Gem of lump of coal?

“You’re a gem!” I told my colleague recently. He responded that he was merely a piece of coal being transformed. Well, that response stopped me in my tracks. 

When folks do a good job, I do like giving positive feedback. At one time, I was known for giving “gold stars,” and if I didn’t say it, sometimes they would ask if the job was worthy of any gold stars. With the regular shifting of resources and reorganizations at the company, the gold stars fell out of use. I’m not sure why exactly I used the term gem this time, but I truly meant that the work provided was a shining example. I was so surprised by not only the humility of the response, but how deep of a meaning could be teased out of it. In some regards the amount of pressure from the volume of work that needs to get done could be one explanation of the analogy. Knowing that I used the term gem, the first thing that came to my mind was a diamond. From there I thought of one of my favorite songs, Diamonds from Hawk Nelson, a topic covered in a previous blog

My contemplation of that analogy continued, and I started thinking about the saints. We see saints as beings who are perfect, but they certainly were not so while on earth, at least not for their entire life. St. Augustine wrote a full book about his Confessions. While on earth, each of these carbon-based lifeforms, were slowly being transformed into diamonds shining brilliantly from the light of Jesus Christ. They faced adversity and hardship, poverty and disbelief of others for their vocation. Yet they walked with Jesus to do God’s will, keeping their focus on Him. Now we see them as God has always seen them: as perfect gems.  

It can be very difficult to see ourselves, especially our inner selves, as anything other than a dirty piece of coal, ready to be thrown into the fire. Yet God can see the diamonds we can become. He is calling us not to take the easy way out and escape the pressure, but to lean into Him and walk with Him through the difficult times. We may be dust, but we are beloved dust in His eyes! He does not want us to settle for the way we are now, He wants us to sparkle like the diamonds He knows us to be. While my human instinct wants me to flee from hardship, my spiritual soul asks me to rejoice in the difficulties of life since these are the tools God can use to transform me.

We are all called to be saints. We are also not yet saints. Let us not judge the coal-side of our lives too harshly, but rather look to God to lead us through the pressures of life so that when we reach heaven, we too can see the gems He has called us to be.   

Thoughts and actions

The world seems like a scary place at the moment. With the rising rates of the pandemic and civil unrest, not to mention a heavy workload for a tiny team, it is very difficult to process just what is happening and how I need to react to it all.

 As the infection rates increase, I’m starting to re-think what I’m doing and where I’m going. My workout has gone virtual since the owner had to close the physical location. I still go to Mass, to the grocery store and to visit my Mom. Since attending Mass in person is a possibility, the decision to attend is mine. I am now the one to determine if the safety procedures that have been put into place are sufficient to limit any exposure to the virus; I have  to weigh the probability of contracting the virus against receiving the Eucharist. 

In a video message, Bishop Barron called for a nationwide examination of conscience after the violence in DC. I saw the video while I was waiting for my dinner to warm up, and it was the first I had heard that something happened. It wasn’t until I turned on the 10 PM news to catch the early weather report that I saw the magnitude of the calamity. I still don’t think I’ve processed the events fully, and I’m not sure I will ever be able to comprehend why. 

An examination of conscience is not just a spiritual exercise, but a call to deeper reflection on what we are thinking and what we are doing. Our thoughts and beliefs help us bring order to the information we take in from the world around us. We are bombarded on a daily basis with noises from nature and from machines, with data from our technology and our interactions with others; there’s a tremendous amount of “stuff” our brains need to churn through! As we process all the information, we make decisions as to what’s right and wrong, what we like and what’s not important. The result of all this can be seen in our words and actions. 

In a spiritual examination, we look to see how our thoughts, words, and actions align with the direction that God has provided for us in Scripture and the example Jesus gave us. For Catholics, this exercise is to help us as we journey towards heaven. We know we’re not perfect and some days will be harder than others. We will fall, many times. However, by reviewing the what, how, and why of our daily life, we can ask God’s forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong, ask for His strength and grace to do better tomorrow, and give Him praise for allowing us to be His light on earth. 

A national examination of conscience is a call to stop and reflect on what we think, how we react, and why we choose the actions we take whether or not we use God’s commandments as a baseline. It’s not unlike the way we evaluate our activities in light of new information about the pandemic.  The escalation in political turmoil calls all Americans to question their responses and to make choices to align ourselves more firmly with our beliefs. 

