This morning I expanded my daily Examen to spend some time looking back over this past year, which seemed fitting on this New Year’s Eve. I also spent time considering the year ahead.
My prayer reminded me that last year on this day I posted a year-end examen invitation. Here it is again:
Tomorrow we begin a new year. Even if your daily prayer includes some form of Examen, it is worthwhile to take some time today to reflect back on the events and experiences of this past year. Here are some questions to prompt your reflection:
What have been the most grace-filled moments over the last year? What were the experiences for which you are most grateful?
What have been some of the challenges or causes of tension for you this past year? How good a job did you do facing those challenges?
What is on the horizon that you think requires some particular care and attention?
Pay attention to the feelings that arise in your heart as you review the events of this past year. Perhaps your review of this period has led you to remember an encounter with a colleague or a friend that led you to feel joy or consolation in the recognition that you were in the right place at the right time. Or perhaps you find yourself remembering a conversation or event that left you angry or frustrated. Maybe you experience pain as you remember a messy situation you didn’t handle as well as you might have.
As you review the feelings that surface in your heart during the review of these months: try to identify which of those feelings most catch your attention or stirs your heart most deeply, and ask what is it about the incident that creates such strong feelings. As you reflect on the experience, simply speak the prayer that arises in your heart.
Before Christmas is over and we put away the creche until next year, I wanted to share a poem one of my directees sent me titled How to Be a Manger .
This Christmas I pray for you that you will be a manger.
I pray that you will be empty—
Empty of all the clutter and distraction of life,
Empty to receive the newborn Christ.
I pray that you will be sturdy—
Sturdy to bear your personal and secret burdens,
Sturdy to bear the presence of God within.
I pray that you will be soft inside—
Soft inside for the healing embrace of yourself & others,
Soft inside to give God a place in peace.
I pray that you will be still—
Still to attend to the cry of the poor
Still to attend to the whisper of God’s prompting voice.
I pray that you will be ready—
Ready to receive whatever God’s gifts for you,
Ready to use your gifts for whatever God’s call to you.
This Christmas I pray for you—
That you will be a manger.
Update: I had been told that this poem was written by Barbara Germiat. However, I learned from a comment from Ms. Germiat that the poem is not hers, but is rather based on her poem by that name. With her permission, here is the original:
On How to Be a Manger
Be soft inside
As I sat with today’s Gospel reading during my morning prayer, I was momentarily confused, since the reading is John’s account of Peter and John finding the empty tomb after Mary Magdalene tells them she has seen the risen Lord. Wait, I thought – we just celebrated Jesus’ birth and here we are at the resurrection!
I then remembered that today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, so both readings come from John: a beautiful passage from the First Letter of John and the first reading and the Gospel to which I already referred.
As I continued to sit with the passages, it seemed fitting that we hear the story of the empty tomb two days after Christmas. Today’s Gospel is an important reminder that the Christian story is a single one: one that begins with Incarnation and ends with death and resurrection. Our beautiful Nativity scenes are merely Act I of a play that cannot be fully appreciated unless we apprehend it in its entirety. God’s entry into the world inevitably leads to the cross. But then, when all hope seems lost, the tomb is empty. The story whose beginning we celebrate this season ends with victory over death. That is the Christian story.
At Christmas Eve Mass last evening we listened to St. Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and to the words of O Holy Night: A thrill of hope. The weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Today we celebrate the audacious claim that through the love of God, the Word became flesh. That God’s longing for us is so great God became human to bring us to wholeness. God becomes human and shares our lives in the deepest, most intimate possible way.
And that is something that demands a response from us. So as we kneel before the creche this morning, we might want to reflect on what that response is.
“It is better to give than to receive,” goes the old adage. But is that always the case?
Methodist theologian William Willimon offers a different perspective for us to consider as we approach Christmas. He wrote
The Christmas story is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers. We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.
Giving is good. Generosity is good. But I think Willimon is right that it is often easier to be the giver than the receiver; it is a much more secure place for us to occupy.
We are all receivers. As we celebrate the Incarnation, it is good to remember that all we are and all we have is gift.
[With thanks to Inward/Outward from whom I received the Willimon quote.]
In these final days before Christmas Day, Dorothy Day’s words from December 1945 offer a fitting reminder:
It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.
The creche on the mantle is lovely, but it is not about beautiful creches.
The music at our Christmas liturgies are inspiring, but it is not about the music.
The lights on the decorated tree sparkle, but it is not about the tree and the lights.
It is about seeing Christ’s face and hearing Christ’s voice in all those we encounter. It is about welcoming Christ in whatever form he appears to us.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading is St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, something I have written about many times.
My prayer this morning focused on Mary’s final words to Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
I am the handmaid of the Lord. As I repeated those words, I saw the reality that that is my primary identity – handmaid of the Lord. Everything else: wife, mother, daughter, friend, spiritual director, law professor and so on, is secondary to that primary role. Everything other aspect of my identity is a support and way of living out that primary element of my identity. I’m not saying other aspects are not important. (Certainly in Catholic thought family is of profound significance.) But they are supportive of my primary identity.
At one level that says nothing other than: God first, so it is not really a new realization. But for some reason, the recognition in this form was powerfully striking to me this morning.
“I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
As we countdown these final days until Christmas, here is a poem by Wendell Berry, from his Sabbath poems:
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
(With thanks to my friend Richard, who sent me this poem.)
Yesterday I had breakfast with my friend Dave. We manage to get together every couple of months for breakfast or lunch and it is always nourishing for me.
At some point near the end of almost every one of our times together, Dave looks at me and says, “What can I do for you?” I’m deeply touched each time he asks the question, which is posed in a way that lets me know he means it.
One of the first things Jesus often asked people he met was “What do you want me to do for you?” What do you need? How can I help?
Merely being asked the question is a balm. And it invites examination of where we need healing, where we might need a helping hand – perhaps uncovering something we didn’t even know was there.
What a difference it might make if we approached everyone with that aim of uncovering: What can I do for you? How can I make your life better/easier?
Perhaps the gift we lay at the creche on Christmas morning might be a resolve to try to do exactly that.
I often am nourished by the reflections of Kayla McClurg on scripture readings, and her commentary on today’s Gospel from John was no exception.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we hear John’s account of the testimony of John the Baptist, who “was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”
We are told that John himself was not the light . . . BUT — notice the compound sentence, each part having equal weight — BUT “he came to testify to the light.” Lest we be tempted to make our permanent home in who we are not, in the small cramped space of low expectations and limited responsibility, the second half of the sentence clarifies the first. It calls me out from the shadows and gives me my own significant part to play. I am not the light, but I am called to testify to the light. To testify is to tell my truth, the whole truth, to be held accountable for what I know and see. I am a witness to the light. I have watched it shine in my very own darkness.
As we reflect on John the Baptist, who for me is one of the great Advent figures, we need to remember that we are called to do exactly as John did. Not, in McClurg’s words “by trying to be light, not by trying to create an illusion of light”, but by “tell[ing] my truth, the whole truth,” by being a witness to the light.