Note: this is my Catholic Free Press column for December; it is also running on Catholicmom.com.
Here’s an except:
There is a lot of pressure applied to people during the holiday season to conform to some artificial standard. Society tells us to behave in one way while the opposite is preached by our Church. Newlyweds are expected to be present at all the family gatherings despite the impossible logistics. The financially strapped are supposed to spend, spend, spend. The domestically challenged must entertain and cook up a storm. Those still licking wounds from Christmases past are supposed to act like they were never wounded. The lonely should not be lonely and the grieving should stop mourning and put it behind them.
So how can we be of help? And what if we fit one of these categories — can we be kind to ourselves?
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River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.
It’s here. The Christmas season. How does this make you feel?
Is it excitement as in days of old when you were a child?
Or, is it long to-do lists that never end? Shopping till we drop? Noise and chaos and endless obligations that make us tired and cranky while all the while we are told to be “merry?”
Is it dread, trying to stretch limited financial resources to fulfill gift obligations? Is it regret, frustration and guilt that we cannot buy what we wish for our loved ones?
Is it loneliness? Are we missing someone, loved ones who have died or moved away? Do we feel empty, sad or bitter?
The Christmas season evokes powerful memories and emotions, magnifying every joy as well as all the hurt, disappointment and loss we have experienced in our lives. Our reaction to any unattended and festering wounds will be visited upon everyone around us, especially those we love.
Tucked away in the midst of all this is a liturgical season often overlooked: Advent. It is the antithesis of a chaotic, noisy commercial Christmas; a soothing and sanguine contrast to a season clouded by wounds and losses. Advent does not look mournfully to the past; it draws our attention to a hopeful future while being firmly rooted in the here and now.
Advent features the key players of our faith: Mary, Joseph and of course, Jesus Christ. It features some of the most moving and poetic passages from the Bible–prophesies of old heralding the coming of the Messiah as the shoot of Jesse, filled with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and of strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord (from Isaiah 11).
It documents the greatest act of obedience in history when a young virgin accepts the invitation from God to bear his Son. That obedience is not an onerous “do not” but a joyful “I do!” as evidenced by Mary’s rushing to the side of her kinswoman Elizabeth (thought barren yet pregnant) and spontaneously praising God with her and the babes in their wombs in the exquisite prayer of the Magnificat.
It illustrates sublime acts of trust, surrender, generosity and courage in Joseph who fully embraces the responsibility of taking Mary to be his wife despite the fact that she is carrying a child not his own. Going against the grain of longstanding tradition and enduring the naysayers, he knows there is a bigger picture to consider: Mary’s child is God’s Son. And he makes room for them.
So how does all of this help to sooth frazzled nerves, heal the wounds of Christmases past and fill empty and grieving hearts?
I can’t say how specifically. I only know that each year as I focus on Advent and turn away from a commercial Christmas, I have felt that soothing, that healing. My empty heart is filled.
I still grieve for loved ones. I still struggle with squeezing out the last dollar. I still battle with a heart that is small (although it is growing). I only know that the other day when I went to the Christmas Tree shop to finish off a gift basket for church, I felt serene, even enjoying the experience. To me, the Christmas Tree shop is the quintessential representation of a frazzled, noisy, chaotic commercial Christmas. And yet I felt deep contentment.
It’s the fruit of Advents past, reflecting on the readings, listening to the music, and looking to Mary and Joseph as the examples. Philippians 4:8 sums it up perfectly: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (NIV)
Immersion into the refuge of Advent has healed my Christmas.
This weekend, with the First Sunday of Advent, we begin a new liturgical year.
And, with the start of a new Church Year, we begin a new cycle of Scripture readings at Mass. For the next fifty-two weeks, the Gospel Readings will be taken primarily from the Gospel according to Luke.
The season of Advent–making room for Christ
The word “Advent” is derived from a Latin word meaning “coming” or “arrival.” During this brief four-week season of Advent, the liturgy invites us to think about Christ entering our lives from three angles: past, present and future. Christ persistently knocks at the door of our hearts. Do we let him in? Or, like the innkeeper in Bethlehem, do we reply, “There is no room for you here.” And, if we allow Christ into our hearts, how might that change our attitudes, priorities, our schedules? Would we start to rethink our lives? Our past… Where we’re going… And what ultimately matters right now, today.