I’ve been following Fr. Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year podcast, which has included readings from the book of Job. Seeing the tragedy of Job has reminded me that calamities happen, tragedies happen, bad things have happened for many millennia. Yet God is here with us. God will use even the bad stuff to bring us closer to Him. The world will always be a scary place, yet when we keep our eyes on God, and examine our thoughts and actions to become the best version of ourselves, we can rest in the peace of God like a hug from our Father, giving us the confidence for another day.   

Out of sight but firmly in mind

It’s time to turn off the Christmas lights for the last time. Time to un-trim the tree and pack away all the Christmas decorations. Another Christmas season is over, but is that it?

As we return to the ordinary routines in our lives, Christmas can easily become something that falls from our minds. We complain when stores start stocking Christmas ornaments in the summer, or a cable channel plays Christmas movies for the month of July. Yet, the reality is that we need to keep the most miraculous gift to mankind always in mind. As mortal beings, we seem to look at the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as the most important thing of all. Perhaps because of our own mortality, the thought of willingly giving up oneself as a sacrifice is very hard to comprehend. However, in order for Jesus to give up that life, He first had to take on flesh, He had to become one of us. There is no logic that can explain the action of a deity that will put aside His glory and become fully human. The only possible explanation is love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) It’s this love for us that gives us every beat of our heart and every breath we take.

With Lent right around the corner, our focus will shift to that penitential season, yet in the week prior to Holy Week this year, we will pause our Lenten somberness to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation on March 25. If in the season of Lent the Church reminds us of Christmas, we too should look for ways of keeping Christmas alive all year long. One way is praying the joyful mysteries of the Rosary, perhaps with a deeper sense of meditation and allowing the joy of the season to wash over us. Another way is in the celebration of the Mass, as the priest consecrates the Eucharist, Jesus becomes as present in the Holy Communion as He was in the manger all those years ago, for He is truly Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in that sacrament. As we lift our hands to receive Him, let us approach the sacrament as if we were receiving a little baby, careful of how we cradle Him in our hand and respectful in how we receive and consume Him.  

If we want to keep the Love of God firmly in mind, we need to practice. Perhaps the next time we see something Christmas related when it is “out of season,” instead of rolling our eyes and complaining about the commercialism of the holiday, we might instead say a prayer of thanksgiving for being reminded of how much God, through Jesus, loves us and ask for help in keeping the Christmas gift firmly in mind all the year through. 

Fresh start

We will soon be saying goodbye to 2020 and hello to 2021. Many are eager to see this year be finished. What is it about starting a new calendar year that makes things seem different?

Perhaps I’m a bit of a realist. I know that things won’t change overnight. All of the challenges and issues experienced in 2020 will not suddenly disappear when the clock strikes midnight. Not only will some of the difficulties remain, but there will be new ones that surface. New graces and blessings will also be introduced in the coming year. It’s important to remember that events are not contained within a particular timeframe, like a day, month, or year; however we use a particular timeframe to measure events within our lives. Considering that the calendar we now use, generally called the Gregorian calendar in honor of Pope Gregory XIII who commissioned the research and proposed the changes, is a relatively recent formulation. It was only in 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII announced this new method of tracking days to align better with the solar year than the previous Julian calendar. It also allowed for Easter to align closer to the spring equinox, which is how the date is calculated (the Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox).

While we now celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st, that was not always the case. It sounds odd, but the New Year was celebrated on different days in different countries, usually based on the equinox, either in March or September. Even today, many countries celebrate New Year’s Day in different months based on either an equinox, a lunar phase, or due to following a separate religious calendar. Yet for those who celebrate New Year’s Day coinciding with a new calendar year, it brings thoughts for a fresh start and hope that life will be better. We make New Year’s resolutions to improve ourselves. Starting new things on the first day of the first month of a new year just seems logical. Oftentimes we are successful for the first day; it’s the subsequent days that can be challenging. In reality, every day provides us an opportunity for a fresh start. And when we fall short of what we expect of ourselves, we can start again once we acknowledge our shortcomings and resolve to do better starting at that moment; no need to wait until a new day/week/month/year begins. We should not let our method of measuring time dictate a new beginning. Rather we should notate our resolve of starting again within the present time scale and celebrate our improvements on a regular basis. 

