Catholic Exchange: When Advent Feels More Like Lent

This time of year can present challenges to all of us as we approach the Christmas season. More and more Catholics are trying to slow down and enter into the period of waiting and preparation in the Advent season. As the secular Christmas season continues to spiral out of control, a lot of people are seeing the wisdom of this season of stillness and waiting.

The problem is that, for many of us, Advent can begin to feel more like Lent than Advent. We may find ourselves wrestling in the desert rather than waiting silently by an empty manger. The state of the Church in the past few months in the United States, and in many other countries, has resulted in a Lenten period all its own due to the abominable crimes that have come to light. So it isn’t all that surprising that many Catholics are feeling like they are in Lent rather than Advent at present.

What do we do when Advent feels more like Lent? 

If you, like me, entered into Advent and woke up in Lent, don’t worry. God is working in us to bring about much needed healing and growth that will be necessary for growing in holiness. There will be times in our lives, even as we prepare for the joy of Christmas, when we will have to wage interior battles. These intense periods often feel like a wrestling match because it is in these times when God is asking us to give something up or to give something over to Him that only He can heal or resolve. We desperately want to do it ourselves, but in reality Our Triune God is the only one who can resolve these areas of our lives. We are called to trust in Him and relinquish our grip.

The stresses of daily life, health issues, grief from the loss of a loved one, habitual sin, damaged relationships, the scandals rocking the Church, marital struggles, and a whole host of other situations can lead us to a period of aridity and struggle in the desert. The long nights of late fall, the frenetic energy of this time of year, and the suffering we carry means that this time of year can be particularly difficult for many of us. For those with no family or friends to celebrate the holidays with, the loneliness can become unbearable.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Come Christmas, Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Sacred Scripture is filled with unlikely messengers. Men and women who are never the “right” messenger. They are too old, too young, too male, too female, not from the right town, not a priest, they are a priest, not a king, they are a king. There’s always something wrong with them according to their listeners. As we work our way through this final week of Advent towards the great feast of Christmas, we see many of God’s messengers who were simply cast aside or ignored because they didn’t fit the mold the listeners wanted. God works through those who are willing and often those are the people we least expect, but the people we need the most in that given moment. St. John the Baptist paved the way for us this past Sunday, but many did not like the message and he met with a prophet’s death.

Come Christmas it will be rough and tough shepherds in the field who will see and hear the heavenly hosts and “make haste.” It is the King of the Universe made flesh who will be placed in a food trough in a town that means House of Bread who will become our heavenly food. He is a king with no palace and no visible army. He is the prophet whose message is too difficult to bear and the priest who sacrifices Himself. Like the prophets before Him, He will not be the right messenger for many. When we focus too much on the messenger and not the message, when we allow ourselves to be blinded by our own fears and prejudices, we fail to see how God is working and we promptly ignore or get rid of the messenger and the message.

God works most efficaciously through the Sacraments and the prayers of the Church, but He works most prevalently in our daily lives through the people around us. It is in our neighbor that we see the light of Christ dwelling within. It is often our neighbor who is a messenger carrying a message that we need to hear, but they aren’t the messenger we want from God. We want God to operate on our pre-defined terms, which is the exact opposite of how He typically works in our lives.

Parents, for instance, often know that God uses our children to speak to us. There have been many times when I have made a mistake as a mother and God will use my daughter to remind me to do better. In our busy and distracted age it is often children who remind us to look up and look out at the beauty around us. God works through our spouses, our parents, brothers, sisters, friends, priests, and complete strangers. He seeks to reach us, but often we do not pay attention or we ignore it because we don’t like the messenger He chose in a given situation. How can he or she be the one God chose to deliver this message? Why her or him? It doesn’t matter. God chose them.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot because God asked me to be one of His messengers in a situation that is rather extraordinary. In fact, I still don’t understand why He chose me other than the fact that I was willing to do what needed to be done at all costs. That seems to be the requirement of doing God’s will and delivering a much needed message to someone. I am a fighter by nature and I’m willing to do what is necessary for charity when God asks it of me. That is all His doing. My willingness is the only reason I can somewhat understand why I was asked, but as is often the case, I wasn’t the “right” messenger. In fact, I’ve seldom been the “right” messenger. Most of us are never the “right” messenger in the moment we are asked to share what God wants us to share and so we can only hope that we’ve planted the seeds we were supposed to and pray and wait.

