December 21, 2015
Jesus, Light for the World
Does it strike you as ironic that amid strains of Silent Night, bombs are exploding in the Middle East and guns are being fired in otherwise peaceful neighborhoods in our own country?
Does it seem implausible that angelic greetings of “Fear not” are being drowned out by politicians using scare tactics to promote a false sense of security? Or how about parents silently weeping at the bedside of a dying child on Christmas Day or the widow who is experiencing her first Christmas without her husband after almost 50 years marriage? Then there is the elderly couple spending Christmas alone because their children live on the other side of the country and they can’t afford a plane ticket to be with them? And what about military families who are spending another Christmas without Mom or Dad because they have been deployed one more time?
When people ask has anything changed since that first Christmas, it might be because we have confused that first Christmas with the Currier and Ives version of Christmas Eve. In our rush to make everything perfect, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that God Incarnate broke into human history in a world that was nothing like the Hallmark images that adorn greeting cards and decorate mantles. Even churches burst with decorations that promote a version of Christmas that the first witnesses of Christ’s birth would not recognize. Beautifully carved statues of the Holy Family in mangers aglow with twinkling lights on artificial greenery have become the norm, when in reality, Mary and Joseph might be better represented by the homeless who huddle by a makeshift fire warming themselves against the cold.
May we never forget that the Son of God came to earth, and was born in a remote village that was under Roman occupation! That during the last month of her pregnancy, Mary traveled to Bethlehem with Joseph in compliance with an order issued by a corrupt demagogue. And that far from the comfort of family and friends, this humble couple from Nazareth presented the Savior to the world in a cave that had been a sheltering place for animals. Then, as if this weren’t scandalous enough, God chose to announce the birth of His Son to shepherds, men whose occupation and reputation placed them among the lowest class of people. How do people of faith reconcile such inconceivable paradoxes?
Amid tidings of great joy, choirs proclaim Jesus, Wonder Counselor, Lord of Lords and King of Kings. So He was, is and will forever be, and by means of our Baptism, Christians have entered into his royal lineage. But, if our King came to us as a humble babe, homeless and having to make do with a feeding trough for a bed, what manner of life could he be calling us to emulate? How we celebrate his birth says a great deal about our perception of the Kingdom of God.
Now I am not advocating that we throw out the Christmas tree and declare a fast on Christmas Day. However, I do believe that every person who bears the name Christian is called to examine popular traditions against what Pope Francis called “spiritual worldliness” in his Apostolic Exhortation: “The Joy of the Gospel”.
“Spiritual worldliness” says the Pope “hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church consisting in seeking not the Lord’s glory, but human glory and personal well-being.” He goes on to say that it wears many faces, one of them being an ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy, doctrine or the Church’s prestige.
While we can point to angel trees and food baskets as a way that churches provide for the poor during the holiday season, let us not forget that civic organizations, shopping malls and many private businesses do the same. So how are we different? Is our generosity inspired by a need to assuage feelings of guilt or do we see Jesus in the face of poor?
The humble abode that the Son of God chose stands in sharp contrast to what we have made of Christmas. And so I wonder: if our churches were stripped of the myriad of poinsettias and lights, would Christmas liturgies lose their appeal, or would we hear more clearly the gentle cry of the newborn babe making his presence felt from deep within our hearts? Would we see more clearly the heartache of the sick, the poor and the marginalized? And would we hear in the cry to close our borders to immigrants and refugees the innkeepers slamming their doors to Mary and Joseph?
Our world is filled with challenges, but no more so than it was when the Lord of heaven and earth came to us. During his life on earth, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God is here but also that it is coming. It seems an absolute paradox until we understand that the Kingdom of God is within and that it is up to each of us to let it shine. How else will the world come to know Christ if not through us? And so, with these thoughts as a backdrop during this wondrous season, let us pray that the Light of Christ within our heart will be the brightest candle that we light this Christmas.