While God is beyond or outside of time and space, as the Creator, He is constantly in a loving act of creating all things anew. He wants us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be: that is to do His will out of Love for Him. When we resolve to improve ourselves in the coming year, let us seek His guidance and support, regardless of whether the improvement is spiritual, physical, emotional, etc. And when we need to restart, He’ll be there to support and renew our initiatives. For the challenges that arise outside of our control, either again or new, let us surrender to His Mercy and Love that give us the grace to accept our dependence on His omnipotence to see us through. 

One of us

Regardless of whether we are ready or not, all the preparation and time waiting has come to an end. Christmas is here! Even knowing it is coming, it can seem like Christmas springs up before us, catching us off guard. While our panic may be different from that of the shepherds, perhaps we can look to them for inspiration as to how to react. 

Can you imagine looking up into the night sky and seeing a “multitude” of angels? How awesome! How terrifying! The shepherds were the one of the lowest in ancient society, and to be granted such a sight, not to mention the wonderful message given to them, must have been overwhelming to them at the least. What did it sound like when they heard the praise of God said in unison? Perhaps their solitary life and their skills at understanding the nature surrounding them prepared them to be able to receive this message. After all, in order to manage the flock they would need to be cognizant of the health of each individual member of the flock, be aware of any dangers in the area that would want to harm the flock, and make sure the animals had enough food to graze on and water to drink. If they were watching over the flock in the night, perhaps they worked in shifts. Did the angels wake any who may have been sleeping? Or were some told about the magnificent appearance?

As a spinner and knitter, my curiosity is in the details of the flock. How many were there? Was it a combination of sheep and goats or just one or the other? How did the animals react? Were they the ones who noticed the angels first? Did they join in the angels’ chorus of praise with their bleating; or was the angels visit no different than a thunderstorm with loud noise and bright lights? Since the shepherds were guarding the flock at night, they were responsible for all of them. Did the shepherds discuss who would go and find the child that the angels spoke about? Or did they all go into the town? What about the flock, did it journey with them or did they stay in the fields? Did they find Jesus that very first night or did it take several days/nights of searching for Him?   

It is only Luke’s Gospel that gives us the account of the shepherds. What we do know is that there was discussion among them and they agreed that they needed to quickly go into Bethlehem and find the Baby. Once they found the Holy Family, “they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.” (Lk 2:17-18) For people who were on the outskirts of society, who did they tell? Travelers? Other shepherds? Townsfolk with whom they came in contact? Perhaps who they told is not important, but rather that they spread their experience and the message. This is what Christmas is all about. God became one of us. He came so we can have a personal relationship with Him. By our encounter with Him, we are changed and we cannot keep the details to ourselves; this is the good news that we are called to share with others and to invite them to seek out the Christ Child and experience Him for themselves.

Lastly, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen,” (Lk 2:20) forever changed by this monumental event. While they may have returned to their shepherding jobs, they continued to praise God. Most likely they knew they would probably not see this special child become a man or hear his preaching. Yet this encounter with Love personified became a blessing without end. So let us feast on this Christmas season with all its wonders and songs of praise, filling in us a never ending storage of praise for God who became man to be with us, redeem us, and invite us to everlasting union with Him.

Waiting… and waiting

Wait. No one likes to be told to wait. In today’s culture waiting is not something that is welcomed. To wait is to pause and allow other events to take place. Waiting takes control out of our hands. In this last week of Advent, we look at the Holy Family and the waiting they endured.

How long did Mary and Joseph have to wait in Bethlehem? We don’t really know and there are various answers, but it was probably a few years. While we know it was the census that took Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem, we have no idea if they both waited in line to register or if only Joseph went. While the birth of a baby can bring enough disruption to a regular routine, this was a double whammy. They had to put their lives in Nazareth on pause and travel to register for the census and with the birth of Jesus, they ended up staying for at least over a year. In recent history, most people would have found that unimaginable, yet this pandemic has shown us all how life can be disrupted for such an extended amount of time.

One thing that waiting does give us is the gift of time. During the period of waiting, we can use that time to reflect. Depending on what is causing us to wait, it can be a positive reflection on the blessings that God has bestowed on us, or it can be more of a prayer to surrender to God’s will. When we know the duration, waiting can be a bit easier to accept and may even lead to anticipation, where we look forward to the resolution of the wait. But an unknown wait duration can be challenging unless we look for the little blessings we receive daily. While Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, we know their waiting was punctuated with at least two visits. One was from a group of shepherds who told of them of the magnificent announcement from the angels. The second was from a group of wise astrologers, who followed a star to find the special Child whose birth it heralded. I would have to think that Mary and Joseph also had some extended family in Bethlehem for the census that also visited them, however, they may not have stayed as long as Mary and Joseph did. 

