The Light of Christmas

It’s the middle of another December and the darkness of the winter season is all around us.  The oak leaves are brown and crunchy underfoot on the cold ground.  Frost has burnt the leaves of the rose bush.  The nights are long and the blue-white stars shine with a steely cold light.  And yet we know that after the depths of winter, spring will come again.  At the root of that empty oak tree is the spark of life that will force the green leaves in just a few months.  Inside the frost-bitten bush is the sleeping rose bud that will awaken in the warmth of spring.  Memory consoles us in winter with the hope of new life.  We remember summer’s warmth of long days and soft nights; the abundance of our sun-kissed gardens and the green lushness of field and valley.  Even in winter’s darkness, we carry in our hearts the light of summer.

 

God formed our remembering hearts to seek Him and to long for the light of His love.  He knows how very much we need Him and yearn for the Truth which only He can give us.  And so He chose to come to us in the darkest days of winter, when His light would shine the brightest and when the consolation of His coming would be most welcome.  Heaven came  to earth in the Blessed Virgin’s holy womb; her sacred “yes” inviting the Infinite to make His home among us.  But this King of all Kings didn’t come to rule, but to serve.  He doesn’t demand homage, but seeks to be in a relationship with each one of us.  The great “I AM” comes to us as a shivering baby in a backwater manger.  That very night, the winter skies were filled with angels and the light of heaven used a star to shine forth the way to Him. The light of that singular star is reflected today in every twinkling bulb on our Christmas trees, and in every candle flickering on our altar.  The sanctuary lamp burns brightly near the Tabernacle of every Catholic church in the world and proclaims that Christ is here!  Just as He was in the manger, or the Upper Room, or on the Cross, or arising from the tomb.  The uncreated Light that rolled away the stone and banished darkness forever, that made the earth and hung the moon in place, that raised Lazarus from the dead and cured the sick and walked on the water—that same Light comes to us at every Mass.  And the angels that dance around His heavenly throne, and who heralded His birth to the shepherds, kneel with us around the altar in loving adoration.

 

And so in these darkest days of winter, again He comes to us.  In the darkness of our lost and sinful world, again He comes to us.  In the sinful, secret corners of our guilty hearts, He comes to us.  “The Light of the world” (John 8:12) comes to love us, to know us, and to save us.  He comes to bring us to Himself in all-embracing Light.  He comes to heal our broken souls and bind up all our wounds.  In the winter darkness of our sins and failings, our addictions and our weakness, when we can see nothing before us but cold, barren ground and the loneliness of doubt, He comes to bring us new life and hope.  Christ, our Light, conquers darkness forevermore.  Come, Lord Jesus!

From the Manger to the Cross

We love the manger scene at Christmas, don’t we?  Ever since St. Francis of Assisi made the first one in 1223, Christians of all sorts have loved seeing the tender scene of the stable at Bethlehem.  Tiny Nativity sets on our coffee tables.  Carved wooden family heirlooms under our Christmas trees.  Large realistic statuary in front of the altar of our church.  We love the sight of all the animals gathered into the stable around the manger.  We see the shepherds there, running in from their flocks to worship the newborn baby.  The angels who proclaimed His birth hover nearby, trumpets in hand, trailing banners that read, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” The sweet old man leaning on his staff must be St. Joseph.  A misreading of Scripture sometimes places the three wise men in the Nativity scene too, though it was probably at least a couple of years later that they made their appearance.  Every manger scene features the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down lovingly at her newborn son.  Even the most spartan Christian denominations trot out a Nativity scene at Christmas.  No one could object to these warm and fuzzy images.  And then, there’s the baby—tiny and perfect and cooing up at His mother and foster father.  Just looking at Him gives us a warm glow, a feeling that all is right with the world once more.  We look at this idyllic scene and smile.

 

And yet to view His birth as only a kind of Disney cartoon filled with little lambs and singing cherubs is at least a misunderstanding and maybe even a heresy.  This is not just the miracle of another birth to another poor couple in desperate circumstances.  This is the Creator God Whose birth is cleaving creation in two.  By being born as a baby, He is dividing time itself.  We measure time as either before or after the Incarnation.  This cooing infant has all the power and knowledge of the great “I AM” in Him from the moment of His conception.  Fully human and fully divine, this newborn is the Word made flesh.  Look closely at Him and you’ll see much more than just a babe in swaddling clothes.

