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As we come to the transition between one year and the next, I can’t think of a better poem to share than T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. Here it is:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Year-End Examen

Many of us, especially those whose spirituality is Ignatian, engage in a daily Examen – a process of prayerfully reflecting on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us.

As we approach the end of the year, you might consider a year-end look back at this past year. Adapted from a common method of doing a daily examen, this method was posted on the Ignatian Spirituality website. It might provide fruitful prayer over the next couple of days.

Step One: Become aware of God’s presence.

One way of doing this is to ask the Holy Spirit to help you review the year with a holy perspective—with wisdom, grace, and faith. Ask for the grace to tear yourself away from your own patterns of thinking and seeing so that you can see your life more as God sees it. Of course you will see your failings—but God sees you as a beloved daughter or son who has a future and a hope. Of course you will see your accomplishments—but God sees your deeper self, the person behind all the activity, a person made in God’s image.

Step Two: Review the year with gratitude.

As you use this holy perspective to review the year, pay attention to the good gifts from the year ending. Name specifically those that come to memory now, and thank God for them.

Step Three: Pay attention to your emotions.

Think over the year again, and notice your emotional reactions. What memories speak most loudly to you? What events, conversations, relationships, or activities bring up the most emotion now, as you remember them? Ask God to help you linger with these emotions, whether they are pleasant or disturbing. Ask for help in understanding why you feel as you do. What can you learn about yourself or about your situation as you dwell in your emotional responses?

Step Four: Choose one feature of the year and pray from it.

While you are lingering with your memories and emotions, settle on one feature. Perhaps it is a single event, or maybe it’s a pattern of your own behavior that has come to mind as you reviewed the year. Whatever it is that has emerged, allow it to fuel your prayer. Don’t worry about the many other aspects of the year that you could think about right now; stay with the one thing that has come to you with the most power and pray from those thoughts and emotions.

Step Five: Look toward the new year.

Imagine what challenges and blessings might await you in the coming year. Think of important relationships, major (and minor) decisions to be made, skills to learn, habits to build, healing to seek, good work to accomplish. Make a simple list of highlights—matters that you expect to take prominence in your life in the new year. Bring them to God now, and ask for the graces you will need.

End your prayer, thanking God for love and life and holy possibilities.

The day after Christmas we get the martyrdom of Stephen and today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Today’s feast 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. Jesus’ world is our world. A world in which innocent young children shot to death in their school. A world in which civilians are killed in drone attacks. A world in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The examples of suffering are endless. 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.

We live in a world that desperately needs Christ. And today the Christ child comes, not wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, but through us. Meister Eckhart wrote

What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son is I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

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 give birth to Christ in your time and culture? Will you 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.

A child is born! Angels sing Glory to God in the highest. Shepherds come to adore. Wise men from the East bring expensive gifts.

But then the child grow up. And as he begins to challenge the authorities of his day, he tells his disciples they must do the same. And he warns them that they will be handed over and suffer for his sake.

That is the message we hear in today’s Gospel on this first day after Christmas. Before we’ve even put away the gifts and finished the leftovers from the Christmas feast, we get the message that it’s not all about celebration. Rather, there will be strife and suffering involved in following Christ: “Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

To reinforce the message, the first Mass reading paired with today’s Gospel is the martyrdom of Stephen. Stephen has been “speaking truth to power”, as the saying goes, reprimanding the elders and the scribes for their “stiff-necked” behavior. The fury and threats of those disquieted by his speech did not deter him, however, for Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

The result is predictable: they “threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.”

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. And therin lies the promise. 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.”

This letter was published yesterday in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I share it in its entirety, along with the names of the signatories of the letter. May its dissemination be a cause of increased Christian-Muslim dialogue and understanding.

To our Christian brothers and sisters:

Out of our shared love for the Messiah, Jesus, Son of Mary, Peace Be Upon Him, we greet you with peace and joy during your celebration of his life.

The Bible refers to him as the Messiah and describes the annunciation, his miraculous birth and his numerous miracles.

The Qur’an refers to him as the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary. It teaches about his miraculous birth and how his mother Mary was honored above all the worlds. Muslims are instructed to invoke peace upon him whenever his name is mentioned.

The Qur’an narrates the story of the angel who visited Mary, saying “O Mary, indeed God has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of all the worlds.” (Qur’an 3:42)

The angel said, “O Mary, indeed God gives you good news of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary. He will be honored in this world and the Hereafter and he will be among those closest to God. He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and he will be of the righteous.” (Qur’an 3:44-45)

She said, “My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?” The angel said, “Such is God; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.” (3:47)

The Qur’an describes how the baby Jesus, immediately upon birth, looked up to his mother and comforted her: “Do not be sad; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. So eat and drink and be contented.” (Qur’an 19:24-26)

The Qur’an describes many instances in the life of Jesus: how he preached the worship of God and compassion to people, how he healed the leper, how he healed the blind, and even how he brought the dead back to life.

Our two religions, Christianity and Islam, which both profess love and reverence for Jesus as a central figure in each of our religions, constitute over half of the population of the world.

Mercy and compassion, charity and love are the divine attributes that the Christmas season evokes among Christians. A mother’s devotion, a child’s love, and the promise of God’s mercy and grace in the coming of Jesus to us are sentiments that Muslims can share and appreciate. Continue Reading »

Patience, People

Advent is a time of patience, and our patience is soon to be rewarded!

Among the various reflections I receive daily via e-mail were two that relate, albeit in slightly different ways, to the theme of patience. The first is Eknath Easwaren’s observation that

There is a close connection between speed and impatience. Our culture has become so speeded up today that no one has time to be patient. People in a hurry cannot be patient—so people in a hurry cannot really love. To love, we need to be sensitive to those around us, which is impossible if we are racing through life engrossed in all the things we need to do.

The second is from Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God (a slim volume worth reading in its entirety). Houselander writes

Strangely enough, those who complain the loudest of the emptiness of their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties and fears…. Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us is. From this we shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what way are we to fulfill the work of giving Christ life in us?

Speeded up lives, overcrowded with too many nonessentials. Our invitation is to slow down and to lay aside the nonessentials, and to wait and see what God has in store for us.

The Oldest Advent Hymn

Today’s Gospel from Luke is the song Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “the oldest Advent hymn” – the Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” Mary cries out, going on to express her confidence that God is at work in the midst of a world of struggle and pain. However bleak things might look, God has “remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”

The Magnificat sings of a future of justice and peace brought about through the mercy of God. The Mary who sings this song, says Bonhoeffer, “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.”

I’ve written more than once in recent weeks about hope. I have done so for the same reason we need to listen to the Magnificat: we need to hear over and over again the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of terrorism, poverty, war, suffering and heartache. In the midst of the things that tempt us to hopelessness, we affirm that changes can and will happen through the grace of God. This is the central message of Advent.

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