Light in the dark

In the Northern hemisphere, today is the shortest day of the year, the day when we experience the least sunlight.

We’re still in the season of Advent, the season of longing and hope. Even if the preparations and Christmas celebrations of this season have had you feeling busy and stressed, you still have time to tune into God’s graces, to notice how God is working in your struggles and joys.

To help you lean toward the light, to trust in its coming, I now offer you the top five Advent reflections from Messy Jesus Business since this blog began over nine years ago.

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Image courtesy pixabay.com

Most wonderful time of the year

by Sister Rhonda Miska (December 14, 2018)

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.  (Read more) 

Pregnant with hope

by Amy Nee-Walker (December 12, 2011)

When truth is spoken it illuminates more than just the person. The light stretches its filamented fingers, lacing them through history and pointing toward what is to be. Mary, a young unwed woman, accepts the impossible announcement that she will carry not only a child, but the Christ-child. Affirmed by her cousin, Elizabeth, that this strange pregnancy is an act of God, Mary goes beyond the exultation of trusting that her own reputation will be restored and indicates another restoration: the “mighty are brought down from their thrones…the hungry filled with good things…the rich sent empty away.” She joyously reveals God’s plan for a transformed social order.

Was Mary aware of how closely her words echoed those of the prophet Isaiah? Or was this spontaneous outpouring of the spirit, of joy, simply an irrepressible desire to magnify the God who desires good for all even, perhaps especially, the oppressed. (Read more.) 

Craving a countercultural Christmas

By Julia Walsh (November 27, 2013)

My Christmas Every Day experiment is starting to get awkward.

Advent hasn’t even started yet, but Christmas’ crazed and over-weight relative Consumerism is already in town, on the news, and wasting your gasoline and money as he drives all around town shopping.

Meanwhile, I’m crowding with others in the cozy chapel, savoring peace and quiet and adoring God’s goodness while we pray for wisdom about how to revive radical Gospel living.

My Christmas ever day experiment is not about Santas, shopping, or catchy commercials. Yet, while these things become more prevalent, I am becoming afraid that any uttering of “Merry Christmas” that I make might be mistaken for an approval of the petty parts of the holiday happening prematurely. (Read More)

Porters, Posadas and our Advent invitation

By Rhonda Miska (December 12, 2016)

“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.

“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.

“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”

As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”

I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? (Read More) 

Fear, darkness, and Advent

By Julia Walsh (December 15, 2016)

Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.

Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:

Do not be afraid. (Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. (Matthew 6:25)

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)

Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.

Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today. (Read more)

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

May the Light of Christ transform you all, and give you great peace! Happy Solstice!

This Advent, may we make room

Photo credit: unsplash.com

Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.

In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

 

Advent: watchfulness, waiting and wanting

In Psalm 130, we are taught to pray: “ I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” When I pray this psalm, my imagination takes me to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean.  

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Psalm 130 by Janice Little

Many times in the past 15 years I have sat in the darkness of early morning on a sandy South Carolina beach, with the stars beaming above me, in anticipation of the sun’s imminent appearance above the horizon. With my eyes glued to the distant line that shows separation of sky and sea, I sip my coffee and breathe deeply. And I watch. And I wait. I begin to notice the sound of crashing waves, my breath expanding in my lungs, and the coolness of the sand on my feet. In this watchful waiting, I discover an enlargement.

My longing for the light and warmth and beauty of the sun increases with each passing minute. I yearn for the sun to come. I yearn to see that morning’s unique set of colors and twists and reflections on the water. My desire for the sunrise enlarges as I wait and watch.

I wonder if it is similar to our waiting and watching in Advent. Is there an enlargement that comes with the watchful waiting? As I set apart space and time to wait in hope, do I grow in eager anticipation for the main point God’s coming to us? In the midst of our usual December activities, the Advent season invites us to watchful practices like praying, reading Scripture, tending to the movements of our souls, confession, fasting, and silence. As we receive time for these and other practices that form us in alertness, our longing for the coming of Jesus is enlarged.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” 

The watchers for the morning in Psalm 130 could have been those keeping watch for enemies through the night and hoping for the reprieve of sunlight after their long hours of duty. They watch for the morning with a yearning for rest. These watchers could have also been those Levite priests assigned to initiate the day’s worship at the first sign of dawn. The ancient priests would watch for the morning with a yearning to worship. In both instances, it is desire that marks the waiting and watching. In watchful waiting we learn to want.  

