Horizons: The countdown to the Christmas season
(POSTED: 12/26/12) I was trying to reach someone by phone this past week, and after several attempts, could not get a return phone call. When I finally got through to this person, he said, “I can’t talk now; I’m too busy.” He finally did call back, and I told him that he had been very hard to reach. He said that he has been very busy, and that Christmas time is a very busy time of year. Ironically, since I have not been a pastor for the past 3 1/2 years, I have not been as busy as I once was as the pastor of a large parish. But the truth is as Christmas nears, many people are busy and feel rushed. We stand just two days away from Christmas. What do people need from us, what do we need as we pass through these final hours before Christmas.
Two days before Christmas, we need to look to the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the story this week from Luke’s gospel. Though she herself was pregnant, she made a strenuous trip to the hill country of Judah, to help her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman, who also was carrying a child. Two days before Christmas, people need us to imitate the self-sacrificial love of Mary. With Mary and Elizabeth, we need to allow awe and reverence to grow in us, as we, as they did, attend to the mysterious activity and movement of God in our lives. With Mary and Elizabeth, and with Jesus, spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews, we ought to strive to discern God’s will for us and to do it.
During these hours before Christmas, we should make time and room for quiet and stillness, to connect with God’s Spirit and presence. These days, so close to Christmas, should be a time of prayer, faith, and spirituality. We should experience fully the meaning and messages of the fourth Sunday of Advent, and look forward to the celebration of Christmas Mass, not an obligation to be gotten out of the way, but a profound, communal experience of what Christmas is most about.
Two days before Christmas people need our patience, our presence, not just our presents, and our listening. In the rush of things, we need to practice gentleness with each other. We ought to attend to the people around us, who are in need, and share our resources with them in a spirit of charity and mercy. Two days before Christmas is a great time to focus on the issues of social justice that we ought to be involved in all year long.
Christmas catches people wherever they are at in life. This Christmas 2012, some people are not at a point of happiness or joy. For some, Christmas brings up painful feelings. Some of us are anxious; some of us are depressed. These realities cannot be denied; we have to face them in ourselves and in each other. These hours are a good time to pray for those in emotional pain, to connect with them, and to support them. Some people have had a significant loss in recent months: a death, serious illness, the loss of a job, a divorce, the death of a relationship. This is a good time to grieve with people, to connect with grieving people, and to pray for them.
This last weekend of Advent is a time to continue the journey that John the Baptist has invited us to, the journey of repentance. It is never too late to be honest about our patterns of sinfulness, and to confess them to God, as we profess our conviction and belief that God loves us and forgives us in our sinfulness. This is a time to remember how important it is for us to let go of anger, resentment, grudges, and to work on the process of forgiving people who have hurt us. These days it is also important to communicate sorrow to people that we have hurt. Perhaps in some of our lives there is brokenness in our relationships. These last days before Christmas, Christmas, and the Christmas season are opportunities for steps in the process of reconciliation with people from whom we have become estranged. These days are a good time to pick up the phone, and call someone whom we have not spoken to for some time.
These hours before Christmas and during the Christmas season are opportune times to tell people that we love them, how important they are to us. It is a great time to offer thanks and gratitude to people who have loved us, served us, or been kind and generous to us.
Every year on Christmas Eve, when I was a child, my mother would light a candle in memory of all of our loved ones who had died. The hours before Christmas and Christmas day are beautiful times to remember our beloved dead, to pray for them, and to seek their prayerful intercession for those of us who remain here on Earth.
During these countdown hours before Christmas, let us pray for peace and healing for our world. Let us strive to be one in consciousness with people around the world who are suffering or struggling, especially in situations of violence or war.
It is important for us these days to be one with the angels of Newtown, Connecticut, whose physical lives were taken from them, as their families prepared to celebrate Christmas with them. Let us pray for their grieving siblings, parents, families, and friends. Let us pray also that our country will look seriously into the interplay between mental illness, violence, and the misuse of guns.
To borrow imagery from the first reading from the prophet Micah, these hours are a wonderful time to ask Jesus from Bethlehem to shepherd us and lead us in life-giving directions. He is peace: may we share in his peace this Christmas, 2012 and help others to experience it also.
The Best Christmas Yet
Reflection for Christmas 2012
Jesse Lewis was six years old. He was known for his sense of humor: he loved to make people laugh. He was very sensitive to other people’s feelings and emotions. His home was near a stable; he loved to go there and spend time with the horses. One neighbor said that no one could stay in a bad mood, if he or she were in the presence of Jesse. Jesse’s dad was recently interviewed on TV. He reported that for the last few weeks, Jesse had been walking through the house saying: “This is going to be the best Christmas yet! This is going to be the best Christmas yet!” But Jesse was among the children and adults who were killed last week in Newtown, Connecticut. Choking back tears, his father said, “I miss him so much… I miss him so much. He really was not only my son, but also my best friend. We did everything together.”