 

Nestled in His mother’s lap in the stable, does He also imagine the last time she’ll hold Him, as He is taken down from the Cross?  Looking around Him there in the manger, does He notice the donkey patiently chewing some hay nearby and does he see that other one that He’ll ride into Jerusalem for that last Passover?  Does His borrowed stable remind Him of the borrowed tomb yet-to-be?  Does He wonder why so many want to see Him in the crib, but so few will want to walk with Him to Golgotha?  Crowds come to pray at His birth, but He knows that in Gethsemane, He’ll pray alone.  The stable filled with love and homage will one day be a lonely hill, rocky and barren and full of suffering.  Does the baby know this?  Surely.  And yet He chooses to come to us anyway.  He comes to be one of us so that we can know how to be more like Him.  He comes because He knows we have nowhere else to go and no one else who can save us.  He comes because it is His Father’s will and He and the Father are One. He comes out of love because He IS Love. The baby in the manger is already sacrificing Himself for you and for me.  The star shining so brightly overhead throws a shadow on His face, the shadow of a Cross.  We can never truly know the joy of that Bethlehem night unless we also embrace with Him that long afternoon on Good Friday.  Our beloved manger scenes at Christmas hold the promise of Easter morning within them, if we only choose to make the journey with our Savior.  It begins here in Bethlehem as we kneel by the baby.  Mary’s little lamb is already the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

Advent is the Waiting Time

“Well,” said Pooh,”what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”

—A.A. Milne

I would have told Pooh that these weeks before Christmas were like that moment before you taste the honey. When I was a child, this was a magic time. There was a flurry of preparation that seemed to transform everyday chores into something special. Everyone was busy with shopping and decorating and school activities. There was an energy that felt electric underlying everything we did. It was happy and fun and full of the anticipation of Christmas. Not being a Catholic family, we didn’t call these weeks “Advent,” but that’s what we were feeling—as if we were holding our breath for the great gift of Christmas. Like Winnie the Pooh, those moments before the big day were as sweet as honey.

These days, in my advancing middle years, Advent is so much more than my childish anticipation of Christmas day. I treasure more dearly the reality and the mystery of the Holy Child born to save us. The sense of sweet anticipation is stronger than ever for me. There’s still so much to be done, but now my “doing” involves more prayer and service and less shopping and decorating. The time spent with loved ones is so much more precious, since many are no longer here with us. And, it seems this Advent is calling us beyond the limits of our community and into the world beyond our borders.  

It’s as if the world itself is anticipating something, too. We’re waiting for the next news report, mostly with dread. Will more innocent blood be spilled? We’re holding our collective breath, hoping and praying for peace, while we’re still in mourning for the latest victims. And into our broken and hurting world, our Savior will once again be born to bring us hope. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great Light”(Isaiah 9:2). Are there any more beautiful words in all of Sacred Scripture?  

You see sometimes I think we forget that the Light has always come into a world darkened by sin. It’s our faith that allows us to bear that Light to others. We step out beyond our fears and see the needs of our neighbors, illuminated for us by the light of Christ. That light allows us to love the unloveable and to forgive the unforgivable. Whenever it seems the darkness is winning, the Star reminds us that there is more to this life than struggle and heartache, than war and loss and fear. Christ comes to bring us a way out of all that binds us to sin. In Him, we find our purpose and the answer to all our questions. In a world torn by terror and war, His Light shows us the way.

He first came into a land of occupation and repression, filled with poverty, torn by war. And He’ll come again into our own world, so much the same as that first time. He didn’t wait until everything was perfect and everyone got along before He was born. He came into our mess, into our sin and anguish. And just like Him, we can’t wait until someone else fixes everything before we love and comfort and heal the wounded among us. We have to be like Jesus and love now, today, this person, this family, this brother and sister right in front of us. The real anticipation we feel in the weeks leading up to Christmas isn’t about the presents we’ll receive but in the joy of giving ourselves away. Advent calls us to love as Jesus loves, and catch the world unawares.

“We cannot wait til the world is sane,

To raise our songs with joyful voice,

For to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

        —-Madeline L’Engle 

Thanksgiving = Forgiveness

Thanksgiving is my favorite secular holiday.  It doesn’t involve much overdone commercialism and it’s free from all the consumer-driven anxiety of Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a day to remember and be thankful to God for all the graces and blessings in our lives.  We gather together with family and friends and share a meal.  Many of us may go to Church as well.  We’ll come together before the altar of God and offer our thanks to Him for the precious gift of our salvation:  His Son, Jesus Christ.  And we’ll ask God to forgive us for our sins.  We do this at the beginning of every Mass because there is such a strong connection between forgiveness and thanksgiving.  We can’t approach the thankfulness of Holy Communion until we’ve approached the Lord for mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession.  This is God’s plan for us.  And so, during this Thanksgiving time as we prepare the pies and the turkey to share with the people we love, let’s also prepare our hearts by forgiving those in our lives who have wronged us. 

