Presence, wonder, and praise at Christmas

This Christmas, I am grateful to be able to celebrate Christmas twice. On Sunday the prison at which I volunteer had its Christmas Mass, as the prison is closed to outsiders on Christmas Eve and Day. So, I attended and shared in word and sacrament with this community of men and volunteers that I have grown to know and care about over the years. Tonight, on Christmas Eve, I plan to attend church services with my immediate family, as well as my mother and her husband, and will be grateful to be in church with family members that I do not ordinarily enjoy this experience with on a weekly basis. Sitting here in the airport, with considerable time on my hands, I am praying for those present at my side, and others present in my heart, and reflecting on the Christmas story.

In some ways, the Nativity story of Luke’s gospel is not so distant. For one thing, there is still all the travel. As I type this, I am sitting in a crowded airport. My oldest adult child is upset because TSA security took away pricy toiletries that were not in the right sized containers for carry-on luggage. A boy who looks about five or six years old across from me is crying, since his mother explained to him, “Sometimes adults don’t respect children who are waiting in line, and they expect only adults to be there.” This provoked heaving sobs in him, and so his mom hugged and comforted him. The TSA official who checked off my boarding pass explained that he was not being paid for his job, when I asked him how the government shutdown is affecting him. He did not look happy. Meanwhile, the CNN story on the tv screens tells of the latest drop in the stock market.

Although the specifics of the world around us change, Christmas has always taken place in a world that has its own conflicts and fears, both large and small, both political and personal. God comes into the world precisely because of the need to transform this world and to accompany us in it: perhaps not over the state of the stock market specifically, but certainly for the everyday common human struggles that we experience in our families, communities, and world.

When we consider the Nativity story, we might consider the that Joseph and Mary experienced difficulties in their own travels: first, it’s hard to imagine a woman nine months pregnant feeling comfortable when traveling any distance, whether on a donkey or walking.  Then there must have been worries about finding a place to stay once they arrived, and fears about disease when people were suddenly brought together in tight quarters for the census count. Finally, I imagine Mary must have wondered about what that first experience of giving birth would be like—a process that is painful, wonderful, often dangerous, always extraordinary.

Yet when Christmas arrives, all of these things drop away in the celebration of Jesus’ birth. As is true with all new moms and dads, once a baby is delivered, everything else disappears from sight and we are simply lost in admiration of the beauty of new life in its innocence and goodness.  God comes into the world as a baby: vulnerable, fragile, with tiny fingers and toes, a healthy cry, the sweet scent of a newborn. God comes to live out a human life among us and to experience all that we do, so that we are alone in nothing. When Jesus is born, in a way, God’s words, spoken over all of creation ring true again: “It is good.” At Christmas we are invited to rest in the essential goodness of God’s gift of love.

In the nativity story the shepherds represent the poorest of society. Their presence as the first to visit Mary, Joseph, and Jesus show that the Savior does not come mostly for the rich and comfortable, but rather for the humble, the powerless, those whom no one else notices. Jesus also comes for the shepherd within all of us, for we all have places that are weak, vulnerable, and that go unnoticed by anyone except God. The Incarnation was not only in the 1st century in the Middle East, but also here today, in the sacraments and in our most ordinary actions with one another.

Christ was and is present in word and sacrament in the celebration of Mass in uncomfortable seats of a drafty auditorium of a prison. Christ is in the face of the prisoner who is estranged from his family at the holidays, and in the generosity of the inmate who is offering everyone peppermint candies from a bucket carried around by the service dog in training. Christ is present in the hug of the mother at the airport comforting her son who is not sure why grownups are unkind and impatient, and in the smile of the unpaid TSA agent who wishes happily holidays to harried customers picking up their luggage from the conveyor belt. Although the holiday is not about material gifts, Christ is present in the little gestures of love that gifts often are: the sweater a kid picks out for their mom, or the sharing of a meaningful book with a friend.

When the shepherds come to visit the Christ child, we see two kinds of response to this Presence of Love: Mary’s pondering, and the shepherds giving praise. We, too, are invited to both ponder and to praise.

We ponder because the mystery of God’s unfolding Love is not always easy to name or to grasp. God works in very mysterious ways at which we can only stand back and wonder, like the shepherds. We cannot, any more than Mary, control or anticipate how God’s action in the world will take place. We are not in control, but God is. We are only here to cooperate with God’s graceful action, and to go along for the ride. We can also praise: praise as we notice all those places that God’s love, healing, and redemption are present in our world. We praise God for the ways that we can trust in God’s promise, a promise of Love.

 

Merry Christmas, dear readers, and may your celebrations be full of wonder and praise.