Christmas has been forever changed for Jesse’s loved ones and so many other people in that town. In fact, the events of that Friday have influenced how people approach Christmas around the world. The tragedy that occurred in that Connecticut town challenges all of us to reach deeply into Christmas Day and all that it means. We are called beyond sentiment to conviction and faith.
One of the Gospels that is used at liturgy on Christmas Day is from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. That chapter begins like the book of Genesis does with the words: “In the beginning…” John tells us that Jesus had a pre-existence before he was physically born. With Abba and the Holy Spirit, Jesus was influential in the creation of the cosmos and human life. But John seems also to be suggesting that the birth of Jesus was a new creation of the human family. This first chapter of John speaks of Jesus as the Word of God; he was and is God’s self revelation and wisdom. John goes on to say that the Word became flesh: Jesus became a person; he entered the human family and story.
Who was and is this Jesus? John O’Grady, in his books Models of Jesus and Models of Jesus Revisited, says the following about Jesus: 1) Jesus is the second person or experience of the Blessed Trinity; 2) Jesus has revealed to us the deep down meaning of life; 3) Jesus is the ethical liberator, who calls the world to mercy and justice; 4) Jesus is the model person: the world would become heaven on earth, if we all live as Jesus lived; 5) Jesus is our Savior. The root meaning of Savior is healer. Jesus seeks to heal us from all that breaks us individually or on the level of our relationships. O’Grady says that the model of Jesus that is perhaps most significant is that: 6) Jesus is the human face of God. If we want to know or understand who and how God is, we need to look to Jesus.
I would like to add to O’Grady’s models. Jesus is the revelation of the Reign of God, a countercultural vision and way of doing life, with God as the foundation of our lives. Part of living the Reign of God is believing in and hoping one day to experience what Jesus revealed through his cross and Resurrection: that life is eternal and that all of us are invited to Resurrection. On the other side of death, we will be one with God, one with all who preceded us in death, and one with those who remain here on Earth. This is what we mean by the Communion of Saints. Though Christmas has become a nostalgic favorite with most Christians, in the early church it was not the first or the most important feast. Easter was and still should be – with its focus on hope, new life, and eternal life.
We share gifts at Christmas time with the people whom we love as tokens and signs of our love. But the gift of Christmas is Jesus and all that the preceding words about Jesus mean. On the level of human emotions, I am sure that this will not be the best Christmas yet for Jesse’s loved ones and many others connected with Newtown, Connecticut. But this Christmas is a time for all of us who have been stunned and shocked by tragedy to take into ourselves the whole Jesus, in the mystery of his Incarnation and Resurrection. This can be the best Christmas yet. We can fulfill Jesse’s hopes and dreams if we embrace anew Jesus and a personal and communal relationship with him.
All who have experienced the senseless and cruel destruction of children and adults, not just recently but also throughout history, have an important message spoken to us by Isaiah this Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shown. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing… For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder – Counselor, God – Hero, Father – Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful.” May Jesse’s loved ones and all of us come to a renewed relationship with Jesus. Incarnation is not just a past, historical event, but also a present experience that we are being invited to. Each and all of us can be the contemporary Bethlehem in which Jesus is born again, and we are born again in him.
In the gospel of Luke, we hear the old, old story of the domination system of the Roman government abusing poor, ordinary people, so that the government could tax them even more. As Mary gets ready to give birth to Jesus, there is no one or no place that offers him hospitality or protection. He is born in poverty. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, as most infants were in those days, emphasizing his humanity, his oneness with all of us. But the swaddling clothes also recall the birth of Solomon, the son of David, who, we are told in Wisdom 7:4, was also wrapped in swaddling clothes at his birth. The swaddling clothes also emphasize Jesus as the son of David. Jesus is placed in a manger after his birth, a food trough for animals, emphasizing that this child, who grew to be a man, was intended by God to be spiritual/wisdom food for all people, for all ages. The shepherds coming to see the newborn Jesus are indicative of the type of people Jesus would be most concerned about in his ministry – the poor and powerless of the world. The angels present that Christmas teach us that in the mystery of the Incarnation, heaven and earth were united, and still are.
I encourage all of us this Christmas to personally invite Jesus into our hearts. If any of us are dealing with burdens or problems, I encourage us to ask Jesus for help, healing, and a sense of meaning. What this feast is most about is that no matter what the circumstances of our lives, God is always with us, working all things for our good. May you have the best Christmas yet! Jesse Lewis is!
The Rev. Pat Brennan, a longtime priest, has earned doctorates in pastoral ministry and psychology, and teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola and at the College of DuPage. He is the author of 15 books and co-host of the radio program Horizons for 31 years, now on 560 AM at 6:30 a.m. and 1160 AM at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings.