Many of the Scripture readings throughout Lent speak of turning our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. We will often pray “Create a clean heart in me, O God.” On Ash Wednesday the parishioners in my church received a wooden heart to carry with them throughout the holy season. We are embarking on a series of “spiritual cardiovascular exercises” to change our hearts of stone. Our motto for the first full week of Lent is Let Jesus be your Pacemaker. How do you think Jesus will set the pace? This weekend make an extra effort to listen to the readings and homily at Mass. Start your work week with a smile. Do something unnecessary like reading to children or giving a caregiver or overworked parent a respite. Let Jesus set the pace of your good deeds.
Sister Maria Aloysia Wolbring, the foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame, was born January 8, 1828, 190 years ago. In another decade we Sisters will celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth. For now the celebration is rather quiet: a special meal, a birthday remembrance, an extra prayer on a day that marks the last day of the Christmas Season and the Baptism of the Lord. Many reasons to celebrate, but all part of the One Mystery. Jesus came as the reign of God in our midst, He was anointed by his Father and the Spirit to take on the mission of salvation—a mission that continued in the hearts of Christ’s close followers like Sister Maria Aloysia. May the birthday candles on Sister Maria Aloysia’s cake light the path that God marked out for the Sisters of Notre Dame. May her spirit live in our hearts. May her trust in God’s goodness and provident care be our own.
A cartoon in the most recent National Catholic Reporter depicted Pope Francis reflecting on the new year. He was not optimistic but hopeful and told his friend he would declare 2018 Year of Hope. Like the remnants in Pandora’s box, hope is about all we have left. Nuclear war threatens. Refugees and immigrants languish in detention centers. Global warming is dismissed as a myth, while flooding and forest fires take lives every day.
But nothing overcomes the light of hope. “Arise! Shine for your light has come” (Is. 60:1). God and God’s reign will prevail. There is no doubt. May 2018 be a year of hope. Hold Out Promise to Everyone.
As I look at my Christmas cards once again before putting them away or recycling them, I note the greeting. One card devoid of the nativity scene and sporting a Christmas tree—with gifts in the snow?–says “Cherish the traditions.” Apparently it means the family traditions, and certainly those should be cherished.
As a child, my family tradition was giving each other gifts on Christmas Eve after having prayed the rosary and singing around the piano. Then on Christmas morning we went to the earliest Mass, had breakfast, and opened the gifts from Santa. Now my siblings gather on December 26 for a marathon of euchre interspersed with abundant food and an egg nog toast.
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph probably enjoyed family traditions, too. Certainly there were the Jewish customs of the early first century. But were there other observances perhaps locked in the hearts of Mary and Joseph? Did they treasure in their hearts the dates of the first step Jesus took, the first word he uttered, his first day of school, the anniversary of his being lost in the Temple? Did the Holy Family join cousins for family reunions? Were there neighborhood parties? And did Mary watch Jesus closely observing whom he might pick someday to be his disciples? When Joseph died, how did Jesus and Mary pray for him and share grief and memories?
May the Holy Family bless each of our families.
In the preface of his book of poems, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.” Wonder is worth praying for. It brings excitement at the sight of a supermoon or a meteor shower. Wonder elicits hope that the present wondrous thing is only one wondrous thing among billions of marvels yet to fill us with delight. Wonder keeps us simple and child-like. Wonder keeps us open to new possibilities and expectant that our spirits will soar and expand. Some say Christmas is a time for wonder. It is, but our prayer for wonder can be answered every day.
The Gospel passage for December 18 begins “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” We are familiar with Joseph’s taking Mary as his wife. And throughout the next few days the familiar story continues. . . Zechariah in the temple . . .Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. . . Mary’s Magnificat. But we don’t know how the story will end. Scripture tells of Jesus’ public life, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. The New Testament continues with the details of the early Christians and the letters of Paul, John, and Peter. But we still don’t know how the story will end. Eons of chapters will continue before we know the end of the story, but we can guess how the final chapter will begin: “This is how the fullness of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ came about.” Will it tell how “All things hold together in Christ”? (Col. 1:17). Will its climax show Christ as the future of the universe? Will it portray how the Incarnation has been completed in us? Will it prove that the mystery of Christ is our mystery? Come quickly, Lord! We can’t wait to see how the story ends.
What a week this will be! Christmas plays and parties. Shopping and wrapping gifts. Sending cards and singing carols. Advent Vespers and penance services. With the Fourth Week of Advent being only one day this year, the Third Week of Advent makes Christmas very near. What do you need to complete? Baking? Grocery shopping? You might be ready for the big day celebrating Jesus’ birth. But don’t forget that the Incarnation needs to be completed in us.
The Church designed Advent for inspiration, but often December is a time for frustration. Tangled strings of lights, tilting trees, off-key concert pieces, burnt cookies, and long lines at the cashier cause more than one frustrated “Bah! Humbug!” Someone told me that she starts Advent in mid-November regardless of the real date. The extra two weeks give her some quiet time before Advent coincides—or clashes– with holiday busyness. That’s something I’ll need to remember next year—taking time for some extra inspiration. And maybe there will be a little less frustration.
Advent readings in Isaiah abound in nature images. “Streams will burst forth in the desert.” “The burning sands will become pools.” “I will set in the wasteland the cypress.” And why? “That all may see and know, observe and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Is. 41:20). From the first moments of creation billions of years ago Christ immersed himself in the heart of matter providing an energy of love in every aspect of creation. Ever since, Christ’s love energizes our expanding universe.
Although Isaiah was written hundreds of years ago, the writer gives a glimpse of the creative love of the coming Messiah whose energy cured the lame and the leper. The prophet also gives a glimpse of the future of the universe when all will be one in Christ. Whatever has been and whatever will be is life, and where there’s life, there’s God. This message is repeated in the prologue of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…Through him all things came into being… Whatever came to be in him found life.”
Although Advent is described as a time of waiting, it’s also a time for doing. How are we life-giving? How are we energizing our world with love?
A family of four walked the red trail ahead of me. I passed the baby carriage and the mother who told me the baby was a boy. Ahead raced a father and a little boy about three years old. As I caught up to these two, I said to the boy, “In a couple years you’ll be able to race your brother.” He just looked at me while the father translated. Then the tike put a thumbs up with a huge smile. The father explained that his son didn’t know much English yet. The father then added, “At first I thought you said that I was the brother, and I took that as a compliment.” I responded, “I guess we’re all brothers and sisters.” As I walked on, I wondered what the father thought of my statement, since the family were perhaps Muslim. Maybe the father felt as sad as I did that millions of persons around the globe cannot begin to think they are anyone’s brother or sister after years of refugee camps, ethnic cleansing, and so many other evils. The family and I took the same path, and it made all the difference.