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.

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. 

The daily choice for God

In my blog about three years ago, I referenced one of my favorite songs, Diamonds, by the band Hawk Nelson. Recently, as I tuned in to watch the Word on Fire Show, to my surprise it was about the lead singer announcing his disbelief in God. Wow!

In a lengthy Instagram post, Jon Steingard gave a series of reasons why he no longer believes. As he was the lead singer for a popular Christian band, I’m sure I’m not the only one who was disappointed. In the Word on Fire Show, content director Brandon Vogt brought up a number of points Jon made in the post and asked Bishop Robert Barron to comment on them. Bishop Barron was encouraging of Steingard’s probing questions of the faith. However, Jon’s conclusion to these questions was not to investigate deeper, but to reject everything he believed.

Many of the issues presented have been around the entire history of the Church. One of the biggest, the issue of evil, was addressed in a Word on Fire blog by Matt Nelson. It is very difficult for our finite human minds to grasp many infinite concepts and we often oversimplify complicated realities. It’s okay to not understand how God can be three persons in one Trinity. It’s okay to doubt if there is any person who has been condemned to hell. My impression is that Jon held to a very simplistic belief of God and he was having trouble maturing in his faith. He referenced being a preacher’s son and perhaps between that and leading a Christian band, he was expected to be a leader before he was ready for it. There are times when the adage “fake it ‘till you make it” will not work, and this is one of them.  

As the statements were presented, it sounded to me as if Christianity was presented to him as if it was a single choice, and because those around him believed, it was not something to be questioned. It reminds me of the parable of the talents, where the one servant has no idea what to do with what he is given, so he gives the single talent back to his master. (Matthew 25:14-30) Faith is forged in challenges; it grows deeper and richer when it is put to the test. Sometimes the challenges are doubts that seem to overwhelm and overshadow the faith we have. Other times, they are silent encounters in our daily lives. In each circumstance, we have to make our choice. Hopefully, we can echo St. Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69) 

Gather us in

From the beginning, there was separation. Let me rephrase that, after the fall of Adam and Eve, there was separation. Knowledgeable of what they did, they separated themselves from God by hiding. Thankfully, God never gets tired calling us back.

In God’s wisdom, He knew that He could not send Jesus down to earth without preparation. It began with one man, Abraham, with whom He made a covenant. His family flourished and became a tribe that grew into a nation. That nation was to be a light for all humanity to follow back to a relationship with God. Instead, it became about rules & regulations, who was clean — that is who was socially acceptable, and who was to be avoided. Even those who were descendants of Abraham, the Samaritans, were looked down upon by the Jewish people in those times.

Jesus’ main audience was the Jewish community, however, He did heal those outside of the community who showed great faith in Him, like the centurion. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, calling her to belief in Him through conversation over a drink of water. Jesus came to gather us together. The Apostles and the early Church had to navigate through rough waters to figure out how Jews and Gentiles could worship together and become a single faith community. It’s a constant struggle, even 2,000 years later.

Why is it so hard for humans to follow Jesus’ example of gathering people together? It may sound a bit cliche to say, “the devil made me do it,” but there may be some truth to that. The root of the word devil basically means “to reach by throwing apart, let fly apart, strike.” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Bishop Barron has often remarked that the word means to scatter. That is what sin does, it scatters us and breaks us apart, pitting us one against another.

When we are faced with a temptation that separates us from God or others, that is the signal that sin is in our midst. Perhaps it’s our sin, perhaps it comes from another person. As Christians, we are called to resist the temptation, seek the courage, grace, and peace of God to heal the division. In this way, we will bring together our family, our neighborhood, our community, and our world. We may not see peace and unity in all aspects of humanity in our lifetime, but we can still try to bring a little heaven down to earth.

Resurrection witness

Happy Easter! We made it through a very different Easter Mass experience, live streaming into our homes. The message, however, remains just as vibrant as ever: He is RISEN!

The Gospels continue to remind us of those first witnesses. Over the next few weeks we will delve into the various appearances of the risen Jesus in numerous scenarios. In our unique circumstances, we have the opportunity to contemplate this core tenet of our faith. To aid us in this mental and spiritual activity, we only have to reach out to our Blessed Mother Mary. After all, not only was she close to Jesus, but she also pondered these things in her heart.

Mary was there for Jesus’ death on the cross. Of course, she wept for her Son being executed in such a humiliating way. But did she wonder why this was happening? Did she know there was more to come and that the world had not seen the last of Jesus? Perhaps. Scripture only tells us that Jesus commanded His apostle John to care for His mother and that she was present with the Apostles when they were praying after Jesus’ ascension when they were waiting for the Holy Spirit. But it is hard to imagine that Jesus would not have appeared to her. We have to be careful to remember that while the Gospels do provide historic details, they are not a record of every event.

