A Look Back, and a Look Forward

We’re all familiar with the ritual of New Year’s Resolutions. We vow that we will go on that diet and lose weight. Or we will quit smoking…or get more exercise…or [fill in the blank]. 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.

Someone once shared with me some questions for reflection that had been prepared for Elul, the time in the Jewish calendar that is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I share some of those questions because they seem to me to 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 think of many other questions to add. Unlike tossing off a New Year’s resolution, the idea here is to seriously spend time reflecting on particular things that did or did not go as well with respect to my relationship with others, with God and with myself. And maybe out of this reflection will come one or two concrete directions for change that we might seek God’s help in effectuating during the coming year.

A Happy Birth, Followed by a Reminder

I always find it a bit jarring to wake up the morning after Christmas, open my Magnificat and remember that today is the feast of St. Stephen. Still full of Christmas cheer, we celebrate the the first of the Christian martyrs.

Although it may be a bit jarring, it is also fitting that we follow Christmas by remembering Stephen. In so doing, we remind ourselves that the Incarnation is part of a larger story. The opening act is birth, but the story doesn’t end with the angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” or the wise men bringing their gifts. Instead, birth is followed inexorably by a horrible death and by resurrection, such that Christmas never stands alone, but is always joined inextricably with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “Christmas, then, is not just a sweet regression to breast-feeding and infancy. It is a serious and sometimes difficult feast. Difficult especially if, for psychological reasons, we fail to grasp the indestructible kernel of hope that is in it. If we are just looking for a little consolation-we may be disappointed.”

Celebrating Stephen reminds us the the narrative of birth, death and resurrection is not just that of Jesus, but of all of us. In the first reading for Mass today from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen’s last words before dying recall the words of Christ on the cross: “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.” And in the Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus promises that those who are persecuted in his name and endure will be saved.

Stephen patterned his life on that of Christ. We are invited to do the same so that we, too, may share in full story of Christ, which ends in resurrection.

The Incarnation

A blessed and merry Christmas to you all! We celebrate today the incredibly audacious reality that God became human out of love for us.

The Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius begins with a beautiful contemplation of the Incarnation. St. Ignatius invites us imagine the Holy Trinity looking out over the world. The Holy Trinity knows the whole world of humankind and sees all of the various ways human beings are suffering and bringing suffering on each other. Ignatius says “they look down upon the whole surface of the earth and behold all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into hell.”

Ignatius invites us to enter into the heart of God as God looks at the world. What goes on in the heart of the Trinity as they look at the darkness of the world? Ignatius invites us to feel the Trinity’s love for humanity and their pain at out suffering. And he invites us to see and hear the Trinity’s response to that pain: how out of that incredible love for humanity, out of God’s infinite and eternal love, God thinks, “Let us save all these people.” And Jesus says, “I’ll go.” And so the Father decides to send the Son down to enter into the world, to become human for the sake of our salvation.

A wonderful little book called Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuit, includes a reflection coming out of this prayer exercise by Michael Moynahan, S.J. The reflection, written as a message by the Trinity to us, starts by talking about how little we understood the ways in which God sought to convey God’s love to us, how notwithstanding all God tried to do, we grew distant, deaf and blind to God. It then expresses God’s next move in a simple, homey way:

And so we did
what families do
when confronted with calamity.
We drew straws.
Shorty lost.
He came to share
your plight,
your fight,
your night,
and point you
toward tomorrow.

Christ comes to share everything with us…and to point us toward tomorrow.

The Magnificant: A Message of Hope

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Mary proclaims the words we refer to as the Magnificat, a joyful message that sings of a future of justice and peace brought about through the mercy of God.  Mary expresses in this hymn her confidence that God is at work in the midst of a world of struggle and pain.

Speaking of the Magnificat, former Vincentian Superior General Robert Maloney, C.M., once wrote, “The historical Mary experienced poverty, oppression, violence and execution of her son. Her faith is deeply rooted in that context. Before the omnipotent God, she recognizes her own ‘lowly estate.’ She is not among the world’s powerful. She is simply God’s ‘maidservant.’ But she believes that nothing is impossible for God. In the Magnificat she sings confidently that God rescues life from death, joy from sorrow, light from darkness.”

In a similar vein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis, spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933: “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Mary’s Magnificat offerse a message of hope. It is a message we need to hear in our world today: the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of poverty, war, suffering and heartache. The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation; a song that promises that changes can and will happen through the grace of God.

Waiting

Let’s face it: We don’t like waiting. We want what we want immediately – whether that be acquiring something, solving some problem, hearing back from someone, and so on. Yet, here we are in Advent, a time of waiting.