Obviously wider secular culture doesn’t focus on much on that during the period between Black Friday and Christmas. For the greater number of children, the primary way of preparing for Christmas is to go back and forth to the shopping mall. For many adults these last four weeks become a frenzy to buy and purchase as well as to show up at as many parties and holiday “gatherings” as required. And while joy (hopefully) can be found in both giving to others and in celebrating with others, the net result for all too many is fatigue and stress; a season overloaded with too much.
Deep within we know that it doesn’t have to be that way. We can make choices. Choices that may differ from the mainstream.
Going against the grain
Often as adults we tell teenagers that it is “OK” and even good to stand apart from “the crowd.” Simplifying this time of year might be an opportunity as adults to practice what we preach.
Here are some thoughts about simplifying and de-cluttering your schedule, if you feel a need to experience a calmer, more reflective season. If you like it just as it is, skip what’s below and have a Blessed Advent! But if you wonder, consider the following:
Jesus never said “give lots of gifts to celebrate my birthday.” He did say,” love another, as I have loved you.” (That’s 365 days a year.)
It’s OK to say “no” to an invitation. Reasonable people really do understand that it can be a busy time. Reasonable people understand you can’t go to everything. (If they are “unreasonable,” you probably may want to consider why you are going and if you really must go.)
Things don’t have to be “perfect” at your gathering. Most people are more touched by the warmth of hospitality rather than a perfectly decorated home or cuisine perfection in every detail.
The Christmas Season begins on December 24 and concludes on January 10. You don’t have to cram everything in before December 25. You CAN cram everything in. But remember if you do, that’s a choice YOU make. There’s no rule saying we have to follow “the crowd.” (Yes, in the church calendar, Christmas ends on Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Jan 11)
If you want to create memories, think of this: most people remember the experience of being loved and being together. Few of us remember what we got for Christmas 10 years ago. It’s nice to put thought into a gift. But don’t go overboard. And, once you’ve given it to the person, let go. Otherwise it isn’t really a “gift,” you’re still “holding on” to it by thinking about it.
If you have friends and family that already have too much “stuff,” consider making a donation to a charity in their name.(Does Uncle Joe really need a fruit cake or another sweater?) Some folks would be delighted to have a donation made to cancer research or to Saint Vincent de Paul in their name.
You are NOT responsible for everyone having a good time at Christmas. We can welcome and create an environment of hospitality. Beyond that, each individual makes his or her own choice about whether he or she will enjoy themselves. Don’t clutter your mind with the worry.
Gift giving doesn’t have to be an ordeal: If you know people who enjoy going out to dinner, give a gift of a night out to dinner together. If someone could use some extra cash, a monetary gift may very well be what they need. Sometimes we over-complicate the gift-giving of Christmas. We can obsess over getting something “creative” or “distinctive” or finding that “unique gift.” A rule of thumb:
What do they need? What would be useful to them? What brings them joy? Between those three, you can figure it out. Keep it simple.
The holiday season is a difficult time for many people for reasons ranging from grief to separation to financial difficulties. Respect their feelings. Be kind. Listen. Be compassionate But don’t try to make them “feel” what you feel about Christmas. That’s not your job or responsibility.
At some point you may drop the ball: Forget to buy a gift, overlook something you were supposed to do, miss an appointment. Can you forgive yourself? It’s not the end of the world. (Charity begins at home.)
If you are working with a group (family, co-workers, parishioners) and are in charge of an event, inevitably someone won’t like some aspect of what you’ve done. Can you live with that? Or are youliving with the child-like fantasy that you can please everyone? If you still cling to the fantasy, beginning to “let go” might be one of the best gifts you give yourself this year.
As Catholics, we don’t have to downplay the religious dimension of Christmas when we celebrate. Being Catholic is part of who we are in the same way that being American or of Italian or French heritage or being male or female are aspects of who we are. If the people you gather with love you, they will love you for who you are. No need to downplay your faith. Be who you are and celebrate that.
It’s OK to ask questions: Do my kids really need one more thing? Is all the stuff making them kinder, more generous? Can we find ways of downplaying “the stuff” and just have fun together? Or do my kids “need” devices to keep them entertained? Can we do Christmas differently this year? What would happen if we changed our routines? If we try something different and it doesn’t work out, will the sky fall in? Why do we HAVE to things this way every year? And perhaps most importantly: How does Christ fit into all this? Asking the questions doesn’t mean anything has to change. It just opens the door in case they should change.