It can be tempting to busy ourselves when we are waiting, to fill this time that seems empty. Yet if we take too much on, we can end up exhausting ourselves rather than taking time to rest and be refreshed when our waiting comes to an end. This is especially true from a spiritual perspective, and we need to carefully balance our daily activities while allowing time for rest and reflection. Let us use this last week of Advent to embrace waiting and the time it gives us as gifts given in anticipation of Christmas. 

Joyful preparations

We’re at the halfway mark now. Just a little less than two weeks to the big day. In terms of preparation, this is my favorite Sunday: Gaudete Sunday. 

Gaudete means rejoice in Latin. After two weeks of quiet preparation through introspection, we are asked to, “Rejoice always.” (1 Thes 5:16) We are reminded, “Rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.” (Isaiah 61:10) In most years, it is easy to get carried away with the joy of the season, singing Christmas songs and seeing all the beautiful light displays that adorn humble homes. It’s almost too easy to commemorate Christ’s coming over 2,000 years ago. However, Christmas, and the Advent preparation season, is more of a bi-directional celebration and anticipation. We look at Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to celebrate, but we also prepare for His second coming. 

If you knew Jesus was coming on December 25 of this year, as in His second coming and the end of time, are you prepared to rejoice? “I’m not ready yet,” is the thought that springs to my mind. Others may think about all the things they wanted to do and haven’t had an opportunity to do so. However, our Christmas preparations should be that which prepares us for both comings. This is why Gaudete Sunday is so important, not just to enjoy celebrating the past, but to train ourselves to look to the future with joyful anticipation. 

When we look at the Christmas celebrations, what is it that gives us the most joy? Is it the gifts? Is it the food? Or is it spending time with family and friends and sharing all the material things that we surround ourselves with in order to celebrate this holy day? The value we place in spending time with those we love should be inclusive of God. Not only is He “the reason for the season,” but He is also an active participant. The more we share our celebrations with Him, the deeper our relationship becomes. When we long to spend time with God, we can rejoice in Him and look joyfully towards His second coming. 

In a year that has been challenging — mentally, socially, economically, in the light that is Jesus Christ, it is all rubbish (as St. Paul would say). When we focus on Jesus, when we fill ourselves with His light and His love, joy is a happy and undeniable side-effect. We are halfway through Advent, and with the Church’s reminder to rejoice always, let us focus our preparations to be filled with the joy of the first Christmas as we look with anticipation to Jesus’s second coming, whenever that may be.  

No room for you

Bethlehem was not very welcoming to the Savior. The Holy Family was homeless in that town, seeking shelter for their stay. The only thing they could find was a place where the animals were kept, most likely a cave.

Since it was the census that brought Joseph and Mary to the town, I have a hard time believing that there were absolutely no family members, even those distantly related to them, who could help. Perhaps it was the family members that suggested the stable; thinking it would be a more private place for Mary to give birth. Or maybe they weren’t so welcoming either, and they were not going to turn a blind eye to Mary’s questionable marital situation. This is one topic for which the Gospels are rather slim with the details. “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Lk 2:6-7) The lack of shelter is an explanation for using the manger as a crib, and offers nothing  to help us understand their living situation at that time.

In our modern era of luxury hotels and just-the-basics motels, we wouldn’t even entertain the idea of allowing strangers into our homes for the night. Yet in previous generations, hospitality was an honor to bestow to those traveling. The family’s evening meal, however meager, would be shared with the strangers, who would also receive the peace of mind in the security that a home provided from the elements and wild animals. There is a particular dignity that a home provides, regardless of whether it is owned or rented, and reflects a sense of stability and responsibility. Yet how close are we to being homeless? In our current world crisis, many who live paycheck to paycheck have found themselves out on the street because of the loss of their job. And there are others who are quick to complain when the “riff-raff” set up tents too close to their development.    

It’s very easy for us to pass judgement on those in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago and say that we would have made room for the Holy Family. Even if we don’t have the same type of opportunity to show our hospitality to strangers, do we make room in our hearts for others during this busy season? Do we give to the poor and help spread the love of God to others in need in our communities?  In the shopping, the baking, the parties — even those virtually celebrated, do we take some quiet time to spend preparing for Jesus to come more deeply into our hearts? When we look back at His first coming, being laid in a manger of hay, we know that He’s not expecting the Taj Mahal. He’s looking for a heart that is thankful for family, receptive to all of His children, and sharing with them the warm, swaddling clothes of His love. 