 

Forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation.  Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to the Father.  Nothing we have ever done is so heinous that God’s mercy is denied us.  What a wonderful thing to know!  This alone is more than enough to fill our “things I am thankful for” list a thousand times over.  Our salvation journey starts when we acknowledge our sinfulness before God and beg His forgiveness.  But we grow in our faith when we extend that forgiveness to the people in our lives.  This is so important that Jesus included it in the perfect prayer He shared with His friends:  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”(Luke 11:4).  As we receive God’s mercy we’re called to extend it to other people.  We must be conduits of forgiveness.  But we also know how difficult it can be to forgive someone, don’t we?  Everyone reading this has been hurt by someone and found forgiving them hard, or even impossible to do.  We’ve held onto the pain they caused us and maybe we’ve let it simmer like a poison inside us for months, or even years.  In fact, the root meaning of the word “grudge” is “to murmur”—isn’t that what unforgiven hurts do in our hearts?  They murmur and echo in the small dark closet in our soul where we harbor our secret pains.  And it saps the joy out of what God means for us to have.  We need to forgive to fully live our redeemed lives.

 

So, suck it up and forgive somebody.  Especially this week.  How can we gather in thankfulness if we have those murmuring hurts and angers?  Christ says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”(Mark 11:26).  That’s how important it is for us to let go–we have to forgive so that God can forgive us.  In fact, God has only one solution to the problem of our sin and that is forgiveness.  “To forgive” means “to be gracious.”  We are called to give grace to one another as God has given His grace to us.  But what if that other person has been so mean, so hurtful, so awful that you just don’t believe they deserve to be forgiven?  Newsflash:  none us should hope to get what we really deserve.  Mercy is NOT getting what you and I deserve for our sins (i.e. punishment) and grace is getting what we DON”T deserve (i.e. mercy).  As Christians we live in the sweet grace of knowing that we NEVER get what we deserve, thanks be to God!  None of us deserves forgiveness so it’s mercy when we extend that to someone who has hurt us.  Forgiveness isn’t about fairness, it’s about grace.  And here’s something else to consider:  forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision.  If you wait until you feel like doing it, you never will.  God doesn’t tell us to forgive them if we feel like it.  We read in Hebrews how God forgives:  “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more”(10:17).  God chooses not to remember our sins.  We should imitate Him.  We make the choice to forgive and then we pray for God to help us live out that decision. 

 

As you gather to share Thanksgiving, remember to give thanks for God’s great love and mercy in your life.  In the end, what we have in this life is each other.  The Lord has forgiven your sins and offered you eternal life in Jesus Christ.  At the center of that love and grace is the Cross.  This Thanksgiving, lay the burden of your un-forgiveness at the foot of that Cross.  And be thankful.

 

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace.”

                                                                                —Ephesians 1:7

Angels

This is the time of the year when the angels come out. They come out of storage boxes and craft tubs and ornament bins. And if you need more, they’re on sale everywhere you look. It’s the season of angels because angels are so closely associated with Christmas. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation and told her of God’s plan for the birth of our Savior. Another angel visited St. Joseph in a dream to reassure him about Mary’s pregnancy and their upcoming marriage. And of course on the night of Jesus’ birth, the skies were filled with angels who sang and celebrated the coming of Emmanuel and told the shepherds of the newborn in the manger. It’s no wonder that when we think of Christmas, we think of angels.

But how accurate is our imagination? Are angels really those sweet, blonde-haired frilly-dressed young women with feathery wings that we set on our mantels or place on our Christmas trees? Uh. No. Angels are pure spirit and have no physical bodies. They are neither male nor female. They aren’t like us. Most of our ideas of angels come from religious art over the centuries. Because they’re so different from us, artists have had to use familiar ideas and themes to depict angels. How do you paint a pure spirit? The word “angel” means “messenger” and in Scripture angels deliver messages to us from God. So artists have shown them with wings. Often, angels would tell folks to not be afraid of them. This is understandable if an other-worldly being suddenly appears in front of you saying that they have a message for you from God Almighty. So artists have often “tamed” angels to be more human in size and dress. They were often depicted as glowing heavenly light and having haloes. It was the Victorian era that really sapped the power out of angels, giving us the soft, feminized angels we see in modern culture. Too bad for us, because angels are so much more than that.

