s head around something that is absolutely impossible to experience? All words fail.

Then I realized: no, one Word does not fail.

           In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

I heard that Word repeated in John’s sentence, and I heard it like a bell ringing three times, once for each person in the Trinity!

 Now I knew I was in trouble, because how do we understand the Trinity? A great mind such as Augustine’s tried to comprehend this inscrutable doctrine. And if God, as Trinity, is so impossible to understand, why do we so insist on it, in our Creed, in our Christian faith?

 Then came the answer: through the Word, the very Wisdom of God. Seeing us in this dark place and time, having pity on us, this great and inscrutable God humbled himself to become human. And the Word was made flesh . . .

 As if this were not enough, the Word, now humanized (so to speak), this Word dwelt among us. Lived with us. Felt like us. Learned as we learn. Hurt as we hurt. Enjoyed as we enjoy. Spoke with words of forgiveness, mercy and unconditional love! The Word spoke the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Son was sent, not as royal ambassador, but as a servant to teach us, to meet evil forces head on for us, to know rejection and exclusion, to welcome us and let each of us know how lovable we are. Who else would do this, but an infinitely loving God?

 And again, as if this were not enough, St. Paul tells us (in his letter to the Colossians) that the mystery of God’s love, hidden for ages, is now ready to be revealed, because Jesus Christ has taught it to us. He lives not only with us but in us. The mystery is little by little revealed in us as the indwelling Christ teaches us to love as he, God, loves.

 Though John tells us the brutally sad truth that his own did not accept him, he does not leave us without hope.

To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

How lovely that we truly have reason to rejoice on this Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday! Let this be our joyful and continuing Advent prayer:   Thanks be to God for the Incarnate Word.
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Click on the arrow below to hear Fauré’s choral work, Cantique – To the Word Incarnate

 

I Am the Light of the World

the-light-of-the-world

It’s Advent, and as I write this a few days before the second Sunday, I rejoice to see a pewter sky. Yes, I know most of us prefer a convincing blue that lets us feel that all’s right with the world. But in Advent it’s different. Advent is the season of hope. Overcast, no; pewter, yes.

I am drawn to ponder the readings from this weekday Mass, and other passages from Old and New testaments, dealing with light and blindness.

Out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. (Isaiah 29:18)

Is Isaiah saying that  that even  the blind will be able to see in our dark world, such is the radiance of the Messiah?  If only we could remember from within our gloom that . . .

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Jesus invites us into his light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

The greater the troubles, the more dazzling the rescue. Advent’s hope seems especially apt for the world’s problems these days – which are certainly no worse than what humanity has been facing for eons. Advent reminds us that Christ’s teachings are his the life-giving light that offers us our only true peace.

In the Gospel, two blind men come to Jesus to be cured. “Do you believe that I can do this?” he asks. So which is it that will heal us: the strength of our faith, or the power of Christ ?

It  it is neither by the one nor the other, but by our working in cooperation with the graces Christ offers.

Patience. Faith. Trust. These are the virtues, the qualities of soul  available to us during this season. Advent ushers in true Joy as we long for Christ to visit and remain in our darkened world.  He wants to cure our blindness and fill every event of our life with the brilliance of his Light.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? . . .
Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord. (Ps. 27:1, 14)

 

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.

advent

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)

cornucopia
Happy Thanksgiving!