Carrying Your Cross

We all have one. Mine is different than yours. Most of us have more than one. Some are bigger than others. Some are tiny, but very very painful. Some are so huge they seem impossible to bear. Some are obvious, but many are hidden from view. What are they? They’re our hurts and pains, our sufferings, and our burdens. They’re the wounds we all carry each day. Some are physical like an illness or injurty. Others are addictions or compulsions. Still others are the emotional pains of mental illness or the damage done by an abusive relationship. Many times we’ve caused the pain ourselves. Fear, anger, bitterness, jealousy—a broken heart. These are our crosses. Jesus carried a heavy wooden cross to Golgotha. He told us if we want to be His disciples, we have to deny ourselves, pick up our own crosses, and follow Him (Luke 9:23).

Catholics aren’t afraid of the Cross of Christ. Every Catholic church in the world has a crucifix displayed prominently near the altar. My own church has a lifesize crucifix behind the altar. The large wooden cross with the dying Christ nailed to it dominates our sanctuary space. It’s not merely an ornament or decoration. Neither does it reflect a morbid fascination with death or physical pain. The Cross of Christ is Love. Our crucifix is a constant and holy reminder to us of Jesus’ great love for us. Carried in His arms and across His flayed and bleeding back, the Cross became salvation for the world. His invitation to us is to embrace our sufferings and to unite our pain with His. This is love embracing Love. “When the Cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with Him in offering the greatest proof of love,” wrote St. John Paul II. There’s no greater proof of God’s love for us than Jesus’ own suffering and death for our sake.

Everyday life for each of us is full of crosses we can carry behind our Lord. You know what yours are just as I know my own. We carry them in union with Jesus, as He leads the way for us. He is our model. He invites us to follow His example, to share in His life and in His choices—to stake our life for the love of God and neighbor. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Colossians “who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting in the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (1:24). Any of our sufferings can be prayerfully united with Christ’s own Passion and Death. This is redemptive suffering, or what Catholics mean when they say, “I’m offering it up.” What we are offering up is to share in Jesus’ suffering out of thanksgiving and love for Him. This unity is part of our personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Eucharist which lies at the heart of our Catholic faith. He is our first Love. We claim a share of His Life in all His fullness of divinity and humanity. As much as our Love calls us to meet Him in the manger at Bethlehem, we’re also drawn to meet Him at Calvary and later, at the empty tomb, or the road to Emmaus. Being Catholic means walking with Christ every day, faithfully assured that He opens up for us His way of life and abundant love. Suffering is necessarily a part of that faith journey for us, just as it was for Him. Yet no one knows more about my crosses, my pains, my sins than Jesus Christ. When I see a crucifix, I see Love’s arms open wide, embracing all my pain, forgiving all my sin. My crosses seem so small in comparison.

“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss us and He can show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His Passion.” —St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)

Our True Country

The beginning of every year is a time of hope. Hope looks forward, to the future and to our true home in heaven, living in the presence of Christ, Who never changes and Who never fails us. These days we seem divided and adrift as a country. But we needn’t be if we live in hope. And, if we chose to see it, hope springs up all around us. The empty tomb is lived out in the simple choices that each one of us makes every day. Seeing these choices for what they reveal about our hearts is one of the joys of the Christian life.

We see hope when a teacher takes the time to comfort a crying child whose home life is hunger, loneliness, and harsh words. We see hope when a young man in prison receives a letter filled with kind words and encouragement, tucked inside a new Bible. We see hope when a young mother, despite pressure from her boyfriend, decides to keep her unborn child. We see hope when a man who has been away from the Church for decades is welcomed and consoled in the confessional by a kind and patient priest. Oh yes. Hope is surely here, if we see it.

“Hope is the life of the soul,” writes Dr. Peter Kreeft. Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or a merely optimistic outlook on life. Real hope, Christian hope, is the solid conviction that God has a plan for my life. Hope is knowing that He is in charge of everything and that He will see me through every trial—even the trial of my death.

