Giving and Receiving

“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.]


Advent Reflection Series: Incarnation

Today was the second gathering of the three-session Advent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our first session last week focused on the meaning of Advent. Our theme for this week was Incarnation.

My talk addressed the extraordinary claim of Christianity that God becomes human. I talked about God’s decision to incarnate, using Ignatius’ contemplation of the Incarnation for the vehicle for that. I then reflected on the Incarnation as both the revelation of God’s love for us and our security that God cannot be separated from us. Finally I addressed the challenge to us of Incarnation: What difference does it make to how I live my life that God became human? What challenge does Incarnation present to me?

After my talk, I gave the participants time to engage in a contemplation of the incarnation and we ended with some group discussion.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 18:20.) A copy of the the handout participants used for their individual reflection during the session is here.

Embodied Prayer

The Christian faith is an incarnational faith. We believe God becomes human in Jesus Christ. We express believe in the resurrection of the body. That tells us that there is significance in our physical being, not merely our spiritual being.

A friend forwarded to me a Lenten reflection by Fr. Robert Barron titled Why Your Body Matters for Prayer. In it Fr. Barron provides what strikes me as good advice:

Christian prayer is embodied prayer. In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters we discovered an experienced devil giving lessons to a young temptor. At one point, the veteran orders his young charge to encourage his ‘client,’ a budding Christian, to envision prayer as something very ‘interior’ and ‘mystical,’ having little to do with posture or the position of the body. He wants the poor Christian to think that whether he stands, slouches, sits, or kneels is irrelevant to the quality of his communication with God. This, of course, is the Cartesian voice, the belief that our bodies and souls are independent and have little to do with each other.

But then consider the view of William James. In his Principles of Psychology, James writes that it is not so much sadness that makes us cry as crying that makes us feel sad. The body in a significant sense precedes the mind.

The same dynamic occurs when we pray. It is not so much keen feelings of devotion that force us to our knees as kneeling that gives rise to keen feelings of devotion.

If you’re having difficulty in prayer today, try kneeling, or bowing, or making some sort of reverent gesture. The body often leads the mind into a deeper spiritual space.


Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius begins with an exercise Ignatius gives us that is referred to as Contemplating the Incarnation. He invites us to take a step into the heart of the Trinity, from where we overlook the world from the heart of God. We know the whole world is embraced by God and we enter into the heart of God and overlook the whole world.

And what do we see? We see suffering, destruction, sadness, death, birth, life, hope, love. We see both the violence, the pain and the suffering and the job and love – and we see the heart of God holding both. Sin, injustice and war…and also peace, nonviolence and love – all held in the heart of God. We need to understand there is both – the violence and the love.

We see all this from the heart of God, experiencing the passionate love of God. Ignatius wants us to imagine God saying, “What more can I do?” And hear Jesus says, “I’ll go, Father.”

Ignatius wants us to see that, in spite of sin in the world, and my own sin, God loves us so much that he sends the Word into our midst.

Michael Moynahan, S.J. has a poem entitled Incarnation, designed to convey something of this first meditation. Here is how it goes:

We tried in so many ways to communicate our love.
If communication is not what you say but what people hear,
then what we said was warped and wrenched
into distancing prescriptions that had no heart.

You asked for food. We sent manna.
You asked for drink. Water flowed from the rock.
You asked for directions. Moses brought the law.
And on and on.
Still you grew more distant, more deaf, more blind.
Memories dulled. Speech slurred. Dreams dissolved into wander dust.

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.

Wishing Christmas blessings to you and your families!

Baby Jesus in the Drawer

I don’t know what your practice is, but in our family, when we set up our Nativity set, my mom always hid infant Jesus until Christmas morning, when he would be brought out and placed in his crib. (I’ll leave out the part about my three siblings and I fighting over who would get to put Jesus in the crib.)

I still do the same. For two weeks, Baby Jesus has been in a drawer in our family room, and Mary, Joseph and the shepherds and animals have been standing guard over, and gazing at, an empty crib.

Last night we arrived in New York, where we will celebrate Christmas with my family. As soon as I walked into my mother’s apartment and saw her Nativity, I exclaimed, “Drats,” although “drats” was not actually the word I used. “I left Baby Jesus in the drawer. Now he’ll be there until after Christmas.”

Fortunately for us, the Incarnation doesn’t depend on my getting Baby Jesus out into his crib on time. Fortunately for us, God doesn’t require that we get it all perfect to manifest in the world. God takes our best efforts and works with them. Unto us, a child is born – even if he is still lying in my drawer.

On this Christmas Eve morning, I leave you with the words of a 15th Century verse titled In the Silent Night, by an unknown author:

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.

Could but thy soul, O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

The Wine of Renewal

At Mass yesterday at Christ the King, Fr. Dale offered a different way of thinking about the Gospel account of the wedding feast of Cana, the episode in John’s Gospel about which I wrote yesterday.

Fr. Dale spoke of Mary as addressing more than the absence of wine when she spoke to her son. (“They have no wine.”) Rather, he suggested, Mary was addressing the empty state of the religious lives of the people. She could see that something new, something intoxicating was necessary to bring life to their arid lives. So, on behalf of the people, she asked her son (“compelled” was the word Fr. Dale used) to do something.

And Jesus responded, Fr. Dale suggested, not with a “razzle-dazzle” miracle (although he did acknowledge that it was a awfully good one), but with a sign – with an act that pointed to something new – something made new in the Incarnation. That is, God’s presence in and among us. Jesus himself is the new wine – the limitless sign of our renewal.