Catholics believe that each one of us has a guardian angel who was given to us by God before we were born. They remain at our sides throughout our lives and accompany us at the time of our death. They’re with us for protection and for guidance, but we have to ask them to help us. Like God, the angels respect our free will and they won’t force themselves on us if we don’t invite them. Each angel is a unique individual with great intelligence and free will of their own. Angels are immortal and powerful beyond our imagining. We don’t worship the angels or see them as some kind of “junior” God. We ask them to help and protect us and our loved ones, just like we ask the saints in heaven for their prayers and protection. Every angel has a name, but most are known only to God, Who created them. We know only about four by name: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and…wait for it…Lucifer. Yep, remember that the devil is an angel who rejected God. He took a lot of other angels with him when God expelled them from heaven. Lucifer uses his free will to do evil. And he’s out to get us, if we allow him. But God is more powerful than all the agents of darkness. Nevertheless, remember that not all angels are good.

Our guardian angel is another layer of the armor of God, which He gives us to make our way in this fallen world. They were made by Jesus and through Jesus to help us to get to heaven, to resist the lure of this world and the dangers of hell. They are our fellow members of Christ’s Mystical Body, which is His Church. They worship God around His altar in heaven and visit our altars as we celebrate the Holy Mass on earth. At this very moment, the angels are dancing around God’s throne in heaven. They love God completely. Why would anyone NOT want to include their guardian angel in their daily prayers and devotions? As for me, I don’t imagine my angel as a frilly Victorian lady with blonde curls. I’m pretty sure mine is more like a Navy SEAL, in full combat gear, locked and loaded for battle. Thanks be to God!


“Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here: ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen”
—Traditional Catholic prayer

A Mother’s Love

’ll never forget the day she died.  And me, two days after when I thought I might be able to bear it, standing alone at the raw wound of her fresh grave, wondering how I might go on.  My heart felt as cold as the bitter November wind that plowed through the cemetery.  Mother.  Gone.  She’d suffered twice with cancer and then a series of strokes that had left her unable to think clearly or speak more than a few disjointed words.  In the end, she’d died at home with her husband and children at her bedside—the way she’d wanted.  But what now?, I thought.  This force of nature and my best friend–silent and gone.  Today, within a few weeks of the seventeenth anniversary of her passing, not a day goes by that some memory of her doesn’t burst into my heart.  In that way, she’s still very much with me.  A mother’s love isn’t stopped by death or the passing of years.  Love endures. Love triumphs.

 

The relationship between mother and child is at the core of our earthly lives.  It’s so foundational and so important that God planned for every human person to come into the world through a mother.  No other human relationship is as laden with meaning and implication as that between a child and their mother.  It’s this way with God’s mother, as well.  The Blessed Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of the Word, Jesus, the Incarnation of God.  Some Christians may chafe at the title of Mother of God as if being His mother made her to exist before God somehow or makes Mary to be the equal of God.  Neither of these is true, of course.  God could have saved us without being born as a man,without need of a mother at all.  Yet that was His plan.  And when we look at God’s plan for our salvation, we can come to know more about His heart.  And having a mother meant so much to God that He put her at the center of the greatest love story ever known.

 

St. Paul writes so beautifully of a doctrine called “the Mystical Body of Christ”(Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 4:15).  Through Paul, we understand that Christ is the Head of this Body, which is the Church.  Head and Body, then make up the Mystical Body of Christ.  The Body is one and cannot be divided.  The various parts survive in relationship to one another.  Mary gave birth to the Head of the Body, Who is Jesus.  She didn’t give birth to a theory or an idea but to a baby.  If we believe Scripture, we believe that through Mary, salvation came into the world.  Her total cooperation with God and conformity to His will is the perfect model for all Christians.  Her final words recorded in Scripture are a five-word summary of the Christian life:  “Do whatever He tell you”(John 2:5).  Just as Mary nurtured, fed, guided, and protected Jesus, she does the same for us as our mother (John 19:26-27).  This isn’t some new belief but one present since the earliest Church.  Indeed, St. Paul’s doctrine illuminates the unity of Christ’s Mystical Body and the maternal relationship between Mary and the Church. Simply put, if God willed and allowed for Himself to be born of her and chose her as His mother, shouldn’t we choose her for ourselves?  God put His complete trust in Mary.  That’s good enough for me.