Hope is the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and life everlasting. Hope gives us strength to trust in God and not in ourselves. “Our God is thus a God of promises. And He keeps every one to the letter,” says Dr. Kreeft. We see that hope when an elderly couple, homebound and frail, share a meal and hospitality with the family that lives next door. We see hope when a businessman spends his Saturdays working with homeless men, helping them to fill out job applications and develop interview skills. We see hope when a parish welcomes two refugee families and provides them with housing and settlement support. We see hope when a husband and wife choose to adopt a child.

Hope connects us with one another and helps us to realize that we are all on this earthly journey together. “Hope builds bridges between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven,” writes Dr. Kreeft. Hope asks of us to care for the needy among us, to reach out beyond our prejudices and to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. Hope gives us the courage to leave our fears in God’s hands.

Hope calls us forth to love. We see hope when a teenaged girl is rescued from sex-trafficking by a group of dedicated nuns. We see hope when a small boy witnesses his mother love and care for his dying father in their home, day after day, for months on end. We see hope when a brother and a sister reconcile with one another after years of resentment over a now-forgotten slight. We see hope in the life of a woman battling breast cancer, who faces each day with courage and joy, inspiring those around her to do the same.  

We show hope to others when we live a life of gratitude, no matter our circumstances. Because we know that our God is always in charge, caring for us and drawing us to Himself. We know that today and tomorrow and all eternity are in His loving grasp. Hope is not an abstraction or a concept. Hope isn’t an intellectual exercise or a naive belief in some make-believe Candyland of our own design.

Hope is as real as the nails in His sacred hands, as solid as the rock rolled away from His grave, as everlasting as God Himself. Hope isn’t some “thing”—as Pope Francis recently told the people of Mexico: “You have asked me for a word of hope–what I have to offer you has a name–Jesus Christ.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to the other country and to help others do the same.”

—-C.S. Lewis

How To Have A Bad Day

It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. I got up late and the more I hurried, the less I seemed to get done. Traffic was awful with every stoplight turning red just as I approached it. Trains even timed their journeys to cross my path, too. I dropped things, forgot stuff and wasted time looking for keys and paperwork and schedules. By lunchtime, I was exhausted. I thought I could see the end of the rope that people always talk about. Just then I looked down to see that the “check engine” light on my dashboard was glowing brightly. I broke down and cried. I thought, “Lord, what have I done?” Surely I must had done something bad to be having so many trials in just one day. It seemed as if I was being punished and I wanted to know my offense. My answer came pretty quickly. I had planned my day carefully and had made a lot of assumptions about how it needed to unfold. I had my timetable ready to go. The more I sat there in my funk, the more I realized that my plans hadn’t included God.

I hadn’t started my day with gratitude. In a hurry, I’d skipped those precious waking moments spent lifting my heart to The Lord and giving Him thanks for the precious gift of another day. I was too busy thinking of all I needed to get done and adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t take the time to remember the Author of my life. After all, God has given me all that I have, including the work I was absorbed with just then. Without Him, what is there? Yet on that misbegotten day of problems and tangles and frustrations, I’d been trying to do it all myself. I hadn’t included God in my plans. Also, I was living in the future and not in the now. Gratitude is being thankful for the moment, not living in the “what’s next.”

And that’s why the day was such a mess. I hadn’t turned to Him, given thanks and offered all my works and sufferings of the day for His good use. I hadn’t asked Jesus what His plans were for my day. The Savior I daily claim to follow might just as well have been a forgotten bit of pocket lint. That may sound harsh, but any Christian whose life isn’t founded on, centered in, and consumed by Jesus Christ is just plain lost. St. Paul tells us that “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). Things were definitely NOT holding together for me that day because of my own pridefulness. It’s a lesson I have to learn fairly frequently.

