Reflection Before Resolutions

Soon it will be time to say good-bye to the old year and ring in the new. As we prepare to begin the New Year, people are thinking up “New Year’s Resolutions.” You know the drill: You resolve that in the coming year you will – fill in the blank – exercise more…eat less..quit smoking…undertake some difficult task you’ve been putting off, etc., etc..

And you also know what comes next. You start the year with great intent and maybe make some progress on one resolution of another in the early day sof January. Then the days of the new year start to go by and it is not long before the resolution is forgotten.

Our failure to meet our usually-not-very-well-thought-out New Year’s Resolutions does not mean there is not value in using this transition to take stock. The end of the year is a good time to reflect a bit on where we’ve been and where we are going.

I once shared some questions for reflection that had been prepared for Elul, the period in the Jewish calendar devoted to preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I thought it worth sharing again some of those questions because they provide a valuable tool for reflection as we prepare to usher in the new year.

What have been the happiest and most gratifying parts of this past year? In what areas have I acted as my best self? Which of my current habits or behaviors to I want to bring with me into the coming year?

What have been the most painful or difficult moments of the past year? When have been the times that I have not acted as I would have hoped? Which of my current habits or behaviors would I like to modify or leave behind in the years to come?

What are the relationships in my life of which I am most proud? The ones that feel most painful? What would it take to create change in these relationships in the coming year? Who are the people that I most need to ask for forgiveness?

You can doubtless think of variations on these questions. The point is that, unlike tossing off a New Year’s resolution, there is real value in spending some real time reflecting on the last year, particular regarding things that did or did not go as well as they might have with respect to our relationship with others, with God and with ourselves. Out of such sober reflection might come one or two concrete directions for change that we might seek God’s help in effectuating during the coming year.

Happy New Year!

The Model of the Holy Family

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Family. Pope Paul VI explained the feast in this way in his 1974 Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis Cultus:

On the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (the Sunday within the octave of Christmas) the Church meditates with profound reverence upon the holy life led in the house at Nazareth by Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, Mary His Mother, and Joseph the just man (cf. Mt. 1:19). 

In Catholic thought, the family is indispensable to the promotion of the conditions necessary for the flourishing of the human person. That is because it is in the family that we get our first revelation of our interconnectedness as humans, learning that we are, in the words of one commentator, “not born as isolated, autonomous monads, but rather as a precious part of a social unit.”

Not all families these days are made up of father, mother and child (or children). But regardless of the composition, all of our families can look like the Holy Family in living lives of love, faith, justice and fidelity to God’s will.  

Whatever “family” looks like for each of us, let our lives emulate that of the Holy Family.

A Fire and A Response

Yesterday morning, the apartment building in which one of my students lived burned to the ground. Fortunately, he woke to the smoke alarms and made it out of the building safely, albeit with nothing except his keys, phone and wallet, and the clothes he was wearing. I was very worried about him and was quite relieved when I finally spoke to him.

I spent some time during the morning and afternoon yesterday in phone and e-mail contact with various of his friends and other faculty at the law school. Our outgoing Interim Dean commented in one e-mail to me that “perhaps the lemonade out of this lemon is that he will see so clearly that he is loved, and he is both a blessed man and a blessing to others.” There is real truth to his comment; I was deeply moved by the response to the fire and his loss.

I am sadly no poet, but as I reflected on the events of the day, I felt impelled to try to put in words what I felt. Here is what I wrote yesterday:

A fire caused by who knows what, means
what was (until yesterday) a building inhabited by many
is now a smoldering ruin about to collapse.

A young man who barely escaped, with only
his wallet, keys, phone and the clothes on his back
stands dazed, watching all he owned disappear.

He has nothing left.
It’s all gone.
Everything.

But – no – That’s not right. Nothing is left EXCEPT
something more important than his things.
(The things, after all, can be replaced.)

“Tell him he is loved.” “Remind him we’re here.”
“I have a guest room.” “If he want to talk, I’ll listen.”
“If he needs money or clothes, or anything, we’ll give it.”

A stranger gives him his coat.
Another hands him money.
A restaurant owner buys him lunch (and gives him a care package for later).