Into the unknown

This holiday season is unlike any before it. Then again, depending on your age, there are only so many that you’ve experienced. For two millennia we’ve been celebrating events that were unremarkable in their day yet changed the world forever.

Sometimes the Bible includes details that we gloss over or don’t think are important, but other times the details leave us wanting to know more. For example, it’s approximately 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem and walking that journey took about a week. It would have been dangerous for the couple to walk that far by themselves. Most movies would have you think they were the only ones traveling for the census. However, if both Joseph & Mary were from the line of David, wouldn’t their relatives in Nazareth also need to travel to Bethlehem? Even if Joseph and Mary had no other immediate relatives who were making the journey, they probably joined up with a caravan of others making the trip, if not to Bethlehem, then to other towns in that direction. 

In this age of data, we want to know the facts by the numbers. Just how far along was Mary in her pregnancy when she had to travel? Was she in her last month? Or was earlier than that? According to The Data Administration Newsletter, the census was taken on one specific day throughout the empire for accuracy. We don’t know if the census process had already occurred and Mary was too late into her pregnancy for the arduous trip back to Nazareth or if Jesus’ birth occurred before the day of the census. But in the grand scheme of things, the only thing that matters about the census & the trip is the result of the Savior’s birth in the city of David. 

We don’t know if Mary knew that her Son would be born in Bethlehem. Perhaps they anticipated they would be back in Nazareth in plenty of time beforehand. Or was that journey a giant question mark of what was going to happen next? While Mary & Joseph knew their destination, the events of that journey may not have been what they expected, if they even had expectations. Mary believed in God and His promises. She also trusted Joseph. And Joseph allowed God to lead him. Perhaps as we enter into this season of Advent, we ask Mary & Joseph to increase our belief in God and trust Him to lead us into the future filled with the unknown.  

Sheep versus goats

I want to be a sheep, but I’m afraid I’ll be judged as a goat. This Sunday’s gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King is taken from Matthew (25:31-46) and is how Jesus will perform His final act as shepherd at the end of time by separating the sheep from the goats. 

As a spinner and a knitter, I love working with wool. With the many varieties of sheep breeds, there’s a type of wool for almost any need: from the long, lustrous locks for rug making to the super springy and soft fibers for baby clothes and all different types in between. If I was a sheep, I don’t think I could pick which breed I’d be, as there are several that I enjoy working with, at least from a wool perspective. The variety of what we can do with just the fibers of the animals’ coat is incredible. While Jesus did not intend for us to take the passage of being sheep and goats literally, we are called to apply our particular strengths when helping to meet the needs of our community. We are not called to judge another who is in need of help for their worthiness to receive our assistance. Rather we are called to look upon ourselves and our own resources to see how we can provide support. It is our response that will be judged. If we evaluate others as being less worthy, we are actually passing judgement upon ourselves as being superior, and denying the mercy of God. For God’s mercy is meant to be shared upon receipt so that we can continually be a channel of His mercy on earth.

While there are breeds of goats whose fibers can be spun, like cashmere and mohair, goats are more well-known for their behavior. Perhaps they can be referred to as infamous in their ability to eat anything and everything in their path. I think the most frightening aspect of Jesus’ judgement on the goats is that they don’t even realize that they are goats. It’s not that they don’t know about mercy and don’t want to share it with others, but rather they look to the exclusive and narrow definition of who should receive assistance. When you think about it, how can Jesus ever be hungry, thirsty, naked, or somehow in need? Everything in creation is His. Yet Jesus associates Himself with the poor. In the very next chapter, His response to those judging the woman pouring perfume on His feet is, “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.” (Mt 26:11) Jesus started His life on earth as a poor person by being laid in a manger and ended it by being crucified on a cross like a criminal. Jesus knows what it’s like to be an outcast. When we focus on ourselves and only what we want, taking everything down in our path, we become goats and cease being a channel of God’s mercy.

It’s very easy to be caught up in the frenzy of our society and respond as the goats do. Just hearing on the news how particular household items have been bought in such quantities that the store shelves are empty, can trigger a response to make sure we’re plenty stocked up. Let us be vigilant not only in our current world situation, but also in the future when all our physical needs are met, that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who are less fortunate than ourselves and in need of our aid.