Some people teach a kind of Christianity that says God will give you earthly riches if you are following Him “in the right way.” I don’t remember reading that anywhere in the Bible. I believe that suffering is a part of living in this world and that being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re magically protected from hard times. Remember that 11 of the 12 Apostles were martyred for their faith. Most of the saints suffered all sorts of difficulties in their lives and they claimed their suffering as joy because it united them to His Cross. Their lives make my silly little frustrations disappear.

So at the end of my tiresome, trying day, I heard Him call to me. “Let me into your day, Judy. Share your plans and fears and frustrations with me. Let me carry the burdens in your heart and when you’re tired, I’ll carry you, too. Don’t try to do it all yourself. I love you. Let’s walk this road together.” He quietens my restless heart and gives me peace in the midst of my troubles. He restores my soul. Problems and heartaches don’t disappear if you follow Jesus—but they take on eternal meaning and joy. I pray that He’ll keep reminding me of that and that His grace will conform my will to His own, in thanksgiving and gratitude.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

—-G. K. Chesterton

A Different Kind Of Christmas

The little blue house at the end of the street looks different this winter. She has always kept a tidy home and garden, with windows washed, porches swept, and shrubs well-trimmed. The neat little cottage never lacked for maintenance or paint, the window boxes always had bright flowers, and when an errant leaf fell on the lawn, it was promptly removed. But not this year. The fall leaves are piled in windswept heaps underneath unkempt boxwoods. Frost-killed begonias are still in their pots on the porch. The whole house has a neglected, forgotten look about it. She’d always loved decorating for Christmas. Strands of sparkly white fairy lights were her favorite and she would drape them around every window and door frame. Candles would light each window and a huge evergreen wreath bedecked the front door. But this December there had been no Christmas lights or welcoming wreath. This year, Christmas came and went with the little blue house giving it no notice. Its blank windows stared out at the street, unblinking, not giving away any clue as to what’s happening inside.  

And inside the little blue house at the end of the street something incredible is happening. Something so amazing and completely other-worldly is happening there that every newspaper and television station on earth should be crowded into the quiet street out front, clambering for interviews and updates. Instead, only a few family members, a nurse, and a priest are there to bear witness. They come each day and gather around her bedside. Some bring food. Others, medicine. When the priest comes, the others meet him at the front door with a lighted candle (a Christmas candle?) and walk silently with him to her room. There they find a small table covered with a white cloth near her bedside. On it is a crucifix, two candles, a bottle of holy water and a few other items. The visitors kneel in reverence, not to the priest, but to the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, which he has brought with him. They join in prayer. She is anointed with oil and receives Holy Communion.  

As she had lived her life in the faith of Jesus Christ, she is meeting her death in that same steadfast love. Her family, in their charity, has made certain that her wishes are being followed. Her pastor was notified of her physical condition so that he could come to offer her the Sacraments of the Church she loved. Her family was prepared for his visits and had assembled everything the priest would need on the table in her room. Doing this is an act of charity and mercy for the woman they love and who is preparing to meet her Lord. 

And that meeting, whether later today or sometime in the days to come, is indeed a miracle. If you’re ever blessed to witness this sacred journey with someone you love, be truly grateful. We should never forget that the holy death of a faithful Christian is a triumph and not a tragedy. Yes, we cry for the loss of our loved one, but we also rejoice in the hope of our salvation in Christ, Who is victorious over death. When we kneel there, at the bedside of our loved one, we witness “as through a glass darkly”(I Corinthians 13:12) the unbearable beauty of the presence of God. Inside that little blue house at the end of the street is Bethlehem and Bethany, Calvary and Easter morning. Angels crowd the rooms, their holy wings brushing against the walls, infusing the house with the incense of heaven. So much grace that a mere earthly life can no longer contain it. And so, she flies free. And home. 

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His faithful servants.”

—-Psalm 116:15

A Better New Year

No one’s going to save us, but us. The sooner that more of us understand this, the sooner we can begin to turn things around. We’ve got to realize that no government or president or king or pope can make it all okay for us. We can’t legislate our way out of all the problems we see around us. No presidential executive order is going to keep us from killing one another. Our Church leaders preach peace and love and mercy, but they can’t do it for us. We have to be the makers of peace and love and mercy. Us. No one else.  

