The Last Gift of Christmas

This year, the last gift of Christmas was a Starburst.

Even more impractical than gold, frankincense, and myrrh was this gigantic chunk of sugar and food coloring left for a baby with no teeth.

Some years, Lego figures visit our manger. One year a tiny skateboard waited in the stable, in case Jesus wanted to ride it later. Barbie probably would have gone in too if she wasn’t so tall. But this year, just when I thought no one was paying any attention to the manger, the last gift of Christmas was left for the baby.

Not the yellow Starburst that no one wants. The red Starburst, the prize.

May the last gift of Christmas always be for the child in the manger. If it hurts a little to give it, then we know it came from deep within, from a place that wants more than what this world can give. And whatever we give him, may it come back to us in good measure—packed together, shaken down, overflowing, poured into our laps (Lk 6:38)!

About a week after Christmas, Eli retrieved the candy from the manger and began to unwrap it. “He said I could have it,” Eli told me.

About a week after Christmas, Eli retrieved the candy from the manger and began to unwrap it. “He said I could have it,” Eli told me.

And the Soul Felt Its Worth

In the book of Genesis, God’s first words to human beings after sin enters the world are: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9).

Deeply emblematic of the rupture between humans and God, these probing words both sadden and inspire us. On one hand, we respond: “I’m sorry! I’m ashamed!” On the other: “I’m here, God! I’m here!”

It is in answer to both of these gut responses that Jesus has come. It is in response to both that he is born in us at Christmas. For God so loved the world that God also calls out: “I’m here!”

This Christmas, my prayer is that a reassurance, a peace that passes all understanding, will lodge in our hearts—a reassurance that there is no more need for God and for us to call out to each other with those heartbroken words: “Where are you?” No more rupture, no more shame. Christ our Savior is born . . . and the soul felt its worth!

Merry Christmas, all!

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Thank you to my friend Jeanne for sharing these words of encouragement from the New York Times: “Staying Catholic at Christmas.”

My December column for Catholic Digest is available online: “5 Bible Facts for Advent.”

The Saint Ann Choir will give a free Christmas concert on Sun., Dec. 30, 4:00 p.m., 501 Naugatuck Ave., Milford, CT. I look forward to seeing some of you there!

A note on today’s blog: The fact that God’s first words to Adam and Eve after they sinned were “Where are you?” is pointed about by Enzo Bianchi in his wonderful little book God, where are you? Practical Answers to Spiritual Questions. He says that God asks Adam and Eve where they are, but soon enough, we begin to ask God where he is! Christmas is an especially fruitful time to ponder these questions.

Saincilus Ishmael, Acrylic on Wood, Courtesy    Sacred Art Pilgrim   .

Saincilus Ishmael, Acrylic on Wood, Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

Advent Meditation: You Are the Light of the World

The following is one of the meditations I shared at my Advent programs this year. The theme for the evenings was light. Let’s pray for one other during this holy season of Light!

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If you spend enough time with the Scriptures, you’ll notice a pattern emerging. The pattern goes something like this: God loves you. Now what are you going to do about it?

It’s along the same lines as that iconic advice of Spiderman’s uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Or maybe it’s better said like this: God, who created the vast universe, created you in his own image, speaks to you with his own voice, knows how many hairs are on your head, knows when you sit and when you stand, holds you in the palm of his hand, hides you under the shadow of his wing, suffers for you, dies for you, rises from the dead for you, redeems and remakes you in his image, gives you a share in his life, treasures you above all things, speaks your name, calls you forth . . . will never leave you nor forsake you.

And you . . . what will you do about it? What will you do with all of this creation, redemption, calling forth, holding and dying and rising? What will you do with all of this . . . love?

The pattern is clear. Jesus himself employed it quite frequently. He said, “You didn’t choose me. I chose you! And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Those words “I chose you” feel so good. But “go and bear fruit”? That’s harder. St. Paul wrote, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. But don’t use this freedom for self-indulgence, but through love, become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). We like our freedom. But using our freedom to love others? That’s harder. St. James wrote, “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:17). Faith is abstract. Works, actions, are concrete. And as we know, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). But he also said, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). We’re very comfortable with Jesus being the light. But us? That’s harder. It requires effort, work – bearing fruit, serving others, actions. It isn’t abstract. We either do it or we don’t. And we sometimes fail. We don’t like failing. So sometimes we’d just rather not be asked. We’d rather not be asked to be light.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Matt 5:14-15).

Jesus, the Light of the World, dazzles us – as an infant in a manger, an itinerant preacher, a healer, a wonder-worker, a dying man, a Risen Lord, an ascended King, in heavenly bread, or returning to us in triumph – he dazzles us with his light. But we look at ourselves, and we may not be so dazzled. We look at each other, and we may not see the light.

Thomas Merton wrote about what he called a mystical experience. He said that one day he was standing on a street corner in Kentucky – it was in Louisville on the corner of Fourth and Walnut – and he writes: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine, and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…. Now I realize what we all are. If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander).