December 7, 2015
The Face of Mercy
As we cross the threshold to enter the Year of Mercy, I find myself wondering how it will play out for me personally, for the Catholic Church and for the world at large.
Much speculation has already taken place, some of it grounded in fact; some in wishful thinking.
However, whether the Year of Mercy serves as a gateway to affect changes that are beyond the role of the laity to decide is not the issue, because the Year of Mercy has an individual as well as a collective dimension, which is both spiritual and practical. Unless the practice of mercy becomes visible in our lives as Catholics, the year will come and go and little will have changed.
Taking a lesson from the Letter of James, who reminds us that faith without good works is dead, I believe the same holds true when it comes to mercy.
We cannot claim to be people of faith and not show mercy because mercy is woven through Scripture like thread on a weaver’s loom. From the promise of redemption in the Garden of Eden to the promise of paradise to the good thief on Calvary, the mercy of God is on display.
God’s mercy is evident everywhere, but mercy cannot be solely the action of God.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for mercy shall be theirs” and he taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
These words contain not only a promise, but a challenge, and if that wasn’t enough, Jesus left his followers the parable of the unjust steward who owed a vast sum of money to his master.
Filled with compassion, the master cancelled the debt of the steward, who in turn went out and tried to extract full payment from a servant who owed him a much smaller amount.
If listening to the parable leads only to a sense of indignation over the behavior of the unjust steward, we have missed the point. Until we understand that the parable is about every one of us, and that we have been and continue to be the ungrateful steward, nothing will change.
We cannot simply remain on the receiving end of God’s mercy and expect to be saved. We must extend that same kind of mercy to others.
God did not have to die a horrible death in order to save us, but in his great mercy, he became one of us so that we might know what mercy looks like. Jesus became the Mercy of God so that we might see the face of God.
He did this when he healed the sick, forgave the woman caught in adultery, and when he called sinners to be his disciples. Before he died, Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who crucified him, because mercy cannot exist outside of forgiveness.
Even after his resurrection, Jesus continued to be the face of mercy. He showed us the face of mercy when he responded to a doubting Thomas by appearing to him and inviting him to touch his wounded hands and side.
After Peter denied the Master and was nowhere to be seen during the crucifixion, Jesus reciprocated by entrusting him with the Keys to the Kingdom as his Vicar on Earth.
As followers of Christ, we are also called to reveal the God of mercy just as Jesus did. Therefore, mercy must be visible in the way we treat not only our family and friends, but also our enemies and the strangers in our midst.
It must be obvious to all that we are people of mercy by the way we speak, and act and dream. The debt that was owed by humankind was paid by God once and for all, but with every privilege comes responsibility, and so we ask: How am I revealing the mercy of God to those who have justly or unjustly wronged me?
If we are truly honest, we will admit that more often than not, we behave like the unjust steward. Lest we remain forever blind to our sins, let us imitate the blind man on the side of the road who cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Today in the face of terrorist activities, rhetoric to close our borders to refugees cries out to God, and so we must decide if our security should come at the expense of those whose plight is far more desperate than ours.
When fear clouds our vision, we do well to look at Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Consider that after Jesus was tried by the state and executed as a common criminal, Mary remained at the foot of the cross. And when it seemed her heart could bear no more, she embraced as mother the very people who were responsible for the death of her son.
As the Year of Mercy stretches before us, we have twelve months to pray over and ponder how we are called to reveal the face of God’s mercy to the world.
And then, we have a lifetime to put it into practice, knowing that at life’s end, each of us will stand before the God of mercy.
Therefore, let us remain ever mindful of the debt we owe lest we appear before the all-merciful Judge looking more like the unjust steward than the God in whose image we have been created.
November 23, 2015
A Debacle Turned Blessing
Being a gourmet chef has never been a title to which I can lay claim.