In the face of cultural chaos, some of us stockpile food and weapons. We expect some kind of holocaust and we want to be prepared for it when it comes. Others see our problems and place the blame for them on anyone who is not like them: the immigrant, the corporate giant, the minority or the majority, anyone who is different is seen as a threat. Some of us join gangs. Some of us join militia groups. Some of us drop out of society: we don’t vote, don’t go to church, don’t know our neighbors, don’t invest in anything outside our own immediate families. But most of us are somewhere in the middle. We obey the law, we work hard, we love our children—and when we look at the world we live in, we no longer recognize it.  

The values and shared beliefs that were once the fabric of the country of our childhood seem to be gone. Family life is in shreds with absent fathers, broken homes, and widespread poverty. Our children face an economic future more tenuous and difficult than we can imagine. The rule of law seems to have eroded at every level of society. We fear the policemen that we used to run to for help. Our country, founded by immigrants, now looks for ways to lock our doors to keep immigrants out. Both in our country and in our neighborhoods, we’re battening down the hatches and pulling up the drawbridges. The fabric of our culture is unraveling, thread by thread—and we’re the ones with the scissors.  

As a Catholic, my faith in Christ sustains me and gives me hope. But sustenance and hope are just the beginning of the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t call us to be sustained and hopeful in our bunkers. He calls us to follow Him. Our faith has to be lived out in the world and not just in our prayer rooms or it’s meaningless words. If we don’t transform our culture with the living faith of Christ, how can we call ourselves Christians? He went into the temple, into the streets, and into homes to engage people. He fed and healed, He touched the lepers and comforted the sorrowful. The faith He shares with us is a living, breathing faith and not an intellectual exercise or a social commentary. He went to where the hurting people were and gave them love and mercy. And that’s what we have to do, too.  

Christ didn’t die on the Cross and rise on Easter morning to save our civilization. He died and rose again to save our souls. Saving civilization is up to each one of us. We’re the salt and the light—or we’re supposed to be. We’re the ones called to share our cloaks, to walk the extra mile, to feed the hungry, and visit the sick and imprisoned. We have to throw open the doors of our hearts to the hurting and the marginalized. The mercy that God offers us has to be shared with others. It can’t be a gift that we receive but don’t pass on.  

A friend of mine shared this Andy Stanley quote with me today: “We who are Christians are very good at making a point, but not making a difference.” It’s time we put our faith in action. That’s our purpose: to serve Christ by being Christ to others. This is how our culture can be brought back from the wilderness we’re now in. We have to live our lives for the One Who ransomed them from death, knowing that we “can do all things through Christ Who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13). 

“Lord, teach me to be generous.

Teach me to serve You as You deserve;

to give and not to count the cost,

to fight and not to heed the wounds,

to toil and not to seek for rest,

to labor and not to ask for reward,

save that by knowing that I do Your will.”

          —–St. Ignatius Loyola

(1491-1556)