I wonder what Mary’s reaction was when the Apostles told her of their encounter with the risen Jesus? Or when she heard about Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus? Did she recognize the implications of all these amazing events?

Two thousand years later, many of us have heard of Jesus’ resurrection from the time we were children. It can be very difficult to imagine what our reactions would’ve been back then at something  so shocking and novel. Over the past months, we have been facing our own novel event, taking us out of our ordinary way of life. Let us take the time and ask Mary to help us see the resurrected Jesus as if it were the first time. Let us listen to the witness testimonies and practice being a witness with those in our circle of communication.

Jesus is truly risen! We may not be eyewitnesses, but we are His witnesses into today’s world. Like the Apostles, we join in prayer with Mary to help support us as we spread the Good News of His resurrection.

What a gift!

Christmas is the gift-giving season; from the December 6th feast of St. Nicholas to the celebration of the Epiphany a month later on January 6th, there are many opportunities  for giving. The term gift is used so much, but what does it really mean?

As a word, gift has been in the English language since the 12 century. According to Merriam-Webster, a gift is “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.” While that definition does make sense, there are a lot of words in that definition that could also be broken down a bit further. In seeing the word voluntarily, I immediately think of the word volunteer, which shares an etymology, although the words developed at slightly different times. Some of the definitions include: proceeding from one’s own choice, intentional, and uncoerced. However, I think my favorite definition of the word is: done of one’s own free will. Digging deeper into the word transferred, definitions like to convey or to pass seem to fit within this definition, but I was surprised to see it can also mean transform/change as well as to print or copy from one surface to another.

This season there may have been gifts we really liked and others that we may, or perhaps have already returned! Many of these may have been part of a gift exchange, where one person gifts another and receives a gift in return. While I would hope we don’t expect gifts from others this season, it’s almost hard not to expect some sort of “compensation” or gift in return for one we give another. However, our gift giving is supposed to be a reflection of God’s gifts to us: our life, our free will, and His Son as our Savior. 

God does not make us do anything, but He does ask us to participate in bringing His Kingdom to our world. He has given us the free will to say “Yes” or “No,” each having its own benefits and challenges. If we say Yes to God, He will reward us, either in this life or the next, and most likely both! However, doing God’s will may make life a bit difficult, since the culture encourages us to do the opposite. If we say No to God, it may seem that we’re in control and writing our own life story. It may even feel like we are succeeding, but in the end, we are living away from God and not taking the opportunity to have a relationship with Him. We also risk saying a final No to spending our eternity with Him. If we are mirroring God’s gift giving, it can transform and change us. We’ll be thinking of those receiving our gifts,  as we intentionally selecting the gift specifically for each recipient. As God has bestowed precious gifts to us, so we can convey meaningful gifts to each other that bring us all closer to Him.  

The gift we all celebrate this season is Jesus, God’s Son becoming man to be our Savior and repair the damaged relationship mankind has with God due to original sin. Jesus is a gift, freely given, uncoerced and without expectation of compensation. The choice is ours to either receive and accept The Gift or refuse and ignore it. 

Attributes of the saints

On the eve of All Saints Day, I was reminded again of Saint Peter and some of the qualities that transformed him into a saint.

My favorite story about Saint Peter was when he walked on the storm-swept water with Jesus. As the wind blew around my home and the rain pelted it, I watched the local meteorologist for an hour and a half, without commercial break, talk about the progression of a nasty storm through the central Virginia region. We were under a tornado watch. Since I’ve only been in my home about 6 months, it was a bit frightening. Hearing the powerful wind, I was reminded that Peter not only asked to walk on the water to Jesus during a storm such as this, but he actually got out of the boat and started to do so! It would have to be a rather catastrophic situation for me to step outside on a night like that. I was anxious just being inside the house. 

You can say I was fearful, but I don’t think you would call Peter fearless. Saints don’t lack fear, rather they have an abundance of confidence in God. Simply put, they trust Him completely. If Jesus could walk on the water, Peter thought that he could do the same with Jesus’ permission. And he did! It was only when his focus was distracted from Jesus that he realized what a precarious position he was in, and that slip of faith caused him to stumble and sink. To be a saint means that we need to put all our trust in God, not just for a moment or for the initial decision, but for all our lives and in every situation. To be a saint also means that we may stumble at times, but Jesus is never too far away to help, as long as we reach out to Him and trust in His actions.

