The Feast of the Epiphany–offering our gifts to the Light of the World

father steven labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

For those who wish to deepen their understanding of the significance of this Sunday—The Solemnity of the Epiphany—the following is offered in preparation for Mass this weekend:

1—This weekend’s celebration ranks among the most important celebrations on our Catholic calendar, with only Easter, Christmas Day and Pentecost taking precedence.

2—The word “Epiphany” is a Greek word meaning “revelation” or “manifestation.” The word “epiphany” may be used in non-religious ways. An “epiphany” can refer to a sudden perception or insight about something. For example: “Then, one day, I had an epiphany, “Why not email my friends back home?”

3—On the Solemnity of the Epiphany we celebrate that the child born in the darkness of night in a lowly manger is revealed as the manifestation of God. Christ is revealed in many ways: as Lord, as King, as the one in whom God is present and acts. All of these manifestations (epiphanies) are “lights” that shine on Christ, revealing a deeper understanding of who he is. Notice that all the readings for today reveal, in a way, a different manifestation of who Christ is and what God is doing through him.

Waiting For The Word Shepherds 10, Flickr Creative Commons
Waiting For The Word Shepherds 10, Flickr Creative Commons

4—The First Reading from Isaiah will speak of a reversal of fortunes for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Jerusalem will no longer be an insignificant city. A light will beckon peoples from many nations.

  • The Second Reading from Saint Paul speaks of Christ as the one who gathers all to share the same promise, the same inheritance, making them members of the same body.
  • The Gospel Reading recounts the wise men following the star and offering their gifts. Of course, the story represents the life of every Christian: we are guided by the light of faith to offer our gifts of service to Christ.
Thomas Hawk The Adoration of the Magi, Flickr Creative Commons
Thomas Hawk The Adoration of the Magi, Flickr Creative Commons

5—Notice that all of the prayers of the day all refer to light as well.

JHG Hendriks Three Kings
JHG Hendriks Three Kings, Flickr Creative Commons

6—Because the liturgy refers to light, splendor, shining and appearance, the Roman Missal directs that the sanctuary should be decorated with more candles than usual. (Reminder: In Catholic worship, an age-old basic principle is that symbols often communicate truths of the faith better than just words.)

7—Epiphany is another moment in the Church’s celebration of the Christmas Season Actually, our celebration of Christmas will continue for another week, until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. From a Christian perspective, there are so many angles, so many perspectives, so much to “take in,” that it takes weeks to “digest” the many different meanings to Christ’s birth. The “secular” celebration of Christmas is now over: trees are coming down, decorations are being put away because the ‘holiday parties” are over and the money-making of the gift giving business is ending. Christians, however, are called to be different. We continue to celebrate and reflect on “the light of the world.” For Christians the primary meaning of Christmas is not gift-giving or parties. (Although gift-giving and parties are wonderful things we should all enjoy!) The meaning of Christmas is Christ-the light.  We pray that by our celebrating that our minds and hearts would be transformed by that light. Why? Because there is always darkness to dispel. And that’s what Christ calls us to do.

Happy Epiphany!

A Blessed Christmas to You, and a New Year full of promise!

nativity

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.'” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2:15-20

Thank you to all my dear readers for an amazing year! I look forward to many wonderful times with you in 2016 and all the new friends we will meet.

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Healed of Christmases Past–the cure is in plain view

Here is my December column for the Catholic Free Press.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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?

Miguel Fraga, Flickr Creative Commons
Miguel Fraga, Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Jorbasa Fotografie 4. Advent 2011, Flickr Creative Commons
Jorbasa Fotografie 4. Advent 2011, Flickr Creative Commons

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).

Barta IV Jesus Joseph Mary, Flickr Creative Commons
Barta IV Jesus Joseph Mary, Flickr Creative Commons

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.

Be a Light: Living Christmas through Advent by Father Steven LaBaire

father steven labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

The Advent wreath, located on the right side of the sanctuary is a centuries-old Christian tradition.

Christine McIntosh Advent wreath completed, Flickr Creative Commons
Christine McIntosh Advent wreath completed, Flickr Creative Commons

The wreath itself is rich in symbolism: Evergreens signify undying life; life even amidst the barrenness of winter.

The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning and no end, symbolizes the eternity of God, and everlasting life found in Christ.

The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent.

Three candles are violet and one is rose. The violet candles represent the color of the sky before sunrise; a sign of hope and a new beginning.

The rose candle lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, signifies the joy that hope and a new beginning bring.

The progressive lighting of the candles expresses light overcoming darkness; the light of Christ conquering whatever is contrary to love, mercy and compassion.

Of course, the wreath is meant to signify what Christ calls us to do: Bring light to wherever there is darkness.

Darkness is not confined to San Bernadino, California or Paris, or to the hearts of those who would wish us or anyone harm.

All kinds of shadows and shades of darkness can be found around us:

  • In the home where a child is beaten by hands or by hurtful words;
  • In the office where injustices and dishonesty are overlooked in the name of profit;
  • In the loveless marriage where partners are deaf to the needs of the one they promised to love and cherish;
  • In the residence where the elderly waste away, abandoned by their families;
  • On the playing field sidelines where the push to win the game at all costs, crushes a child’s feelings;
  •  Among friends when an addiction is never addressed;
  •  In our mouths when we speak criticism without being willing to help in the solution;
  • In cyberspace when a 14 year feels as if her reputation has been destroyed;
  • In popular culture, when prayer is mocked and faith is labeled as a “weakness of the intellect.”
  • In that family, where the gay son has been disowned and told that he does not belong;
  • Or, in a parish, when numbers of people and the almighty dollar are more important than fidelity to what Christ taught.
martinak15 83/365 Light in the Darkness, Flickr Creative Commons
martinak15 83/365 Light in the Darkness, Flickr Creative Commons

None of us are strangers to shadows. We pass through them every day.