There is so much division in the Church right now that all we focus on is the messenger. They are too much of a bishop, too much of a priest, not a priest, not a member of the laity, too much a member of the laity, a woman, a man, a young woman, an old woman, a young man, an old man, and this goes on and on. We do not truly see one another as brothers and sisters. We see one another as “other” and so we continue to push one another away in fear, anger, blindness, and we allow the Enemy to create greater division between all of us. We allow the communion we share to be damaged or destroyed. We allow fear to destroy charity, forgetting that “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).

When are we going to stop and start listening to the message? Will we be able to hear the message come this Christmas if we are too focused on the message bearer? Do we focus so much on the message bearer themselves that we cannot see how and why God is using them to bring His love to us? Why do we not see the messenger as our brother or sister in Christ? We all do it. We all ignore the message because we don’t like the messenger or the message.

We don’t want the Divine Love to break in too much into our lives. We only want it to be just enough, but God never works with just enough. He pours Himself infinitely out upon us. We have to open ourselves up to Him. We have to turn the faucet on so the Divine Love can flow both within us and out towards others. Yes, He works with what we are able to handle, but often we don’t think we can handle as much as God knows we can handle. He seeks to stretch and challenge us in ways that are needed for us to progress in holiness. It hurts because we fight it. We think we can’t do it because we lack faith and trust.

When we come to celebrate the Christmas Liturgy together in a week’s time, let us open up our hearts, minds, and souls to the great Messenger, the Son of God, who came to dwell among us in order to unite us to Himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. The one who draws us into the Triune Love where our ultimate joy, peace, and fulfillment lies. Let’s see His messengers with the eyes of faith and charity rather than focusing on whether or not the priest is gifted in homiletics, the homily is well written, or the delivery is subpar. Let’s look at our neighbor who bears the imago Dei and allow God to show us His great love in a time of great pain, fear, and division. God loves us through our neighbor.

It is not us versus them. We should not assume or think the absolute worst in our neighbor. We need to remember that any division in our hearts comes from the Fall and from the Enemy. God does not seek to scatter. He seeks to draw us into deep, abiding communion with Him and with one another. God is not the God of fear. He is the God of peace. He will challenge us, but in ways that invite us to go deeper into His mystery and to go deeper into the Divine Love and love of neighbor.

Let’s pray for the fortitude to answer God’s call when He asks us to be one of His messengers. There’s usually a cost involved for us, some are small and some are much larger. Being a messenger requires sacrifice, especially since we will often be reviled, ignored, or cast out. We are all in good company when we look to Sacred Scripture and the saints. More than anything, we have Christ who was betrayed, abandoned, and crucified for us.

This Christmas let’s begin to work towards our neighbor rather than discarding or ignoring the messengers God places in our own lives. From one messenger to another let’s seek to open ourselves up to what God wants to show us through the people around us. Let’s take off our blinders, turn from fear, and bask in the glorious light God radiates to us through others. It is through the glorious message of Christmas that God reaches down to us, so that we can reach up towards Him and out towards one another.


Catholic Exchange: Christmas-The Light in the Darkness

During Advent every year I try to imagine what it was like for the people of Israel as they waited for the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. We live in a time after the Paschal Mystery, but we do still wait for Christ in the Second Coming. We approach Christmas each year knowing that Christ has come and He is reigning over the universe. We live in the light of the Son of God who became a baby, died a prophet’s death on the Cross, and rose from the dead.

The Israelites lived for centuries suffering exile, persecution, and darkness. As in our own Fallen lives, much of what they suffered was self-inflicted because of sin, but God repeatedly comes to their aid and our aid despite the battle we wage against the darkness in our own hearts. God never forgets us, nor ceases to forgive us when we come to Him with contrite hearts. Christ is the light of the world, or as Lumen Gentiumbegins: “Christ came to be the light to the nations (LG 1).”

The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord is the time we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s plan to bring light to a Fallen world. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Christmas is the stealthy landing behind enemy lines in which God condescends Himself to become a babe in a manger in order to bring about the salvation of the world. He descends into the utter darkness, weakness, and helplessness of the human condition so that He may shed a great light upon us and draw us into friendship with Him. This is accomplished in the most unexpected way imaginable!

