Christmas Doesn’t Come, It Starts

My friend Sarah Farnes, Program Manager for the Office for Spirituality at the University of St. Thomas, wrote a lovely reflection during Advent.  Her message, I think, is even more important as we wind up our Christmas Day festivities.  She write

Christmas is a point of departure. We must understand that Christmas does not come, Christmas starts.

For too many of us, we busy ourselves with preparations for Christmas celebrations. We worry about decorating the house just right, updating the dinner menu, and buying the last of the needed gifts. We are filled with holiday cheer and generosity. Then, Christmas Day arrives and before we know it, the day and festivities are gone.

But in reality, everything should start from Christmas. Jesus did not come so everything would remain as it was before His advent. He came into our midst to change everything; and specially to change our lives. By Christmas we are born again, the world is renewed, and just as the priest says during the Holy Mass, it is, “through Him, in Him and within Him…” My friends, Christmas is a time that should awaken us; our life, our heart. It is our heart that grows, and heals, and makes us true Christmas lights where we can love, just as He loves.

There is much wisdom in Sarah’s words.  Jesus came to change everything.  So let us view Christmas as our departure point, not just a day that came and went.

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What Will You Give?

Christmas is just about here!  Are we ready?

One of the songs that always comes to my mind at this juncture is In the Bleak Midwinter, the lyrics to which are taken from a poem by the 19th Century English poet, Christina Rosetti.

The last verse of that song asks a question that I would ask you to reflect on today.  It is a question we all need to ask ourselves as we approach Chistmas: What can I give Him? What gift can I lay before the creche on Christmas morning?

The song not only asks the question, but provides perhaps the best answer one can provide to the question:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him — Give my heart.

What will you give as a gift to the Christ child?

What would it mean to you to give your heart?

Praying in These Last Days Before Christmas

As we enter the final week before Christimas, consider making the O Antiphons, a part of your prayer.

The O Antiphons, which form part of evening prayer during the Octave before Christmas, are familiar to almost everyone in at least one form.  Almost everyone, even if he or she doesn’t pray them in their traditional form, recognizes them from their appearance in a modified form in the popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Each of the seven antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah, each refers to a prophesy of Isaiah and each contains a different petition. (You can find the O Antiphons in their traditional form, with accompanying scriptural texts, here.)

In different Advent retreat settings, I’ve encouraged retreatants to write their own O Antiphons. We live in a different time and place than when the “O” antiphons were composed. In addition, each of us has our own needs and our own issues with God. Writing our own “O” antiphons gives expression to: Who is God for me? How do I name God? And what are my deepest needs? How do I need God to come to me.

I engaged in this prayer exercise myself during an Advent Week of Directed Prayer several years ago.  Both the writing of the antiphons and the reflection surrounding the writing was a special time between me and God.  It was powerful because it involved articulating my answers to questions such as those I just posed

I encourage you engage in the same exercise.  As the birth of the Savior draws near, what is the yearning in you this week?  What are the places in your life that cry out for redemption?  Name these.  These are the source of our personal O Antiphons.

The Ongoing Invitation to Conversion

The University of St. Thomas’s Office for Spirituality sponsors seasonal reflections during Advent and Lent.  I authored today’s reflection, based on Isaiah 35.  Here it he reflection I wrote:

Today’s first Mass reading comes from Isaiah, one of the major prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and one of the great prophets of Advent.

The Book of Isaiah opens with what is a scathing indictment of the people of Israel. In the second verse, we hear the Lord say, “Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me!” And immediately thereafter, God laments: “Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord.”

But in that same opening chapter, God also invites: “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” Even in the midst of judgment – while cataloging the great sins of the people and the extent to which they have fallen away – is the promise that things do not have to be this way.

Today’s first reading captures something of the promise of better things to come. “The desert and the parched land will exult…. streams will burst forth in the desert…. those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing…sorrow and mourning will flee.”

What strikes me as I pray with Isaiah’s indictment of the people of Israel is that our society is not very different from the society that Isaiah witnessed. A world that in many ways has turned its back on God, replacing God with the idols of rampant individualism and money. A world that rewards promotion of the self to the exclusion of others; that encourages individual pursuits vs. communal goals. A world where we worship much that is not good, much that is not God.