Even if what we are waiting for is only a week away, we are impatient. We forget what Bonhoeffer calls the “austere blessing of waiting.” He writes

Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. . . . Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting, will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. Those who do not know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, cannot even dream of the splendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them. For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait. It happens not here in the storm but according to the divine laws of sprouting, of becoming

I’ve been facilitating a couple of small groups in our parish’s Advent Retreat in Daily Living.  This past week they prayed with several characteristics of waiting, as articulated by Marina McCoy: Advent waiting as expectant, as requiring making space, and as hopeful.

The characteristic that struck most of the retreatants was Advent as requiring making space, so I share here McCoy’s comment on that aspect, which asks some good questions.  It is not too late in Advent to ask ourselves the same questions:

Although the main action in Advent is God’s, I have my part to do too. I am not waiting passively for God to act. Rather, I have to make room for God’s action to be something that I can welcome, something that I can pay attention to when it happens. Here the images of the inn and stable are helpful. There was no room at the inn for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, because it was too full. The stable was poor and simple but had space for them to take shelter. Is my heart open to God? What are the superficial concerns or worries to let go, in order to make room for Jesus to come again this Christmas? Is my life too rushed and busy with holiday preparations, or am I building in time to make space for the Christ Child?

Remembering Thomas Merton During Advent

Today, December 10, is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, poet, peace activist, Trappist monk, prolific writer, mystic, lover of nature, champion of social justice and contemplative.

Merton has always been a favorite of mine; his writings have been enormously beneficial to me at various points in my spiritual journey. But it is fitting to celebrate the anniversary of his death during this time of Advent.

Merton once wrote, “The Church’s belief in Christ is not a mere static assent to His historical existence, but a dynamic participation in the great cycle of actions which manifest in the world the love of the Father for the ones He has called to union with Himself, in his beloved Son.”

What a great thought to keep in mind as we approach Christmas!

Our celebration of the birth of Christ is not merely a fond remembrance of a young couple who cannot find room in an inn as the woman approaches pregnancy. Or about the story of a star and of shepherds and wise men. Rather, our Christian faith is about more than the historical existence of a Jewish man named Jesus.

Ultimately, it is about the love of God – a God who longs for nothing less than our total union with Him. A God who chooses to become human out of love – to show us what it means to be fully human – and fully divine.

And, as the Merton quote suggests, our realization of this reality demands a response. Not mere a passive enjoyment of that love, but dynamic participation in manifesting God’s love in the world.

As we move through these days of Advent, days in which our world is groaning in suffering, we might ask how we might more fully manifest God’s love in the world.

I Will Give You Rest

My successor as Director of the Office for Spirituality at the University of St. Thomas shared the following message today as part of her office’s Advent reflections on Mass readings. Since it speaks to a passage that always moves me (Matt 11:28-30), I share it here with her permission.

As I read the Scripture readings for today one line spoke to me, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” This has always been a favorite line of mine from Scripture and of my devotion for the Sacred Heart of Jesus (this same Gospel is read on his Solemnity). The reading from the prophet Isaiah today also calls us “to not grow weary”, but to trust in God. 

This advent without doubt has deeper meaning. Like the people of Israel, we are awaiting new hope, for light to shine in the darkness. This year has brought much suffering, sacrifice, uncertainty, division and sadness to our country and to the world.  Like those described by the prophet Isaiah, many of us have felt weary, overwhelmed and lacking hope. In the midst of the struggles due to the pandemic, the experience of deep divisions in our country, the deep cry of those marginalized and the poor, we wait for hope and rest. Yet, at this time when it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Scripture invites us to rest in the Lord who can take our burdens, for he “gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound”. The Lord continues to promise his presence and opens once more his heart as that place where we all can find true rest.  

Advent is a season of hope and longing, a time to remember that in the midst of darkness and suffering there is the promise of light. As we say Maranatha this Advent, let us remember that Jesus too is saying “Come to me.” Let us bring to him with trust all our burdens and by our actions make easier the burdens of others around us. Let us open our hearts to this hope the Lord gives us today and come to him. There is no better place to rest.

Learning from Mary and Joseph

During Advent we hear of the messages to both Mary and Joseph regarding the birth of Jesus.  Last year, I was sent a reflection sheet from an Advent retreat, and I came across it going through some old files.  I thought I’d share it for your reflection during this Advent.

Mary was encouraged not to fear but rather to believe that God could do great things in her…

What fears do i need to let go of?

Do I really believe God can do great things in me?

Mary said yes to God’s plan even though others did not understand…

What in my life calls me to believe even though others may not understand?

Joseph showed an acceptance and compassion for his pregnant fiance…

Who in my life needs my acceptance and love?

Joseph followed his dreams and trusted in God…

What dreams in my life call me to trust in God?