There is little doubt as we look at the world around us that we live in Enemy territory. The news is a constant barrage of violence, injustice, disease, natural disasters, and suffering. Every single day people suffer immensely. In truth, the greatest suffering and tragedy to befall each one of us is sin. From a material perspective this doesn’t seem to be the case, but in truth it is spiritual wounds that cause the most damage to us and our relationships. Christ tells us: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops. I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more (Luke 12:2-4).” Sin is what we do in darkness, but all will be brought into the light of God. It is this darkness that Our Lord seeks to free us from by His divine light.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Beauty Reflects God’s Love for Us

God is rather gratuitous in the beauty He bestows upon Creation. This is evident in crystal clear rivers descending into roaring waterfalls, the sun gently rising over the ocean, the quiet of sunset over snow covered peaks, misty trees golden by early morning light, and it is most profoundly seen in the eyes of our fellow sojourners: human beings. We are constantly surrounded by this gift of beauty, but do we see it? Do we accept it as a grand gesture from our Divine Lover? A friend of mine likes to say: “God woos us through beauty.” This is indeed true, if we pay attention.

I fear that many of us have been robbed of this truth. We live in cultures that have chosen banal, bland, boring, and utilitarian architecture or interior furnishings. We view human beings as a means to an end, an annoyance, or worse, as a burden. What person doesn’t feel the soul crushing utility upon entering a government building? This is true of the surroundings and the treatment of people who go there to do business. It is as if the true, the good, and the beautiful are intentionally kept out, so that we do not ponder higher things than our supposedly benevolent government.

This is also true of those sacred spaces stripped of their awe-inspiring power, thanks to the rabid iconoclasm of certain quarters due to the great misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Vatican II, often called “the spirit of Vatican II.” I have no intention of stepping into the Liturgy wars here, but I do believe that my generation was robbed of the beauty God means to bestow upon us and the beauty we mean to give back to Him as we participate in His creation through our churches and cathedrals.

We have forgotten how to look for God in beauty. Many of us don’t look up throughout our daily lives. We do not see the wonder surrounding us, even those who are surrounded by urban sprawl. This is just as true for Catholics as it is for our non-Catholic counterparts.  I have lived in urban, suburban, and rural settings throughout my life. Each one offers unique opportunities to find God in His Creation and in our worship of Him.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Silence in Advent Prepares Us for the Joy of Christmas

The topic of silence has grown in popularity on social media in recent months. This is especially true in light of the various pieces written on Cardinal Sarah’s brilliant book, The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Silence is an important topic. We are inundated with noise. This noise is not only an assault on our auditory faculties, but on our senses as a whole. The world wants to keep us distracted, busy, and living with a constant din buzzing in our ears. Why? Noise is a tool that the world and Satan use to keep us from God. It is easy to drown Him out in our daily lives by remaining focused on the endless onslaught. In reality, we cannot make serious progress in the spiritual life without silence. Saints are made in silence. It is through silence before the great mystery of God that we enter more deeply into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. That communion is what we are moving closer towards in each moment of every single day. It is in that communion that we will find beatitudo (happiness) and Heaven.

The Church understands our desperate need for silence. It is fitting that our liturgical year begins in a season of silence and waiting. As the late fall evenings lengthen towards the darkness of winter, we become more aware of the silence and stillness that are a part of the natural order of things. Creation seems to go into its own period of waiting. It is easy for us to miss what is going on around us in the busyness of the secular Christmas season. As we run around shopping for countless gifts—many of which, let’s face it, are unnecessary—attend parties, write Christmas cards, decorate our homes, and move about with frenetic energy, we can miss not only what is going on around us in Creation, but what is going on in the Church.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Let Christmas Teach Us to Make Haste in the Spiritual Life

During Advent and now the Christmas season, I have tried to spend time each day meditating on the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel. These three chapters are packed with significant events, responses, and depth on the part of the people involved and their encounter with God. Within them we discover the righteousness of St. Joseph, the foretelling of and birth of St. John the Baptist, the Annunciation of Our Lord and the fiat of Our Heavenly Mother, the Visitation and the beautiful prayer of praise known as the Magnificat, and the Nativity of Our Lord. If there is one theme that has stood out to me in my meditations it is that the spiritual life requires haste. When we hear God’s Word, and when we encounter the Living God made man, we are to respond in haste. There is no time to waste. The Word has become flesh, so let us go to Him in haste.

St. Joseph’s obedient and immediate response to God.