Advent and letting down our defenses

Today is the first Sunday, and first day of Advent. It is also the start of a new year.  Ever since one of my spiritual directors suggested it several years ago, I have also had the practice of praying an Ignatian Examen of the entire year on the last day before Advent. I spend time reflecting in the presence of God about where God was most visibly present in my life and relationships. Where did I grow to be more loving, and where did I resist? For what am I most grateful?

This year, my thoughts of gratitude ranged across on a variety of moments: a summer trip to Ireland with my husband and an especially beautiful afternoon walking in complete silence down a windy path on the island of Inis Oirr, surrounded by vines blossoming with flowers; a breakfast at our B and B in Dingle, where we were delighted suddenly to have a herd of cows walk right past the full length glass door where we were dining; a reconciled relationship that took place in a most surprising way; the gift of health and healing for a family member with illness; a stunning rainbow halfway through my summer retreat; creative energy for new course to teach and new writing project to write; and many more places where God was found, most of them totally unplanned.

This practice also helps to think purposefully about Advent. What do I hope for in Advent? Of course, what I desire most is Christ himself. But it helps us to consider what would that look like, more concretely? Where are the relationships and spaces that we would hope for Christ to enter into more deeply ? Or where we are resistant , what would it look like to surrender more fully to the Lord in those particular ways? A good Jesuit friend , who now lives in S Africa, once described his experience of Advent as “a time when God gently breaks through all of our defenses”. I have always liked that description. It helps for me to think about places where I can get a little defended, and to consider what further surrender might look like. “Surrender” here is not like the surrender of an army to an enemy, but rather more like the surrender of letting oneself be kissed by a lover, whose tender care is deeply known.

In the first reading for Sunday, the prophet Jeremiah writes about how God will fulfill God’s promise to Israel. Originally, Jeremiah was speaking at a time when the kingdom of Judah was threatened by external political forces such as the Babylonian empire. Destruction lay all around, yet Jeremiah said that God would eventually restore Israel. I imagine that this was hard for the people who heard Jeremiah to believe. The evidence around them did not give much reason to hope. But Jeremiah says the hope is not to be found in political forces. The reason for hope is God’s promise.

For us, too, God’s promise is trustworthy because God loves us infinitely: each one of us is completely loved by God– the way that a mother loves her newborn child, or like a couple deeply in love, or the way that marriage or friendship that spans decades grows deep roots—and much, much more. God’s promise is trustworthy because of who God is. Our human limits do not, and can not, diminish anything of that core, foundational Love that is God: “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

This is why we can let down our defenses in Advent—just a little bit more than last year— because God’s friendship with us is reliable and God’s care always faithful. As this Advent begins, we can also consider how we want to be more faithful to God, too, by considering where we might love a little more the way that God loves—unreservedly, unguardedly, without fear or trepidation. What would it mean to love in our personal relationships with a little more vulnerability? What would it mean to love others politically, with greater trust in the goodness and lovability of the stranger, the outsider, the one my community considers as “other”?

God wants to bring life and love into all of the spaces in our world. Where do we want to open the door a little wider to invite God in?

The tree planted by the river as an image of divine love

R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
He is like a tree
planted near running water,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade. (Psalm 1: 3)

The Psalm from today’s Mass readings is a beautiful one, and I’m especially struck by the language of the tree near running water. Up until the last week or so, New England has had a drought and so I had been watering my own yard’s trees from the garden hose, and discovering that in a deep enough drought, no matter how much water I gave the tree, it was not near enough to get to the tree’s roots. The water moistened the surface but didn’t penetrate deeply. (Finally, a drenching rain arrived last week!)

A tree planted near a river is different, for even in times of drought it can rely on the running water to keep the tree’s water supply going. It’s interesting to me that the tree is not one that is actually planted in the water, but near it. Perhaps a major root goes very near or into the water, but the others are indirectly watered by the soil’s nearness to the river.

To me, this image suggests two complementary ideas: on the one hand, that it is God’s love that sustains us, in a way that no other source of love can. If we stay “near the water,” we are nourished with all that we need, and then our own work can be fruitful, too. On the other hand, those other roots might be compared to the network of loving relationships in our lives, by which we know and experience God’s love through others. Our most faithful friendships, family members, community members of all kinds, are like those roots. It’s important for human beings to be “rooted,” to be “planted,” to exist in stable and loving communities of faith and friendship that sustain us. We need both concrete and particular relationships of love that endure, like steady roots of the tree, and the River from which all the water of love comes in the first place, a River that is God’s outpouring of love to us, always available and never running dry.