The King Is Coming

The King is coming. We need to be ready for Him. But there are so many problems that need our attention. Our country seems more divided than ever. Race relations are tense and don’t seem to be getting any better. There’s a growing wave of sexual harassment in politics, media, and entertainment with no end in sight. Our government doesn’t seem to be able to get much done these days. We’re still sending our military men and women to wars overseas and, at home, our police officers are targets of violenceu. Terrorists of all kinds seek out innocent victims in schools, churches, shopping malls, and on our public streets. So many problems wherever you look.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  There would be so many more of us here to greet Him, but we’ve allowed abortion to claim almost 60 million lives in America since 1973.  Our culture sees the gift of life as an inconvenience that can be “fixed” by visiting a clinic for a “procedure.”  Yet the wounds of this loss plague families for a lifetime.  Abortion deadens our hearts to all kinds of suffering and abuse.  When we don’t protect the most innocent and helpless among us, we shouldn’t be surprised by all the other abuse and violence in our country.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  The Church that He left us for us is in need of repair.  Fewer people fill the pews and many of our young people no longer believe in faith of any kind.  There are thousands of denominations with new ones emerging and older ones dying off.  Scandals plague His holy places and disillusion the faithful.  Confusion and contradiction in teaching the Gospel sows more discontent and discouragement.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  So many of us are imprisoned—some in jails, while many more are locked up by addictions.  Drugs and alcohol put millions behind bars and are the sentences served by their families, too.  How many children are punished by their parent’s addictions and are forced to live in poverty and uncertainty while one or both of their parents are absent?  Communities are plagued with the crime that drugs bring with them.  Our resources go to building more prisons while treatment centers disappear.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  The elderly among us are often lonely and isolated as families move around our country.  They can struggle financially, but even more, they can struggle with feelings of being forgotten.  Many live in nursing homes and receive few visitors.  With loneliness comes depression and worsening physical health.  It’s no wonder that suicide is a growing problem among elderly people who have found loneliness too hard to bear.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  How we speak with one another reveals a lot.  It shows our respect (or disrespect) for other people.  It reveals our prejudices.  It displays our wisdom (or ignorance).  It uncovers our ability to discuss issues and opinions that differ from our own.  Unfortunately these days, many of us are quick to disrespect others, to yell at them, or even to become violent, just because of someone else’s speech.  We seem to have lost the ability to listen, to question, and to dialogue with others.  This leaves us without a way to come together for understanding and compromise.  We’re just making noise, and becoming impoverished as a country.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  He came to us first as a helpless baby, born in poverty, to a young couple just beginning their lives together.  He’ll come again as the King of Kings, at the end of time.  Yet He also comes to us each day, into hearts who embrace Him and seek Him out.  Advent is a time of anticipating His return, and remembering His birth.  It’s also a time in which each one of us is called to examine our lives and to ask the King what we can do to make the world ready for Him.  What can I do to prepare a way for Him?  How can I be a light in the darkness?  How can I be ready for the King?

“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.”

                       —–Pope Pius XI

(1857-1939)

The Smells of Christmas

This time of year is filled with stuff that triggers our memories of Christmases past. Maybe nothing transports us to another time and place more immediately than the smells we associate with this season. I’ll bet you can easily name a half-dozen smells that come to mind. A fresh-cut Christmas tree. A bayberry candle. Cookies baking in the oven. A dusting of nutmeg on a cup of eggnog. Wood smoke. Incense at Mass. Scientists tell us that our sense of smell is very closely tied to our memories. Without requiring any thought on our part, a smell can call forth memories and emotions. I think this is especially true at Christmas, when smells and memories are so incredibly strong. After all, we don’t usually recall the “smells” of Halloween or Easter or Labor Day. Christmas is a time set apart for remembering.  

We can imagine the smells of that first Christmas, too. Maybe a little more earthy then our modern holiday. The smells of hay and grain. The pungent odor of manure. The stone and the wood of the walls and the manger. The animal smells of the warm donkey, sheep, and goats. Later, of course, we would smell the spicy frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi. The incense we use at Mass recalls the sweet smoke of the Temple priests as they prayed for the people of God. And myrrh which was used to anoint the bodies of the dead, foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Holy Scripture shares many verses about smells: from how the Lord enjoyed the odor of Noah’s animal sacrifices (Genesis 8:21), the sweet incense offered to Him by His priests (Exodus 30:26-27) to the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany on the night before He died (John 12:3). St. Paul tells us that our very lives “are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God”(II Corinthians 2:14). We associate holiness with a sweet aroma that is pleasing to God. 