We do not know much about St. Joseph. He is silent in the Gospels, but his actions reveal a great deal about the adoptive father of the Son of God. The Gospel of Matthew tells us:

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:18-25

St. Joseph demonstrates his charitable character by refusing to subject Mary to public shame for what appears to be an adulterous act, but then an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream. The angel clarifies and explains Mary’s situation to Joseph and also invites Joseph to participate in God’s plan for the salvation of mankind as her husband. His role is to be the adoptive father of Jesus, the God Incarnate, who has come to His people to save them from sin and death. While this particular passage of Scripture does not use the word “haste” –as it appears in Luke–it is clear that St. Joseph responded immediately to God’s will. He did not wait to do these things, he awoke from the dream and did God’s will. He encountered God through the angel and responded quickly to God’s invitation.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: What Will We Give Jesus for His Birthday?

We are now in the final days of Advent. These last days are a good time to fully prepare ourselves for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas. If we have not taken the time to enter into prayerful quiet, now is a good time to do so. If we do not enter into the preparation of Advent, there is a good chance we will miss the true joy of Christmas, because we will not have taken the time to prepare our hearts fully for the coming of Our Savior. A couple of weeks ago, my parish priest asked us a question in order to help us prepare for Christmas. He asked, “What are we going to give Jesus for His birthday?” Ever since Father spoke these words, they have been on my mind. What am I going to give Jesus for His birthday?

Whose birthday is it anyway?

To be honest, it is such a simple question, that it is often lost on us; this includes me. Often, we end up making this one of the busiest and most material times of the year. As parents, my husband and I have tried to cut back on the material and busy sides of Advent and Christmas. We spent one too many Christmases with family and friends watching kids tear into far too many gifts only to cast them aside. The desire for more, more, more was all over their faces. More of what, exactly? Things that can never in principle make them truly happy? We realized early on that we cannot hope to teach our daughter holiness if Christmas is seen as an accumulation of large quantities of stuff. We cut back to three gifts from us, which represent the gifts of the Magi. All other gifts are from grandparents and other family. Even then, it has been difficult to maintain temperance in this regard because my husband and I are rather counter-cultural in this approach.

Our reason for this refocus is because it is very easy in our culture to focus on the material aspects of Christmas. We are inundated with the idea that buying the “perfect” gift will achieve happiness for our loved ones or ourselves. Advertising campaigns have even switched to telling us that we “deserve to buy ourselves the perfect gift this Christmas.” We hear this on the radio, see it on TV, and we are bombarded whenever we walk into a store this time of year. I notice a tendency in my own daughter to want stuff and lots of it. Of course, hours or days later she will cast aside this item she had to have since it has served its temporary purpose. I have been asking God how to temperately celebrate His birth in a manner that is a balance between merriment, cheer, self-emptying love, virtuous living, and a focus on Him. Then came Father’s question to all of us, to me.

In the Latin Rite, we can easily forget that Advent is a penitential season. It is not as strict as Lent and often the penitential aspects are not mentioned, but for all intents and purposes, Advent is penitential. We are told to prepare for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas and in the Parousia. If Christ came again in the Second Coming at this very moment, would we be prepared? We are called to constantly prepare our hearts for His coming. This is a call to grow in holiness, to deepen our prayer lives, frequent the sacraments, and to consider those areas where vice rules over virtue. The Catholic understanding is not that we have to be merely “good people”. That idea comes from the post-modern heresy of moral therapeutic deism. We are called to be saints, not “good people”. In Lent, we consider something to give up to grow in holiness to prepare for the great mysteries of Holy Week. In that same vein: What is it we are going to give Our Lord and Savior at Christmas?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Seeing Our Neighbor and the Long Loneliness of December

Every year a discussion about the startling rise in suicide rates during the holidays makes national news. More often than not, the cause is relegated to mental illness, stress, or family situations. While all of these may be true, they betray a purely materialist view of the human person. Mental illness in itself is a tremendous Cross for those who carry it. All illness has a bodily and a spiritual dimension. That’s why Christ gave the Church the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. There is a very real need for physical treatments, but we live in an age that focuses on the body and ignores the spirit. Far too often we ignore the needs of our neighbors. Whether it is the deepening darkness leading to the winter solstice or a heightened awareness of one’s loneliness due to the holidays, people who struggle with mental illness, family problems, stress, or a whole plethora of other issues find themselves undone this time of year. What are we doing to help them?

Do we truly see our neighbor?

I find that one of my greatest shortcomings in social gathers is that I cannot remember people’s names. This is a shortcoming, because it means that I do not stay present and truly focus on each person I meet at an event. In fact, it may take me many meetings to remember the name of a person. I am so self-absorbed that I cannot focus for a couple of minutes to remember a person’s name. It also means that I am not listening to everything else they are telling me. I am not seeing my neighbor. I do not see Christ in them either. It’s impossible to see either if I am not fully present in charity.