We live in a world of marketing and technology that is intent on shaping our desires. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we are told to want particular friends, ways of life, accomplishments, academic degrees, kinds of knowledge, admiration, foods, bodies, phones, clothes and stuff … so much stuff. The objects of these desires seem limitless and often irrelevant. We are simply trained to want and to want and to want, often without hesitation or question or reflection on the what and the how and the why of that wanting. All this training is shepherded by storytellers advertisers, celebrities, YouTube influencers, politicians and market specialists. And yet, all the while, we might just think we are our own storytellers. That’s part of the nastiness of this web of a consumer world we think we are the creators of our own wants, the authors of our own stories.

Thank You, God, for Advent. Because the Christian vision of the world offers a question mark to all this unfiltered wanting. Our real desire finds its source and aim in God, and all other desires are to be ordered around worship and enjoyment of God the God who comes to us in Emmanuel. We are a people who proclaim God as our storyteller.  And, through the Holy Spirit, the divine story we discover and in which we participate is mediated to us in the Body of Jesus, the Church. In Advent, the Church invites us to watch and to wait for the coming of Jesus. And in this watchful waiting, our truest desire is kindled the desire for the God to whom we belong.

A couple years ago, we began a new breakout group devoted to encountering God and deepening in awareness of God’s wonder-filled, loving presence in our everyday lives at Reality Ministries on Thursdays. Our first meeting began right on target. Nathan Freshwater, our dear neighbor and friend, jumped in right away and said with his usual gusto, “The main point is not that we come to God … come on … the point is that God comes to us. That’s the main point. God comes to us.” YES. As we journey through Advent, may God grant us this vision of the faithfulness and promise of the main point God has come to us, God does come to us, God will come to us again.

In our watchfulness, we don’t bring forth anything that isn’t already at work, but rather we “cultivate the beauty given to us in grace” (a phrase from Maximus the Confessor). Watchfulness implies a slow, careful alertness. It is an attitude of attentiveness. Watchfulness opens us to see the rich radiance of divine grace. Watchfulness is the heart’s awakening to the reality of God. Advent is a season of cultivating this awakening a time to tend to and attend to God’s daily visitation in our lives. 

Through watchfulness, we enlarge our hospitality of God. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, the one chosen to host our Lord, and in her physical body she showed the enlargement of a season of waiting. We don’t control God’s coming, but we make room for God’s coming to transform our entire beings our patterns, our ways of life, our relationships, our thoughts and our desires.

This Advent, we are beckoned to consider what we want. In our watchful waiting, the Holy Spirit re-forms our wanting and fixes our desire on the One in whom all of our deepest wants are satisfied.  

In Advent, as we wait and watch for the coming of Jesus, our desires are aligned more and more with the One who gives all good gifts. Certainly, the seasons in my life in which I have received the time to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus are those in which I have come to truly learn the desire of my heart that deep desire for God and God alone that is often masked by distracting wants. I can pray in truthful yearning, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

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Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

We need each other, not more consumption

Every year around this time, companies ramp up marketing campaigns that do their best to connect contentment with consumerism. Feeling lonely? Buy a candy cane latte. Feeling grief? Buy more holiday decorations. Feeling afraid and anxious as you watch the daily news in a world plagued by family separations, endless wars and mass shootings? Buy this year’s feel-good holiday movie.

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Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

These solutions to our loneliness, sold on every corner of our commute, might be laughable if they weren’t so tragic — fixes so profoundly lacking in their shallow attempts to remedy the deep spiritual crisis that so many of us are experiencing in our so-called “developed” capitalist society.

For nearly seven of the past years, I have lived in Bolivia, South America, and formed community with Bolivian families and friends whose holiday traditions have yet to be consumed by a Western capitalist definition of Christmas.

Living in another culture has challenged me to reflect on the cultural traditions in my own, especially around the holiday season.

I know personally many Bolivian children who now expect a Christmas tree and presents from their parents because that is how they saw Christmas defined on TV. Though their families may have never before celebrated with a tree and material gifts, the pressure to conform to a traditional capitalist Christmas grows every year.

Unfortunately, what we often fail to recognize about the global push towards development under capitalism is that it also includes an increase in consumerism. As many of us in the so-called “developed” world work slowly to reduce our own consumption, large corporations are working at a much more accelerated pace to inspire more consumption in other parts of the world. But replicating our materialistic lifestyles on a global scale is simply a model our planet cannot sustain.

And now, as I think about how we got to where we are as a global community, I wonder: where has this constant push towards endless growth, development and consumerism brought us? Are we more generous? Are we more empathetic? Are we less lonely?

Do our cultural holiday traditions in affluent Catholic communities in the United States reflect the values that we hold? If not, why not? How might we transform them? How have we allowed capitalism to uproot our Christian values?

When I reflect back on my own experiences of exchanging gifts around Christmas time, what I value most about those memories was the opportunity to know and be known.