Advent beckons us to bring light to wherever there is darkness, whatever be the shade.

How are you being called to bring  “light” to someone, somewhere?

Pray for an increase of light. Pray for the nerve (and for the energy) to be that light.

Amen.
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Going against the grain: Preparing for Christmas through Advent by Father Steven LaBaire

father steven labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

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

More Good Foundation Nativity Jesus Chris Mormon, Flickr Creative Commons
More Good Foundation Nativity Jesus Chris Mormon, Flickr Creative Commons

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.

from http://macooshoes.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/christmas-madness/
from http://macooshoes.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/christmas-madness/

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)

advent wreath with votives

  • 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.
  • Shawn Rossi Breathe
    Shawn Rossi Breathe, Flickr Creative Commons

    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.

Happy Advent!

 

 

Favorite toys, family memories, blessings remembered … what did you get for Christmas?

I loved Christmas as a kid.

Like all kids I’d be up half the night, listening to the activity down in the living room where my dad would be putting together a bicycle or building some other contraption. He’d sometimes ring the jingle bells that hung on our front door because he knew my sister, brother and I were listening; we swore Santa was on our roof with his sleigh full of toys! My older sister would peak down the stairs to spy.

It was such a long wait until 6am when we would run downstairs to open our gifts.

I have fond memories of toys from Christmas past. Among my favorites:

doll and dollhouseSuzy Smart, a talking schoolgirl doll

A magnetic dollhouse – the magnets were on wands and I used to love whipping the family members through the house!

bike and clothesMy first 26 inch bicycle

Barbie clothes, especially the ones my cousin Janie made for me. The white levis were the coolest!

All the cute nature-related stocking stuffers – they were the best!

christmas morningHere’s what we looked like on Christmas morning – my dad could never resist taking a picture and as you can see, we were just thrilled:

When we were a little older, we were required to wait until our grandparents came over before gifts could be opened. Sometimes they wouldn’t arrive until two in the afternoon; that’s a long wait for a kid! I managed to take satisfaction in the fact we still had gifts to open while the rest of the kids in the neighborhood had long ago opened theirs.

Christmas becomes quieter as we grow older  …

although sharing it with small children keeps the magic alive. My husband bought and put together a huge Brio train set for our then one year old son; he ended up playing with the box!

brio trains

But now at 27, he keeps that box of wooden tracks and trains under his old bed at our home to keep for future generations.

Christmas these days is tinged with a bit of melancholy,

remembering parents and other beloved family members who have passed on. This year’s holiday was especially poignant with the thought of my older sister Christine and her husband Tom soon moving down south for their retirement.

We enjoyed a lovely last get-together at their home sharing mementos and memories.

The gathering was intimate: just Christine and Tom, our own family of four and older brother Tommy. Christine set the table with the silver, delicate white tablecloth, cloth napkins and embroidered place mats belonging to our maternal grandmother. Dinners in their Tudor dining room, complete with leaded windows, and a curved entrance with a wrought-iron gate, were formal; this dinner was warm as we each shared something we were grateful for before eating.

Upon opening presents we each received a precious remembrance of past loved ones.

Christine and Tom had recently cleaned out their attic and decided to distribute family mementos. I received my mother’s diploma from Wellesley College along with a special poem and remembrance from her retirement in 1984 from the Botany Department at the college.

Tommy received plans, drawings and photos of miniature ships that our paternal grandfather, known as Pom Pom, had built. We all marveled at the incredible precision and accuracy of the drawings and models; I knew that talent had passed down from grandfather to father to son and felt proud. Here’s a sample drawing from our “Pom Pom” of his 1912 car:

pom pom's car

The day ended quietly and once home,
I indulged in my favorite Christmas present this year,

daktarisent by my brother-in-law and his wife who live an hour outside of Los Angeles. They gave me a DVD of the complete first season of Daktari, a children’s TV show that I loved as a kid (from Wikipedia: The show follows the work of Dr. Tracy, his daughter Paula and his staff, who frequently protected animals from poachers and local officials. Tracy’s pets, a cross-eyed lion named Clarence and a chimpanzee named Judy, were also popular characters.).

It was particularly special that it came from Tim for he loves old TV shows and collects autographs and memorabilia. We had visited them over the summer and Tim and I had talked about favorite TV shows. It touched my heart that he remembered and I literally squealed when I tore off the paper and saw his gift.

So for a little while I became 10 years again, pretending I was Daktari’s daughter, living in Africa taking care of and communing with the animals (especially the big cats!).

Christmas Day was magical again.

But most importantly, thoughts of the baby Jesus and His birth into my life and so many others was never far from my mind. I was pleased to light all four of my advent candles for dinner with our son just before Christmas:

advent wreath with votives

A lovely tabletop tree highlights the manger scene:

manger

Magical, yes. And blessed. Merry Christmas!

How was your Christmas? What were your favorite toys from Santa?

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Solace in the rose-colored candle: a prayer for the 26 Innocents of Newtown, CT

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)

rose colored candle2Amidst 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?

innocent-children

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.

rose colored candle singleGrief 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.

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When the Man Comes Around – guest post from The Holy Rover

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.

john the baptist and johnny cash

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.”

Click here to read the rest of this post.

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