Everyone suffers at some point in their lives. For some people suffering is chronic and is a lived affliction. My own father has suffered with chronic illness ever since he had rheumatic fever at 7 years of age. He has lived with intense pain for 53 years. The level of his suffering over the years has only been revealed to me as an adult, since he tried to keep it from my sisters and me as children. While he would not want attention to be drawn to him, I have to wonder if people have cared to notice this Cross in their brother in Christ? Would I have noticed if he were not my own father? Chronic illness is inherently lonely, but often we fail to notice its effects in the person sitting or standing beside us. The Mystical Body is called to walk into the joys and sufferings of their neighbor. Pope Saint John Paul II in Novo Millenio Inuente explains:

A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me”. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship.

If we are truly committed to walking as disciples of Christ, then we will step into the Crosses of our neighbor, rather than flee. This requires great courage, charity, and the forming of habitual action.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Advent-Our Hope is Not in This World

In many of our cultures the Christmas season is in full swing. It is the version of Christmas when we are told to buy more things and to accumulate as many material possessions as we can for ourselves and others. This is an understandable mentality in wealthier nations, only because we have been inundated with this message since childhood. Pay close attention to advertisements and commercials this time of year and throughout the year. Buying item X will bring you happiness, joy, comfort, or pleasure. You need this car, dress, computer, shoes, TV, and the list is endless. We are also told that we need an endless supply of fast food and junk food to provide for our immediate gratification as we spend hundreds or thousands on a credit card while shopping for Christmas. How often do you feel the need for a cheeseburger after a Hardee’s commercial? I know I have in the past and still do depending on the food being advertised. What are we preparing for exactly? It is supposed be the upcoming celebration of Our Lord’s Birth; or these days, the winter solstice?

If I could sum up this time of year in one word it would be: busy. The second word would be: noisy. There is an endless array of distractions, colors, dazzling displays, and blaring Christmas music telling us this is the “most wonderful time of the year”, and yet, everyone seems harried, hurried, unpleasant, and overwhelmed. We absolutely mustbuy a gift for Aunt Jean twice removed on our mother’s side. There must be a mountain of presents under the tree by December 24th and we absolutely have to attend every single soiree we are invited to, even if it means little to no silence or preparation for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas or in the Second Coming.

Where did all of these imperatives come from? In all of this busyness, are we truly ready to receive Christ into our hearts more fully at Christmas? Can we be ready in this craziness? Are we ready if Our Lord decided to come tomorrow in Glory to usher in the end of time and the new earth and Heaven? Whose birthday are we getting ready for at this point in time? Does a mountain of gifts point to Christ or our own desires? He was born in a stable, after all. My point here is not to denigrate the giving side of the upcoming (no it is not Christmas, yet) Christmas season. It is to help us consider if there is another way and whether or not we truly believe our hope dwells outside of this world.

Our neighbors are overwhelmed and overburdened. They are enslaved by the notion that buying one more item or one more gift will fulfill them. The problem is, that far too many of us Catholics are also enslaved by this aspect of our culture. This is a battle all of us wage as we fight our desire for lower goods over our ultimate good: God. Do our lives reflect our Catholic Faith and this Advent season, or do we look the same as our frenzied neighbors?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Looking for an Advent Retreat You Can Do at Home?

Advent is an often overlooked season within the Church because it coincides with the secular preparation for Christmas. The Church does not enter into the Christmas season until Christmas Eve vigil. The busyness of life can get in the way of entering into the beautiful season of waiting for the Christ-child and the Second Coming. Advent is a good time to quiet ourselves, so that we may come to know and love God more fully. It is also the time we contemplate eschatology and the Last Things.

Many people would love to go on a retreat but either can’t leave their families or a retreat is too expensive. A group of innovative Catholics came up with an online retreat to serve the needs of the New Evangelization. I was honored to be asked to be one of the speakers this year. The retreat begins on Monday, November 28, 2016. The cost is based on what you can give and there are a variety of talks to choose from to help you step deeper into Advent and the spiritual life.

I can say that talking to a computer screen for my talks was challenging. I’ve been doing public speaking since I joined the debate team as a high school freshman. It’s easier to interact with an audience, but there is a need to provide talks to people who cannot attend retreats or conferences. I hope I was able to overcome my audience bias to help you on the journey. :o) I hope the talks guide you deeper into holiness. All of the speakers are tremendously talented and knowledgeable. You can find the retreat here:

The Pray More Retreat!

 

Pax Christi.