Yet, there is still God’s promise. One preacher summarizes Isaiah’s Advent message like this: “No matter how much the world shatters into pieces, we carry in ourselves a vision of wholeness that we all sense is our true home and that welcomes us. ‘I have called you by name and you are mine.'”

And just as Isaiah called the people to prepare the way of the Lord, we are called to do the same – not only in Advent, but in each day of our lives. Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom requires our active participation. We don’t get to just sit around complacently and wait for the vision to become reality. Instead, we are called to labor with God to make it so. God continues to work through us to prepare for Christ’s reign.

Note: You can read the daily reflections here; you can also subscribe to receive them by e-mail.

John the Baptist: A Role Model for Advent and Always

Both this Sunday and next Sunday – the Second and Third Sundays in Advent – we hear about John the Baptist in our Gospel readings.  (Today’s is from the first chapter of Mark and next Sunday’s is from the first chapter of John.)

John was given an important role. He was, in the words of Isaiah, the “voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Or, as it is put in the prologue to John’s Gospel, he “came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  John “went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Gospel of John reminds us that John the Baptist “was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” I often say about John that what makes him so special to me is that he knew it wasn’t about him and that was OK with him. He knew that his job was to point the way to Christ and to help us prepare to receive Him.

John the Baptist is a worthy role model for all of us. When we are tempted to put the focus on ourselves, John should be our reminder that we too are messengers. Like John, we are all charged to testify to the light, to point the way to Christ by our words and our deed. To prepare not only ourselves to receive Christ, but all those with whom we come in contact.

Shall I Touch the Sky With These Small Hands

The Gospel reading for today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation.  One of my close associations with that passage is Denise Levertov’s poem titled Annunciation.  The other is a song by Danielle Rose on her album Mysteries, which contains 23 songs, each prompted by one of the Mysteries of the Rosary.

The Rose song is titled Let if Be Done Unto Me, and it tells the story of the Annunciation from the perspective of the Angel Gabriel.

The song reminds us that God gave Mary the choice whether to participate in his plan to incarnate. When the angel sets forth God’s request, Rose sings

all the heavens and the earth
stand still in silence,
Waiting for her soul to reply.
She is free to choose –
God never will abuse the sacred Yes;
she cannot be denied.

As it was true for Mary, so it is always true for us. God invites and we are free to choose. God asks but will never force a Yes from us.

The first words uttered by Mary when she first hears of God’s request are a question: “Shall I touch the sky with these small hands?” And that too, I think, is something we share with Mary. Our initial reaction is sometimes, “Me? You’re not serious. You can’t want this from me. I’m too….sinful…weak…impatient…unworthy….” What fills in that blank is different for each of us, but we share the sense that there is something that makes our hands too small to touch the sky.

But Mary overcame the doubt, the fear, the anxiety that her hands were too small. Yes, she said, let it be done unto me. And with that yes, “what was impossible is now a possibility.”

Like Mary, let us have the grace to respond to God’s invitation by recognizing that our hands, supported by God’s, are big enough to do what God asks of us.

Who Is Doing the Waiting?

We speak of Advent as a time of waiting, generally focusing on our active waiting for the coming of Christ.  And I do think that is a helpful image for us.

A reflection I read the other day suggested, however, that we might want to think of Advent waiting somewhat differently.  Joseph Lingan, S.J., Rector of the Jesuit Community at Georgetown  University wrote this:

I have often heard that Advent is a time of waiting, suggesting that we are the ones who wait. Perhaps it is not a matter of our waiting, but God’s—of God’s waiting for us. Waiting for us to pay attention, to at long last see what God has been revealing to us and to our weary world, and allowing that revelation to inform and transform us. And so that we are not intimidated by God’s initiative, He comes to us as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes…what a Joy!…to the world!

You might ask yourself, how does it make you feel to know that God is attentively waiting on you?  That God is the one taking the initiative to draw closer and closer to you – and all you have to do is pay attention?

And you might also consider: what steps are you taking this Advent to be more attentive to what God is revealing to you…how God is inviting you to transformation?