Near the end of his homily, Fr. Dale reminded us that with Jesus’ spirit animating and invigorating us, we are the sacrament of his presence here on earth. He ended saying, “Jesus is more than a miracle worker, and we are vastly more than we think we are.”

The Feast of St. Stephen

Yesterday was a joyous day of celebration – our celebration of the Incarnation. As incongruous as it is to go immediately from birth of the Savior to martyrdom, on this day after Christmas we celebrate the feast of St. Stephon, first martyr of the Catholic Church. The juxtaposition of the two events serves as a reminder of an important fact – that the Incarnation of Christ is intimately linked to His death and resurrection.

We read in Acts that Stephen was “filled with grace and power” as he preached. His words angered some and they “threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.” Twice, Stephen echoes Christ’s words on the cross, first crying out to the Lord to receive his spirit and then asking God to forgive those who are killing him.

The Incarnation begins the incredible act of God’s love that finds its completion in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the total self-gift of Jesus that allows Stepheon to confidently and triumpahtly announce before his death: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The Son of God, though whom Stephen, and all of us, will live forever.

St. Stephen, pray for us. May be be filled with your faith and courage.

God’s Plan for Salvation

It seems like Advent has been speeding by and here we are in the fourth and final Sunday before Advent. Christ is coming….and soon.

I wrote yesterday about the Matthean genealogy of Jesus Christ, which chronicles God’s long and deliberate plan for bringing about the Incarnation. For forty-two generations, God prepared for Jesus’ being born as human.

In the beginning of he Second Week of the Spiritual Exerises, St. Ignatius invites us to be with God as his plan for Incarnation unfolds. He 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.

Daniel Ruff, S.J., make this suggestion: “If you try this at home―and I heartily encourage it during this Advent season―try to pay attention to the Trinity’s affective responses to this complicated, messy mass of humanity. Pay attention to your own feelings as well. If you pretend in your imagination to be back in the time before Jesus’ coming, how do you feel looking down “from where God sits” at the mixed, complicated messiness of the unredeemed human condition? Would you respond as the Trinity did?”

Last week, I invited the participants in my Advent Retreat in Daily Living to pray one day with the Ignatius’ contemplation of the Incarnation, and then to also spend a day with a reflection written by Michael Moynajan, S.J., and contained in a book titled Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuit.

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.

However you choose to do so, spend some time contemplating the enormity of God’s decision to become human…and what it says about God’s love for us.

God’s Desire for Incarnation – Advent Retreat in Daily Living (Week 2)

Today was the second gathering of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School. Despite the fact that it is the last week of classes before exams, we had a good turnout of students, along with faculty and staff and others.

The theme of the upcoming week’s prayer is God’s Desire for Incarnation. We began, as always, by giving the participants time to share in small groups a little of their experience of the past week of prayer with the prophets.

After the sharing, I talked about God’s plan of salvation, as told through the genealogy the begins St. Matthew’s Gospel. (Raymond Brown suggests that this one reading in itself contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testament that the whole Church – Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – should proclaim.) After my talk, we had some good comments from participants, including views about what it means that Jesus descends from the line of Joseph when Joseph himself had no biological part in Jesus’ incarnation.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 26:55.) You can find a copy of this week’s prayer material here.

An Incarnational and Sacramental Faith

There have been any number of books written by Catholic writers on the theme of “Why I Am [or Stay] Catholic.” The books are one reflection of the frequency with which non-Catholics put that question to Catholics and with which Catholics ask the question of themselves or of other Catholics. They are also one reflection of the struggle many Catholics have trying to answer for themselves why they stay Catholic despite their own struggles with certain aspects of Catholicism and the departure from the faith of many of their friend and family.

As anyone who knows me or who regularly reads this blog knows, I’ve had my share of struggles with the question of what it means to call oneself Catholic. Difficulty accepting certain teachings of the Church, anger at bishops’ handling of clergy child abuse (and other issues), and so on, all contribute to the question rising at various times. It came up for me again the other day, as I sat having coffee with a friend who observed, “You know, I’m not sure I’m Catholic anymore.”

Part of my own wrestling with that question has prompted me to ask a number of friends of mine – priests and lay people – some variant of the question of what it is that they see as what defines one as Catholic or what they think the core of Catholicism is.

As I’ve reflected on the issue, it seems to me the best answer has to do with incarnation. To call Catholicism an “incarnational faith,” means more than that God became human, as central and as important as the Incarnation of Jesus is to Catholicism. As Tom Groome put it in a recent book review published in America magazine, central to Catholicism is that “it encourages people to enflesh their faith, to realize it in their lives, far beyond the purely confessional…Catholic Christian faith must get done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.'” Our faith has to make a difference in how we live our lives, not motivated by heaven or hell, but as a response to the love of God who so loved us that God became human.

Groome goes on in his book review to talk about what he calls the “other side of the incarnational coin,” that is, sacramentality. Indeed, sacramentality is frequently the answer I get from people when I ask what they view as the central element of Catholicism.

By sacramentality, I (and they) mean more than the seven capital “S” Sacraments recognized by Catholicism. Rather, I mean the recognition that there is no aspect of creation that is not permeated with God’s presence. Our recognition of the special presence of Jesus on bread and wine consecrated on the altar does not negate the reality that God is present everywhere. If we believe that, it has to affect everything – how we see and who we are in the world.

In his book review, Groome suggests that these “twin principles” of incarnation and sacramentality “are what make Catholicism most worthwhile, why anyone can well stay, regardless of disappointments and complaints and the scandals that beset the church.”