 

Just as in a human family, a mother is not optional, Mary’s role as mother of the Mystical Body of Christ isn’t optional.  She is at the heart of God’s plan for our salvation.  He created her with Himself in mind.  He formed her sinless in her mother’s womb as the perfect vessel to bear the Word.  He made her as the model of mothers.  And for us, her children, when we neglect our relationship with her, we miss out on the fountainhead of grace which fills her, as the angel revealed (Luke 1:28). Just as the child Jesus ran to her for help and comfort, it pleases God when we do the same thing.  This isn’t “just another Catholic doctrine.” This is God’s love for us, revealed in Holy Scripture and in the practice and teachings of His Church since the very earliest years of the Apostles.  Mary always leads us to her Son.  From the stable in Bethlehem to the foot of the Cross, her eyes were ever fixed on Christ.  A mother’s love for her children is never lost.  We may be separated for a while from our earthly mothers, but we’ll be reunited again.  Mary’s love for us is as fierce and immediate as it is for her Son.  Through Christ, the Virgin reaches out to us to draw us ever closer to the heart of God.  I don’t know about you, but I can never have too much of a mother’s love.

 

“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable disappeared from my life.  There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security.  It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”    

                                                                                   —C.S. Lewis

 

(In loving memory of my mother, known to all as “Scooter,” (1924-2002)

Halloween

All Hallows Eve.  That’s where we get the word “halloween.”  The day after Halloween  is the feast of All Saints when we remember and celebrate all those who are in heaven.  It’s a holy day in the Catholic Church when all Catholics attend Mass and honor the saints who are models of Christian virtue and perseverance.  So how did the eve or vigil of All Saints Day become associated with goblins and ghouls?  The simple answer is that if you believe in God and Holy Scripture, then you also believe in the reality of evil in the world.  The devil and his army of demons contest for our souls as the “principalities and powers” described by St. Paul (Ephesians 6:11).  But today a lot of people don’t believe in the devil anymore.  Evil has become just one more outdated idea like the flat earth.  In America, the Puritans made it illegal to celebrate Halloween, mostly out of their anti-Catholic prejudices.  Anything associated with Catholic belief or practice, like the holy days of worship, was outlawed.  The popular customs we associate with Halloween, like carving vegetables and lighting them inside with candles and celebrating the night before All Saints Day are largely Irish Catholic traditions brought to this country with the immigrants.

 

With diminishing cultural beliefs in the reality of evil and the suppression of Catholic beliefs and practices, Halloween had all but disappeared in America until 1923 when a novelty company in Framingham, Massachusetts began to market costume kits and instructions on pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating that quickly became popular.  Over the following decades, Halloween became a secular holiday that most families embraced.  Unfortunately the rich, instructive faith history of the holiday has been ignored, forgotten and even rejected outright.  If we relegate goblins and demons to the real of mere superstition or harmless diversion, we empower evil.  Satan’s influence in the world grows greater whenever he can convince someone that he doesn’t exist.  We are still engaged in the battle against him, but instead of calling him by name, we attribute evil to social causes like a bad childhood or poor interpersonal skills.  And so we don’t confront evil with the truth of Christ crucified anymore.  This truth is at the heart of what we celebrate on All Saints Day.

 

My Catholic faith teaches that evil is rejecting God.  It is a real force that can have very real and eternal consequences for those who choose to turn away from the Lord.  Just as heaven is a real place, hell is also real.  Both are everlasting.  We choose hell over heaven when we reject God’s love for us.  Saints are people whose hearts are filled with God’s love and grace and who consistently chose God’s truth over the lies of the evil one.  They lived in the joy of the Lord, not in the anxiety and fearfulness which Satan wants for all of us.  While we believe in the reality of demons and fallen angels, we don’t fear them because we live in the power of the risen Christ.  Some Christian parents are hesitant to allow their children to dress as witches or devils when they trick-or-treat.  Certainly this is a decision each family must make for themselves.  But Halloween is a great time for parents to answer their children’s questions about goblins and devils and to reassure them that God’s love is more powerful than anything “spooky.”  Jesus is our Light and when we follow Him, the darkness of the world is dispelled.  God hears their prayers and never lets any of His children walk without His loving protection.

 

So set out your jack-o-lanterns and thank the Irish Catholic immigrants whose traditions we imitate.  Enjoy the evening with your children and be generous with all the little tricksters who come to your door.  Most of all, remember that the next day’s  light brings with it a holy day of prayer and thanksgiving in remembrance of the servants of God who have shown us the way to heaven.  These saints are our brothers and sisters in faith and their lives are examples to us of how to love and serve God with humility and joy.  These darkening autumn days hold within them the bright light of All Saints Day and the greater, uncreated light of Christ, our Savior.

 

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.

Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil.

May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do Thou,

O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God,

Thrust into hell Satan and all the spirits

Who prowl the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Amen.

                —-Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel

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