My brothers and sisters, it is no different here among us, in this church tonight. I see all of you shining like the sun! We all give off a different light. Some of us kind of glow. Some of us are a little more laser-like. Some of us twinkle, and some of us strobe. It doesn’t matter. We all shine.

And we don’t have to worry so much about failing to shine, failing to act, failing to bear fruit – not as long as we always have God by the hand, not as long as we love Jesus and we let him love us. Let him count the hairs on your head (Matt 10:30), let him hide you under the shadow of his wing (Ps 17:8), let his heart be ravished by one glance of your eyes, one bead of your necklace, as the Song of Solomon says (4:9). Let his compassion toward you grow warm and tender as he promises in the book of Hosea (11:8). Let him set you free as he promises his Truth will do (John 8:32). Because if you let God do these things, then you will shine. Because your beauty comes not just from you – that would be unbearable pressure – but your beauty, your light, comes from Christ. It’s unique, it’s your own, but it’s the light of Christ shining in and through you. So you never shine alone.

And you don’t have to be perfect. Remember the line from the Leonard Cohen song: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Anthem). It’s also how the light gets out. I can see the light of Christ shining even through your imperfections. I hope you can do the same for me.

You are the light of the world. Don’t hide under a basket. Set yourself on a lampstand, give light to all in the house. And then, Jesus says, your light will shine before others and they will glorify not you, but your heavenly Father (Matt 5:16).

Advent is a time of self-examination. That self-examination is not meant to become self-loathing or navel-gazing. It’s meant to open us up, to let the light in. If there’s a crack in everything, including ourselves, then let’s let the light into every crack, every imperfection, every opening, every need. Christ is coming – and he will be born not only to us but in us! So let’s be ready to bear Christ our light into the darkness of this world. Our winter, our darkness, our waiting needs this light. It’s time to be what we are. It’s time to be the light of the world.

St. Ann Church, Milford, CT
St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Windsor Locks, CT
Advent 2018

Reflection: Light has a purpose. It doesn’t just shine. It shines on something. It doesn’t just warm. It warms something. Where does your light shine? Are you letting the light of Christ into the cracks in your life, so his light can shine through you?

After this meditation, in Milford the Saint Ann Choir sang  “Go Light Your World” by Chris Rice . And in Windsor Locks, Brian Rucci sang “ Beautiful City” from Godspell (Schwartz) . Inspiring!

After this meditation, in Milford the Saint Ann Choir sang “Go Light Your World” by Chris Rice. And in Windsor Locks, Brian Rucci sang “Beautiful City” from Godspell (Schwartz). Inspiring!

Merry Christmas!

On that Christmas night, the hand of God seemed too small to hold the whole world.
That just goes to show how little we can grasp of the miracle that is Christmas.
— Ruth Mulhern

Wishing you and your loved ones a blessed and merry Christmas!

Amy Ekeh

Miriam Capurro, Acrylic on Heavy Paper, Detail. Courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim .

Miriam Capurro, Acrylic on Heavy Paper, Detail. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

Do You Want to Hold My Baby?

About a year ago, I came across a wonderful image of Mary and Jesus – a painting of a young Mary holding her baby. Mary is looking straight out of the painting, directly into the eyes of whoever is looking at her.

I looked up the artist to find out more about her and about this piece she had painted. The artist’s name is Stephanie Morris, and she lives in Mobile, Alabama. Stephanie said that after she painted this image of Mary holding Jesus, she meditated with it. She prayed with it the way one might pray with an icon. She took it with her on retreat, and she said that for hours, she stared into Mary’s eyes as Mary stared into hers. After some time, she heard Mary speaking to her, in her heart. Mary asked her a simple question: “Would you like to hold my baby?”

Of course the artist’s response was “Yes!” But then Mary said to her: “If you want to hold my baby, you will have to put down some of those things you are carrying.”

Do you want to hold Mary’s baby? Of course you do. But like the artist, you must first put down the other things you are holding – distractions and burdens and attachments, expectations and resentment and worry. In this last week of Advent, lay down whatever is holding you back from being this close to Jesus, from holding him against your heart as his mother does. When Mary offers him to you, you will be ready. You will hold out your arms in freedom and love.

It isn’t brazen or lacking in humility to be this bold, to take the Christ child in your arms, to hold him close to your heart. It is just what he wants you to do. It is just what Mary asks:

"Do you want to hold my baby?"

"The Visitation" by Stephanie Morris. Published here with permission of the artist. © Stephanie Morris 2012. To visit Stephanie's website and view information about purchasing a print (all proceeds benefit Catholic Relief Services),  click here .

"The Visitation" by Stephanie Morris. Published here with permission of the artist. © Stephanie Morris 2012. To visit Stephanie's website and view information about purchasing a print (all proceeds benefit Catholic Relief Services), click here.