The offers and messages pour in
letting him know he is not alone.
Assuring him of love and care, and promising to provide all he needs.

This is what we do. When the suffering comes –
as it inevitable will, in various forms and shapes and sizes –
we pick each other up, we give and do what’s needed.

As all this was happening, someone else (unconnected to these events)
wrote a pessimistic Note on Facebook describing a relationship
in which the participants conversed in “dialects of narcissism.”

No such dialects here. Instead, very different strains.
In the responses to this young man’s plight,
I (with delight) heard many splendid dialects of love.

Massacre of the Holy Innocents

Three days after Christmas, while we are still rejoicing in the birth of the Savior, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents. Today’s feast focuses our attention on two things.

First, it reminds us of the world into which Jesus was born – a world of suffering and sin – a world desperately in need of the peace Jesus offers. Innocent young children shot to death in their school. Drone attacks in which civilians are killed. The examples of suffering are endless. (I was delayed in writing my post this morning because of news that the apartment building in which one of my students lives burned down – fortunately he got out.) In the words of Henri Nouwen:

We live in a world groaning under its losses: the merciless wars destroying people and their countries, the hunger and starvation decimating whole populations, crime and violence holding millions of men, women and children in fear. Cancer and AIDS, cholera, malaria, and many other diseases devastating the bodies of countless people;…it’s the story of everyday life filing the newspapers and television screens. It is a world of endless losses.

That is the world into which Christ is born – and the world in which we are invited to be Christ. Even now – so many years after the birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – the question remains for each of us: Will you help help infuse the world with Christ’s presence? We don’t answer those questions merely by singing beautiful carols around the creche. The feast we celebrate today reminds us that the world needs more from us.

Second, our remembrances of the massacre of the Holy Innocents – the young male children put to death by King Herod in his effort to destory the Christ child – confronts us head-on with the reality that the Incarnation of God as human is inextricably linked with the rejection, suffering and, ultimately, death the Savior will undergo.

Christmas fills us with beautiful images of a child in a manger, surrounded by adoring shephards and Maji and gloroius angels singing of God’s glory. But, in the words of Francios Mauriac, “the gentle Child shivers with cold on the edge of a criminal world while angels promise peace to men of good will – a peace that can be discovered only after a full measure of suffering; but in the shadows of his birthplace Herod’s soldiers sharpen their knives for a slaughter of innocents.” The world into which Christ was born is populated by many who will reject Him and, like Herod, try to destroy Him.

Today’s feast reminds us both that the world needs us – that we are meant to meet the suffering of the world as Christ did – and that in so doing we may face the same rejection as he did. It is a sober reminder in the midst of our holiday cheer.

St. John, the Evangelist

Today is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, who tells us in one of his letters (our first Mass reading for today) that what he testifies about is “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands…the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us.”

As I read those words, what came to mind was the beautiful beginning of John’s Gospel, words that have tremendous power for me:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be….

When I hear those words proclaimed, or even when I simply read them myself, I feel something shift inside of me. The words pull me completely to a place of peace…security…absolute confidence in the power and presence of God. What I feel as I sit transfixed by the Words comes from a place very deep inside, and I understand what John is talking about in his letter – that which motivates his evangelization.

What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….
And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.

As John understood so well, the Word of God is not designed to simply give us warm feelings inside. Instead, we are meant to contribute to the enfleshment of the Word in our world today.

Let the evangelist John be a model for us as we consider our own discipleship in, and evangelization of, the world in which we live.

Christmas and Santa Claus

[Spoiler alert: Children who believe in Santa Clause shouldn’t read this post.]

The other day, one of my Facebook friends wrote a post that was critical of allowing children to believe in Santa Claus, suggesting that “Santa Claus encourages magical thinking, creates trust issues, delays perfectly capable little people access to the psychological realities of life, discourages their healthy skepticism, and sets them up to be bitterly disappointed.” I asked in a comment to his post he really believed he did his own child a great disservice by letting her believe in Santa Claus for a few years? He responded that he wasn’t sure but that, in retrospect, did not think they did her a great service, positing that “we could have generated at least as much love and joy, without lying.”

My friend is not the only person to criticize the Santa Claus myth. Many atheists dislike it because of its Christian origins. Many Christians dislike it because it diverts attention from the appropriate focus of the holiday.

I’ve spent some time thinking about my friend’s comments. As I have, here are some things that came to mind.

Every year, for as long as I can remember, there comes a point during our family’s large Christmas Eve gathering when Sana Claus appears. He either comes down the stairs (as though coming in from the roof) or in the front door, carrying a large sack with a present for each of the children. I can still taste the joy and wonder I experienced as a child when I was one of the ones who still believed. And in the years since then, I’ve seen the same joy and wonder on the faces of my younger siblings and cousins, my daughter, nieces and nephews and so on. (There has never been a year when we haven’t had children young enough to believe in Santa.) Over the years, almost all of the male adults have taken a turn being Santa – my father, my uncles, cousins, nephews, brother, my husband, even an occasional neighbor. (When Christmas Eve was at our house in Port Washington one year, my Jewish neighbor Roger was Santa.) It was always a joyous occasion.

The second image that comes is one I only know from hearing it told to me. It is the image of my father staying up half the night on Christmas Eve getting things ready for us. We’d come home late from the big family Christmas Eve celebration, my parents would finally get my siblings and me asleep – no small task for four children excited about Santa coming. When we finally settled down, my mother would fill the stockings as my father spent hours putting together kitchen set or bicycles or the like – everything seemed to come unassembled in those days. (I recall him telling me of the frustration of spending hours putting together those kitchen sets and finding himself with a leftover nut or washer, wondering where in the process he made a mistake.)

Other images come. I remember helping my younger siblings writing their letters to Santa after I no longer believed. I remember my brother-in-law eating the cookies my daughter had left out for Santa, so she would wake and see only the crumbs. I remember the discussions about the department store Santas not being “the real Santa.”

In all of those memories – all of which still make me smile, I see incredible love and desire to bring happiness. I see a spirit of joy. And I see a shared sense of wonder and amazement.

In time we all stopped believing in Santa Claus. It wasn’t traumatic, didn’t create bitter disappointment, and didn’t leave us with trust issues; we just, each in our own time, came to realize that the Santa who appeared on Christmas Eve was Uncle Bob or Michael or Dave, and that the source of the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning was our parents. We stopped believing in Santa, but we never stopped believing in the love, the caring, the sharing, and the generosity Santa represented.

I don’t disagree with my friend that we can generate lots of love and joy without Santa. But the sense of wonder shared by the children, the magical fun of it all (not to mention the efforts the adults made to make it all come off every year), is not something I would have wanted to be without myself, or wanted Elena to be without. If believing in Santa encouraged a bit of “magical thinking” on our parts, well, I think that is all to the good.

The Weary World Rejoices

To us a child is born, to us a child is given! Christmas blessings to you all!

We all have our favorite Christmas songs. For as long as I can remember, mine has been O Holy Night, sung by Johnny Mathis. Doubtless no small part of that is that I associate (always have and always will) the song with my father – I can still, more than nine years after his death, close my eyes and see his face and hear his voice as he emphatically sang out with Johnny many times every Christmas season, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices…”

Some part is doubtless also the sweet sounds of Mathis’ voice, which I so love listening to.

But, in the final analysis, it is the words, words that express our joy this Christmas morning. In a world of sin, Jesus “appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

On this Christmas morning, with love and blessings, here is the song I love so much.

Update: Although I didn’t know it when I wrote my post this morning, the prelude to the 11:00 Mass we attended at Our Lady of Lourdes included Elena singing O Holy Night in French and English. Wonderful Christmas gift; hope my Dad in heaven enjoyed hearing his grandaughter singing a song he loved.

What Gift Will I Lay Before the King?

Today is Christmas Eve! Our Advent is almost at an end and we begin our final preparations to celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst.

For many of us, the morning and afternoon hours of Christmas Eve includes shopping for last minute gifts, finishing our cookie baking, finalizing the menu for the Christmas feast.