Like most non-foody moms I know, putting a meal on the table that is both satisfying and nutritionally sound takes precedence over creativity and exotic presentations. As a result, my culinary skills definitely fall into the category of simple and ordinary. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not a bad thing – after all, few foods say “I love you” like homemade mac and cheese. However, every now and then, the temptation to dazzle people around the dinner table gets the better of me. Perhaps that explains why I find myself scouring cookbooks and online recipes for something beyond the ordinary when planning family celebrations or entertaining dinner guests.
Last week in preparation for a birthday dinner for our son Andrew and his wife Amy, (their birthdays are only 3 days apart) my search led me to a recipe for a pumpkin cheesecake. Recalling that one of the layers on their wedding cake was a cheese cake, I decided it was a perfect choice. Pumpkin cheesecake it would be! After all, how hard could it be? I even had the right kind of cake pan, one I had inherited from my mother-in-law. Decision made, I headed to the grocery store.
Never having made a cheesecake from scratch, I carefully followed directions, keeping a close watch on the oven while the aroma of pumpkin spice filled the kitchen. Once cooled, I carefully released the lock on the side of the pan, placed the cake on a decorative plate, and stood back to admire my work. Yes, I concluded: it would definitely be the star of the show. Little did I realize how that would play out!
Following my satisfyingly simple dinner, and amid lively conversation, I went to the refrigerator to retrieve the cake. And then it happened. In the blink of an eye, my masterpiece went flying off the glass plate and landed face down on the kitchen floor amid a sea of candles and whipped cream. I stood there in disbelief. The cake was definitely a show stopper, but not in the way I had anticipated. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.
Days later, I look back on my cheesecake debacle, and I can laugh about it, but at the time all I could do was apologize. While Andrew and Amy were most gracious, pointing out that they could do without the extra calories, I did learn a few lessons from the experience. First of all, never grab hold of a cake plate by the pedestal, which can tilt all too easily. Secondly, I realized that the celebration was never about the cake, but about spending time together and celebrating the gift of life. Perhaps at an earlier stage, I might have decided the time, effort and cost of the ingredients had been a huge waste, but now I can appreciate that it is not what we do or how well executed our efforts may be that matters, but the love that goes into the effort. Despite the fact that the cake never made it to the table, you can be sure it is one birthday cake Andrew and Amy will long remember. All this got me thinking.
If the intention behind our failures can be appreciated on the human level, imagine how much more God appreciates even our most insignificant efforts when motivated by love. When faith, hope and love become the main ingredients, no effort is without merit and seeming failures become blessings in disguise.
In a few days our family, like so many others, will gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table. My hope is that my recent experience with the cheesecake will serve as a reminder that while food plays an important role in Thanksgiving festivities, what we eat should never overshadow the reason we come together.
I admit that there was a time when hosting Thanksgiving dinner meant I had to do everything. However in recent years, I have learned that when I invite guests to contribute to the meal, not only does it lessen my workload, but everyone feels included. No one person owns the meal, least of all the host and hostess. The gathering truly becomes a communal celebration that reflects and honors the special gifts and talents of the people who gather, not unlike the celebration of the Eucharist.
During Mass faith communities gather to give thanks and to receive the God of heaven and earth under the guise of something as commonplace as bread and wine. All because on the night before he died, Jesus took ordinary bread and wine and made it forever holy. At the time, Jesus’ mission seemed to be failing, but as we know, that was not the end of the story, nor should our seeming failures define who we are.
That being said, as we gather around the Thanksgiving table, let us remember to give thanks, not only for the abundant blessings we have received, but also for life’s disappointments and challenges because they too serve a purpose. They remind us not to sweat the small stuff, to keep our priorities in right order, and to look for the grace hidden in every event. This is not about being a Pollyanna, but about seeing all of life as a gift from God, a gift that continues to surprise and enlighten, and for that we give thanks. Every moment is a precious gift from God, the gift that is at the heart of every Thanksgiving meal, those celebrated in Church and those we share when we go forth.
