Monday, December 25, 2006

Have a Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advent is a time of hopeful waiting. We wait with patience and expectation but also with joy and excitement. Children are great models of faith for Advent because of the exuberance with which they wait for Christmas. If you are with children on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day, really watch the way they wait for Santa to come. When was the last time in your life you were that excited about something? Children at Christmas are generally excited about the gifts they are or will be receiving. How excited are we about the numerous gifts we have been given?

Advent is a time of joy and excitement, but also patience (this part is a bit harder for adults as well as children). In a passage telling the reader to be patient, the letter of James says to "steady your hearts" (5:8). What a great image of patience - to steady one's heart. Our culture tends to be one of instant gratification, which seems to make patience even more difficult. I am a very impatient person, whether waiting in line at the store Christmas shopping or driving behind someone going slower than I would like to be driving. Naturally then in my prayer life, I tend to be impatient. I want things to happen now. God doesn't work that way (at least in my experience and occasionally to my frustration). Ideally, we would model our own patience after God's patience. The second letter of Peter tells us that God's patience is for our sake. When the early Christians were concerned that the second coming had not yet occurred, the letter reassures them:
In the Lord's eyes, one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day. The Lord does not delay in keeping his promise--though some consider it "delay". Rather, he shows you generous patience, since he wants none to perish but all to come to repentance. (2 Pt. 3:8-9)

While we wait for God, God is waiting for us.

We wait in hope. I have often thought that hope is a forgotten virtue. We talk about faith and love quite a bit, but we don't talk about hope very often. Today's world often seems so cynical and tired. Sometimes when facing just one more scandal in the Church or in the government, it is hard to find that glimmer of hope or even know exactly what it is we are hoping for. It is precisely for these reasons that I think hope is so needed today. We hope for a new day and a better world. The color of Advent is a blue purple, the color of the sky at dawn right before our world is lit up by sunlight. In our part of the world the days are at their shortest this time of the year, so many of you, like me, may begin your day in darkness and witness that purple blue sky while you wait for the light. We hear at this time of year the proclamation of Isaiah, that "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." (Is. 9:2) We read the prologue to the Gospel of John,
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (Jn. 1:3-5)
When we live in darkness, our eyes become accustomed to the darkness. We accept evil and sin in our world because we have become blind to the alternatives. When the Gospel of Matthew talks about the end-times, Jesus warns that "because of the increase in evil, the love of many will become cold." (Mt. 24:12) We lack the imagination and love needed to come up with new and creative ways of addressing the problems in our world and our lives. Poverty and violence seem inevitable. When somebody suddenly turns on a bright light, the natural reaction is to flinch, cover your eyes, and turn away. And yet light is the only thing that dispels darkness. Darkness is the absence of light - it is overcome by light but cannot overcome light. Choosing light is not always the easier choice, but in the end it is the only choice. Advent is the time to face the darkness. We bring light to the world through our acts of love and kindness, through cultivating patience, joy, and excitement. Advent is a time when we choose hope over despair. In choosing to be an Advent people, a people of hope, we must heed the words of the first letter of Peter:
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. (1 Pt. 3:15)
Do people see you as a hope-filled person? If someone today asked you the reason for your hope, what would you say?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christmas is the season where we pray for peace on earth and wish goodwill to all humankind, and so I have found myself increasing distressed at the divisive tone I heard in conversations about Christmas and our culture lately. I understand that many Christians are a bit mystified by the fact that people who do not believe in Christ celebrate Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation. Rather than seeing this fact as a negative one however, as if Christmas has somehow been hijacked from Christians, I believe it is a sign of all that Christmas is supposed to be - the celebration of God's presence in the world. What do non-Christians celebrate at Christmas? In my experience, most of them celebrate family and love. Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of God's love on earth, and so wherever people gather together to celebrate love, they are celebrating Christmas. It does not detract from Christmas to have those who are not of the Christian faith celebrate the season with those of us who are; it simply affirms and witnesses to the miracle of God's love active and present in the world today. It celebrates Emmanuel, God with us.

We hear a lot about the commercialization and materialism of the Christmas season, and I do think there is a valid critique there about how we sometimes let the details distract us from what is really important, but I don't think we give people enough credit for truly appreciating the spirit of Christmas. I have always been struck by the magical spirit of Christmas. I like the fact that people smile at perfect strangers at this time of year because of a feeling of human fellowship. I like the fact that the city streets are decorated and lit up. If the lights are snowflakes and snowmen, or the trees are called holiday trees instead of Christmas trees, does it really make it any less special or beautiful? I think "Happy Holidays" is a beautiful greeting because it can encompass Christmas, New Year's, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and any other religious or cultural celebration found at this time of year. What a wonderful expression to foster peace on earth! The word "holiday" comes from "holy day", so I don't think there is any reason to take the word as some sort of slight to Christianity. If people send holiday cards with pictures of snowmen on them instead of a manger scene, I would hope that the recipients can just appreciate the beautiful, loving gesture someone made in sending a card instead judging the person as somehow selling out to secular culture.

I do think those of us who are Christians benefit from the reminder to "Keep Christ in Christmas." It is so easy to get stressed out at this time of year because of all that needs to get done that we forget to take time for our own spiritual lives. I do believe that those busy Christmas preparations, decorating the house, baking cookies, shopping for gifts, wrapping gifts, etc., can be part of our Advent preparation for Christmas, but I also think it is good to step back from all of that at times and think about what it is we prepare for - the coming of Christ into the world. I was reading a passage from St. Charles Borromeo earlier this week that spoke of Advent as a time of preparation for three comings of Christ: the historical coming of Christ, the second coming at the end of time, and the coming of Christ into each of our hearts. How do we prepare for that coming of Christ into our hearts? St. Charles says that we put obstacles in the way to Christ's coming into our hearts, and so the preparation of Advent is examine our hearts and remove any obstacles we find to Christ's dwelling there. When we think of keeping Christ in Christmas, we need to recall that Christ is not some theoretical idea or word. Keeping Christ in Christmas means being Christlike in our thoughts, words, and actions. We are the Body of Christ. Like Mary we are called to bear Christ in the world. When others encounter us, do they experience of God's incarnate love? My prayer this Christmas is that Christians around the world do keep Christ in Christmas by the way they touch the lives of others. My prayer this Christmas is for peace on earth and good will among ALL humankind!