Another quality of sainthood is to be holy, that is to be set aside from the everyday for a sacred purpose. When we give our lives to God, and trust Him completely, we are separating ourselves so that we are in the world but not of the world — not being consumed with what is popular. Peter set aside his fishing business to be an apostle of Christ, and then to lead the fledgling church through the first years after Jesus’ Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. The call to sainthood is  not just for the apostles, it’s for all of us to mirror the love Jesus displayed to every person we meet. To love without conditions, just as Jesus was equally kind to rich and poor. To be generous, just as Jesus was generous in laying down his life for us. Everyone in heaven is a saint.  They come from all walks of life and their actions spoke louder and more eloquently than words of how much they love Jesus.

The celebration of all the saints may have come and gone, but taking time during the month of November to think about the saints and the qualities they displayed is a good preparation for Advent. May we follow in their footsteps, through this life and into the heavenly paradise.   

Catholic Girl Journey

Church practice

On the feast of Corpus Christi, the gospel reading from Luke is about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. Most reflections focus on the miracle and it being a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. But it is also a bit of training for the Apostles.

After a long day of preaching and healing by Jesus, it is the tired Apostles who suggest that Jesus dismiss the crowd so they can go and eat. Perhaps it was the Apostles who were hungry and just wanted some quiet time. Instead, Jesus instructs them to feed the people. It is the Apostles who organize the people into groups at Jesus’s direction. Sounds to me like the precursor to parishes in a large city. Jesus then blesses and breaks the bread and fish for distribution. The Apostles are given the task to give some to each group. I wonder how long it took them to realize the miracle that was happening? Did they notice they kept having food to share with the next group? Or was it only when everyone was finished and they were picking up the leftovers that they knew what had happened?

As fishermen, Peter, James, and John were used to hauling in fish. What were they thinking when instead of gathering fish, they gave it out — for free? Did it go against their instinct? Or were they getting comfortable with the ways of Jesus? How about Judas Iscariot, was he happy to give out free food or did he resent the task? As the Apostle who spoke most of love, I can imagine John as he is gathering up the leftovers, asking each person if they had enough or if they wanted to keep a portion for later. If you were one of the Apostles, what do you think your reaction would have been, both to distribute as well as to gather the remains?

While this miracle is not considered the first Mass, the first Eucharist was at the Last Supper, it does have similar qualities. The people first hear Jesus speak, just like we do in the Liturgy of the Word. Then Jesus performs a miracle with the bread and His chosen ministers give some to each person, just like in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Jesus uses this opportunity to teach and for the apostles to practice part of what will become the focus of their lives. 

We all need practice from time to time. Jesus understands that and often uses circumstances for multiple purposes in our lives, including practice for any future event. So the next time you want to ask Jesus why you are doing something, think of it as practice and ask Him how you can do it better next time. 

Catholic Girl Journey

Never alone

A recent article caught my eye, “A Solution for Loneliness” by Kasley Killam in Scientific America. One of the suggestions provided in the article was volunteering, with reason being, it “fills our deeply rooted need for belonging.”

As a Catholic, I try to look at situations and challenges through the lens of faith. I was surprised to see a secular article make such a statement. To me that sense, the deeply rooted need for belonging, is more the search for God. However, we look at our physical world to fulfill that need. As Saint Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts our restless until they rest in you.” God is always there calling to us, calling us to a deeper relationship with Him. No matter where we are in our faith journey, as a human, we can never fully know God, so there is always more to learn and experience.

As we experience this longing for something, even if we don’t know what it is, usually we first look at filling that need with external things. Basically, we look for things to make us happy. Once we realize that things don’t make us happy, then we look outside of ourselves, to others. This is where loneliness can become an issue. If we look for people (or pets) to fill the need or ease the ache of being alone, we can become dependent on them. When situations change and the people or pets we relied on are no longer able to be with us, the need surfaces, often with a greater intensity.

I can see why a solution to loneliness would be to volunteer, but I would describe different reasoning than the article. To me, volunteering is acknowledging that life is not about me, but what I can do for others. Volunteering is giving one’s self to another not because it benefits us, but that it is our gift to those we help. When we give away the gifts God has given us, especially things like time and talent, He can fill us up. As Jesus gave up His life so that we can have life in Him, the more we give of ourselves, the deeper we can get to know Jesus. It’s hard to be lonely when we are not thinking of ourselves, but rather what we can do for others.

For the times when the thought of being alone crosses our mind, we can reach out to the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of God comes to us when we pray, when we receive Holy Communion and any other sacrament. He will remind us that we are never alone when we rest in God.