November 9, 2015
The word test drive took on a whole new meaning when a few months ago my husband and I were deciding whether to fly or drive to my niece’s wedding in Seattle.
As we considered the pros and cons of each option, the phone rang. It was my brother, a retired priest with the Diocese of Green Bay, who was to preside at Matt and Erin’s wedding. During the course of the conversation, he suggested that we travel together, and so began what became our sojourn by car through the great Northwest.
For weeks my husband, who is the consummate planner, busied himself with road maps and surfing the web for places of interest along the way. But first we had to fly to Green Bay to meet up with my brother, David.
What made it all the more interesting was that only weeks before, David had been toying with the idea of escaping Wisconsin’s harsh winters and had just decided to move to Virginia Beach.
With our parents deceased and siblings scattered around the country, moving closer to family seemed a sensible option. Consequently, he would soon be Virginia bound.
And so it was, that as we loaded suitcases into the back of his car, we joked that the upcoming road trip would be a good test drive for our relationship. For the first time since we were kids, we would be living in close proximity, and two weeks in the same car would definitely be a trial run in terms of compatibility.
My husband, who is an only child, has always enjoyed being around the extended family he inherited through marriage. However, in the past, interaction with family had been limited to brief visits. This would definitely be different.
As for me, well, let’s just say I know what it’s like to be one of seven. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to having David close by. His move also serves as a reminder that life is forever changing, a reality that seemed to be mirrored in the landscape as we drove through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
From the Badlands to majestic mountains and the great Northern Pines, the wonder and diversity of God’s creation were on display. As sandy mounds, from which prairie dogs peered, gave way to grassy plains where buffalo grazed, contrasting sights provided a new appreciation for the role that every creature, regardless of size or shape, plays in the ecology of creation.
All are part of our extended family and contribute to our well-being regardless of whether or not we are aware of the many ways they enrich our world. Perhaps not so differently than the way extended family enriches our lives.
With the road trip behind us, we found ourselves back in Green Bay, helping David decide what would or would not fit into the apartment we had found for him. Moving into a smaller space definitely required some downsizing.
Confronted with the reality that we tend to accumulate more ‘stuff’ than we actually need, we quickly realized that change can trigger a whole series of events. No doubt about it, change was in the air and it followed us home.
During our absence, the trees had begun to change color. Leaves were falling and the nights were getting longer. Life’s changes seem to be mirrored all around us, challenging us to view life through an ever changing set of lenses.
Even the liturgical readings at Mass remind us that all things are passing. With the season of Advent beckoning and the retail industry cajoling us into thinking that Christmas is just around the corner, life’s repetitive cycle reassures us that new life springs forth as old ways pass away.
Year after year nature echoes the Paschal Mystery, and we take comfort in knowing that each ending signals a new beginning, a new way of valuing life, and a new way of re-ordering priorities.
Advancing years bring more than grey hair and age lines. Somewhere along the way, we discover that accumulating things is less important than relationships and that where we live means little when compared to the people with whom we share our life.
In contrast with Matt and Erin, who are beginning their life together and look forward to buying a new home and accumulating all things deemed necessary to a couple starting out, David is getting rid of things he once thought were needed. It seems to suggest that while our physical eyesight diminishes with age, our interior vision takes on a new clarity, and we are able to see that beauty is present in every stage in life.
During our travels, we visited my uncle in a memory care facility and this evening we will be babysitting our 18-month-old granddaughter.
From nursery to nursing homes, the imprint of God’s handiwork is visible when we have eyes to see.
Our generation has been referred to as the sandwich generation because there are people who preceded and who follow us that still need us. And for that we can give thanks.
There’s no denying that it can be stressful at times, but it is through relationships that the landscape of our soul is reflected. And so, as we travel the highway of life, amid its many changes, may we make time to be astounded by every peak and valley, by the desert as much as by the rain forest.
For God’s presence is everywhere and in everyone, inviting us to embrace change because God alone never changes.