And we think of sin as having the acrid odor of corruption and decay. This seems logical since sin equals death and death stinks. When something or someone dies, cells break down, toxins emerge, tissues fall apart. And what was once the sweet aroma of life transforms into the noxious, rancid fester of decay.. One of my favorite images from Holy Scripture is the story of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, who had died and been buried in a tomb. Jesus loved Mary and Martha, who were Lazarus’ sisters and He went to see them and give them comfort. But the comfort He planned to share went beyond the ordinary. He walked to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. Even after his body had been rotting in the tomb for days. When He tells Martha what He’s about to do, ever-practical Martha gives one of the best one-liners in the Bible: “”Lord, there will be a stench”(John 11:38). Jesus calls Lazarus to life and out of the grave he comes, still wrapped in his funeral shroud. Then, another great verse, as Jesus tells His followers,”Unbind him, and let him go”(John 11:44).  

And that, my friends, is exactly what Jesus does for you and for me in the Sacrament of Confession. Sin makes me stink. Serious sin disrupts my relationship with God–it takes my spiritual life away and leaves me dead inside. I’m wrapped up in the trappings of my bad choices, constrained by the shroud of sin. Confession frees me, it allows me to come clean and to encounter the life-giving mercy of my Savior. His grace unbinds me from my trappings and makes me a new creation, alive again in Him. Through His priest, I hear those great words of forgiveness and mercy. Like Lazarus, He raises me from the dead and lets me go free. He welcomes me back from the dead and my rotten stench is filled with His sweet aroma. Every confession is no less of a miracle than when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And He is waiting there to do the same for you. 

Whether it’s been two weeks or 25 years since your last confession, this season of Advent is the perfect time to come home. As we prepare to welcome His birth in Bethlehem, confession prepares us to meet Him again in our hearts. You’ll be unbound from the binding of your sins and once again, you can offer your life as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to Him. Don’t be afraid. Coming home to the Lord smells like hope.

“…walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”

—-Ephesians 5:1-2

The Coming Light

Here we are again, in 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!

Waiting In Hope

Dark comes early on these days leading up to Christmas. The cold begins to settle in my bones. When the sun sets the little daytime creatures in the woods retreat to their nests and burrows. In the hours to follow, the liquid dark will fill in every hollow as the frost of almost-winter coats the fallen leaves and the bare branches. The quiet is a different kind of silent night in the woods this time of year. Like the chill of the air, this quiet is a solid thing, with a weight and substance of its own. It’s as if the earth itself is whispering, “Slow down. Wait. Be still.” The world is holding its breath. In a couple of weeks, on the solstice, the earth will begin to journey to the light and warmth once again. But right now, these are the dark days of waiting and longing in the cold quiet of long and frosty nights.  

It’s no wonder that the Church celebrates the birth of Jesus in the winter. Life is at its most hidden in the winter. Days are short and the weak light of the sun gives little warmth. We stay bundled inside our own little burrows, hidden and safe. We can imagine, if we try, the Virgin Mary with the Word of God growing quietly inside of her. She moves more slowly now, and with more deliberation. She spends more of her time thinking of her Son and His coming into the world. The darkness of the world is soon to be illumined by His great Light. Everything she does is affected by His presence within her. She waits. She prays. She hopes for His birth as any mother hopes for the coming of their baby. Yet the Virgin also knows Who her Son is and knows as well the road He must travel. The bloom of God within her will one day pierce her immaculate heart.  

There exists a delicate balance in these Advent days. A balance between light and dark, life and death, action and reflection. Above all, it is a time of learning to be patient. We wait to hear His voice. We stop focusing on the busyness of the world to reflect on eternal things. We prepare the manger of our hearts to receive our Savior. We put aside our wants so that we can meet the needs of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the outsiders in our community. Every Advent is another opportunity to be light in the darkness. We waste this time of patient preparation if we allow ourselves to be caught up in the world’s push to purchase and display and out-do. We can’t be merciful if we’re in a competition. Mercy thrives in humility and service. And patience.  

In the cold dark nights of winter, a great Light is coming. Our waiting is a gift to the Light. As we learn to conform our will to His will, we love more, we forgive more. We know that love is kind, but it is, first of all, patient (I Corinthians 13:7). We wait. We prepare through our repentance and our almsgiving. We share our abundance with those who have less. Patient love endures in hard times. It grows in the heart that turns to the Light despite the coldness of a world that despises her King. Winter roots hold life and the promise of the coming spring. In the dark and cold, they grow strong and sturdy. And when the Light returns, they’re ready. They send forth new life. This is our calling—to prepare ourselves for the Light that is coming. Alleluia.  