The other thing we might do today, if we haven’t already done so, is reflect on what gift we will lay before the creche on Christmas morning. What gift will we give to the King?

The “wise men” gave gold, frankincense and myrrh. What will your gift be?

One of my favorite stories associated with the Incarnation is Henry Van Dyke’s The Story of the Other Wise Man. It tells the story of the fourth wise man, who sold everything he had to purchase three jewels that he intended to bring to the kind (along with his three friends). The story explains why he never met up with his friends and how he spent his whole life looking for the king – and what happened when he finally found him.

At the final session of an Advent retreat several years ago, I read/told the story to participants. It is a beautiful one, and if you have about 15 minutes to spare today, I encourage you to listen to the podcast. It is a good way to reflect on what your gift might be. You can access it here or stream it from the icon below.

Blessings to you and yours on this Christmas Eve.

Blessed Are You Who Believed

Today’s Gospel is the beautiful encounter between Mary and Elizabeth recorded in Luke’s Gospel. It is a passage I love and have written about before. (See. e.g., here and here.)

Having been told by the Angel that Elizabeth is with child, Mary travels “in haste” to the home of Zechariah and her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth says several things when she greets the younger women. The one that struck me this time was the last thing Elizabeth says: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Mary believed what God promised. We see that belief reflected in the canticle that follows Elizabeth’s line (although it is not part of today’s Gospel), in which Mary “proclaims the greatness of the Lord” and speaks about God’s fulfillment of “his promise to our father, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The question for us is: do we believe in what was spoken to us by the Lord? Do we believe it when God says:

I have called you by name and you are mine. (Isaiah)

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. (Jeremiah)

I have branded you on the palms of my hand. (Isaiah)

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you. (Isaiah)

And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age. (Matthew)

I will come back again an take you to myself, os that where I am you also may be. (John)

As we come to the end of this Advent period, we might reflect on God’s words to us. Words Mary believed. Words we can believe.

“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Paranoia and Demagoguery or Hope

Yesterday was the day some people thought the world might end.

It didn’t. Instead, the big news of the day was the NRA suggesting that the response to the deaths of our children in Connecticut last week should be to have armed guards in all of our schools and create a national database of the mentally ill in the country.

The paranoia and demagoguery reflected in the NRA’s comments are deeply upsetting. Because if one is convinced we need guns at schools, why not guns in every day care center, every hospital, every heavily trafficked street corner?

Why not churches? Then we can sit and pray to the Incarnate God who met violence with love, with guns in our laps ready to protect ourselves from anyone we perceive to be a threat.

Is that the society we believe we’ve become? Is that a society we want to be?

If that is our vision of our future – a vision without hope, the world might as well have ended yesterday.

I’ve watched the post Newtown commentary with deep (and growing) sadness, shaking my head as people say, “It’s not about guns, it’ about mental illness.” Or “It’s not about mental illness, it’s about guns.” Or “it’s not about guns or mental illness, it is that we’ve locked God out of schools.”

The problem with “it’s not A, but B” analyses, is that they seek simple solutions to complicated issues, and that they tend to promote the simple solutions that happen to be consistent with the promoters’ already-existing views. We do need some meaningful regulation of guns in this country. And we desperately need a sounder approach to mental illness. We also need to, as my friend Mark Osler wrote earlier this week, to be more effective evangelists. We need to do more to help those without one to develop a personal relationship with God.

And we need hope. Hope in God. Hope that we can do better. Hope that we can be better. And responding to gun violence by promoting more guns is not a reflection of hope.

I ended the last session of our Advent Retreat in Daily Living on Monday by reading this Advent Credo. It is worth sharing again in this context.

It is not true that creation and the human family are
doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that
He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him
shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination,
hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word,
and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God,
the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil
who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth,
and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets
of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and
your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice,
of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the
true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope.
Let us see visions of love and peace and justice.
Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage:
Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

I choose hope.

[Update on 4/29/15 – When I originally posted this, I attributed the Credo to Daniel Berrigan.  As corrected by the comment from Robert Ellsberg, the Credo is by Allan Boesak.]