On airplanes we’re advised in the event of urgency to put on our own oxygen masks before attempting to assist the person next to us. When we can’t breathe we can’t help others. It is important to care for ourselves both physically and spiritually. These weeks are no exception. There is nothing noble about “burning out” and “acting out” because we haven’t cared enough for our bodies and souls. Grace enters our lives when we honestly acknowledge our need. Can you hear Christ knocking at the door, yearning to enter?
May the Advent of a new Church Year bring new insights, opportunities and new life.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! So says Saint Paul in the fourth chapter of Philippians.
Each reading this third Sunday of Advent proclaimed joy:
Shout for joy, daughter Zion! sing joyfully, Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem! (Zephaniah 13:4)
Shout with exultation, City of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel! (Isaiah 12:6)
Amidst a sea of somber purple, the rose-colored candle was lit on the Advent wreath; a sign of joyful expectation for the Lord’s coming as Christmas day draws near.
Yet why does my heart not rejoice? Why is it that a mist hangs heavily over so many?
We all know why. A modern version of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents took place that past Friday in an idyllic, close-knit Connecticut town.
It was senseless and cruel when Herod ordered the original deed in his irrational desire to destroy the Christ Child. The first chapter of Exodus described the Pharaoh’s heartless decree to drown infant boys in his quest to slay the baby Moses.
And it is just as incomprehensible, just as heart-wrenching now knowing those twenty precious little children between the ages of six and seven, and six courageous women died an equally terrible death. Watching their families and friends in Newtown, CT careen from terror to shock and finally, to a grief so deep that it feels bottomless casts a pall over a joyful holiday. There appears to be no consolation.
And yet we were called to be joyful this Gaudate Sunday. We are expected to celebrate Christmas morning with our families while others will have unopened presents under the tree and an empty space at the dinner table.
I try to picture the children and the heroic adults who attempted to save them in the arms of Jesus, hovering over their families like the angels they are, trying to impart some consolation.
Will their loved ones be able to know it? To feel it?
The Christian faith teaches us that God is nearest in those moments when we cannot find the words or process the feelings or even lift our heads in our grief.
I think of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsame, begging for consolation from His Heavenly Father and the angels coming to minister to Him. He knew His Father was listening and therefore could experience their consolation.
All those new angels in Heaven are waiting and ready to offer that same consolation to their grieving loved ones.
Jesus calls on us to be alert, awake and ready: prepared to see Him at any turn.
I dig deep to pray that these grieving people will be able to recognize God in their midst and thus experience the ministering presence of their angels who long to offer consolation.
Grief is an opportunity, a moment of supreme and sublime vulnerability. It can be a time of transformation if we allow ourselves to be carried on the journey. It is tumultuous, frightening and exceedingly painful. If we are open, we can find that joy that Saint Paul talks about beneath the hurt. Slowly, gently, this joy can be the healing balm.
The newest angels up in Heaven are ready and waiting to apply the balm. The rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath can be the sign of their consolation.
So I will pray these grieving parents, siblings and husbands will be ready to receive that consolation and I invite you to do the same.
What do St. John the Baptist, the season of Advent and Johnny Cash have in common? You’d be surprised! Lori Erickson, from her Holy Rover blog, draws the parallel in this fascinating post:
For those of you out there who are churchy types, you know that we’re now in the season of Advent. While the rest of the world is singing Christmas carols and reveling in the sweetness of the season, the liturgical calendar focuses on the so-called Little Apocalypse (which warns of great tribulation to come) and John the Baptist (the person you least want to show up at your annual Christmas party, what with his poor grooming habits and fondness for “brood of vipers” metaphors). The reason for the somber tone is that in the church year, this is meant to be a time of waiting and repentence, a period meant to prepare ourselves for the coming of mystery.
Several years ago I was trying to find an example of how the message of John the Baptist might be interpreted in today’s idiom, and I kept coming back to Johnny Cash: the man in black, the sinner who found salvation, the singer with that exquisite, rough-hewn voice. I remember that when he died a few years ago, there was a vivid line in an obituary for him–”It takes a sinner,” it said, “to see the blinding light of grace.”