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in His word, I hope…”

—–Psalm 130:5

Hope Foretold

“Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!

Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.”

This beautiful old Advent hymn tells the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the pure and mystical Rose who brings forth Jesus, just as prophecy had foretold.  It was discovered in 1599 and is attributed to an unknown Carthusian monk living in the monastery of St. Alban in Trier, Germany.  There are many verses which have been added to and modified over the centuries.  Originally written to honor the Virgin, non-Catholic authors have changed some of the words to place more emphasis on Jesus, rather than His Blessed Mother.  But its original form makes it obvious that it is a hymn of great love to the Virgin Mary and her participation in God’s eternal plan for our salvation.

From the very moment of creation, the Lord knew about Mary.  He knew her parents, her grandparents and all her other ancestors back to Adam and Eve.  Eve, who said, “No” to God’s command of her, would be redeemed through Mary’s “Yes” and the death and resurrection of her Son.  In this hymn, we hear of Jesse and his prophetic role in Jesus’ life.  Jesse was David’s grandfather and, as we know, Mary (and Joseph) were members of the House of David.  Jesse’s family gave us Mary and she, in turn, gave us Jesus.

In many Catholic homes and churches, we celebrate this family history during Advent as we prepare to welcome the Child at Christmas.  Instead of decorating a Christmas tree immediately after Thanksgiving, we decorate a Jesse tree, which tells the story of Scripture from creation until the birth of Christ.  The Jesse tree probably came into being as large tapestries or stained glass windows in churches.  For people who couldn’t read, these pictures were a way of learning Scripture.  These days, you can use your Christmas tree instead.  It’s a wonderful alternative to so many secular images we seem surrounded by in our modern world..  By placing the ornaments on the tree each day during Advent, you can share the corresponding Bible store with your kids.  A small globe can represent the story of creation, and a tree with apples on it can help them learn about Adam and Eve and the Garden.  A rainbow represents Noah and the flood, while a tent reminds us of God’s covenant with Abraham.  If you choose your favorite stories, you’ll have a fully-decorated tree by the time you get to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.  There aren’t any hard and fast rules, but this is a way of engaging your family in remembering God’s plan for us.  Then, when Christmas is here, you can “re-decorate” your tree to fit the 12 days of the season.

“Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind,

With Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.

To show God’s love a-right

She bore to men a Savior

When half-spent was the night.”

This old-fashioned song with its haunting melody and unfamiliar phrasing invites us to slow down and listen more closely.  The world says “hurry-hurry” at this time of year.  But if we hurry, we miss these weeks of anticipation and wonder that lead up to Christmas.  We miss meditating on the words of Isaiah which so beautifully help us to imagine Mary as a little girl, hearing his prophecy read aloud in the temple.  His words spoke about her “…therefore, the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: a maiden is with child and she will bear a son and will call his name Immanuel”(9:11-16).  Did she wonder if what he said might have been written about her and her future child?

Over the weeks ahead, as we prepare for His birth, take the time to listen to this hymn again.  Imagine the unexpected and miraculous beauty of a Rose blooming in winter, blooming when there is so little light and warmth to call it forth—yet blooming anyway.  For that way is the Lord’s way. In the midst of darkness, He brings forth Light. Where only dead stems appear, God is working to call forth life and beauty.  He does this in our own deadened and broken hearts.  He plants the love of Christ, the saving gift, the living water.  Remember the promises of His prophets which were manifest in the Virgin, the Mystical Rose, blooming forth in winter with the Light of the World.  Savor the journey we make to Bethlehem each winter.

“Holy Mary, Mystical Rose, you are the most beautiful flower created by God, in venerating you we praise God for His holiness and beauty.”

—St. John Newman

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