Isn’t that what we all really want, to feel known and to know that we are not alone? When we experience the excitement of unwrapping a present, aren’t we really hoping to unwrap the gift of love?

We may be accustomed to the instant gratification of material things, but we can definitely live without them. We cannot live without each other.

As the wisdom of many Bolivian friends of mine has taught me, when we feel afraid, anxious and alone, we need each other — we need community, not more consumption.

This holiday season we must ask ourselves, are our holiday traditions feeding our hunger for connection and community? How might we liberate ourselves from the stress, distraction and debt of holiday spending and invest instead in radical inclusion, expanding our community to include those living on the margins? How might we reduce our dependence on the sins of a corrupt capitalist system and instead grow in interdependence with one another?

One way to start is by collectively engaging our communities in these questions. In sharing these questions together, we may open ourselves to hearing the needs of our neighbors. Doing so could enable us to share the gifts of love and presence and, in exchange, liberate us from the sins of consumerism.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

How Do Words Become Flesh?

photo credit: https://imagejournal.org/2018/12/24/how-do-words-become-flesh/

This womb of mine will not know the pangs of pregnancy. My skin will not tighten when another body becomes part of my flesh. My inner organs will not shift to make room; my ankles will not swell; my appetite will not increase because my body is making another person.

This womb is empty, creased. That potential has been offered upon an altar, a sacrifice. “I vow to God Almighty to live consecrated celibacy for the rest of my life and into the next,” I once proclaimed in front of my Franciscan sisters, family and friends, surrounded by statues of saints, standing firm. I have vowed to keep this womb empty so that I can live a life of boundless love, devoted service and deep prayer

How do you pray?

Do you pray with hands folded?

Do you air out your words on the line? Do you clip them down one by one, and then let them dance in the breeze until they are fresh, light? . . .

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Good Letters- The Image Journal blog. Continue reading here.]

O Come Emmanuel: Free us prisoners

Sitting next to me in another hard, plastic chair is a good-hearted man wearing brightly colored scrubs — colors that label him as guilty of a crime. We’re in a florescent lit room inside the county jail: bare white walls and glass windows, a camera overhead.

There are about a dozen of us in this circle, praying with Advent Scriptures. Messages of waiting, anticipation, expectation are read aloud. Then we discuss, consider: What does it mean to be people of hope? How does hope influence their life inside these walls, even while separated from their children? O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

At a glance, most observers might assume that I’m the only free person in the room. That as a visitor and minister, I’m able to enjoy liberty and live as I wish, in ways that align with the Gospel. But in the following days, the Spirit reminds me I’m not free.

After visiting the jail, I…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Entry into Advent: the pacing of discovery

Psalm 80 is often read in churches all over the world during the Advent season. Throughout this psalm of yearning we pray, “restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”  

I live in a neighborhood that shares rhythms of prayer each day. We are a community of persons with all sorts of abilities, limitations and gifts, attempting to welcome one another into the reality of God’s presence with us, here and now. We seek to proclaim this reality through our daily lives of mutual care and friendship among persons with and without developmental disabilities.  

Recently, after we read Psalm 80 as part of our morning prayer, one of our wise sisters, Amy Lynn, offered this plea:

“Jesus I want you to see me. I want to see you. I want to see your face. I want you to come close to me and hug me. I want to see you all around me. I want to see you in the people walking around; people I know and people I don’t know. I want to see you and I want you to be close to me.”

I sprinted home to jot down this longing for a holy vision of the world because I surely didn’t want to forget it. We were led by a tender prayer of yearning from one seeking to see and be seen by God: a picture of Advent.

Over the last several years, I have gradually learned  to see prayer as an encounter of discovery. In his book “Into the Silent Land,” Martin Laird offers a framework for the spiritual life by distinguishing between discovery and acquisition.

Much of my life, I have been formed to imagine basically everything as an opportunity for achievement – a chance to prove, to compete, to gain something. But in the gift of prayer, we are invited into a different way. We are invited into a discovery of what is real and true and beautiful through no merit of our own. In the gift of prayer we are invited to discover a new vision of the world; God’s vision.

God alone is the Holy One, abundant in mercy and loving-kindness. We are at union with God in Jesus, and we are the beloved of God in Jesus. This is a reality we cannot acquire on our own. It is a gift in which we participate through discovery in the Holy Spirit.

And discovery has a pacing to it. I certainly know the pacing of acquisition. There is a necessary speed inherent in reaching for self-promotion or organizing my schedule based on efficiency. This pacing is often frenetic and hasty in its certainty that there are better things to do (or, at least, other things to do right when this thing is finished). The pacing of achievement is pretty fast. This pacing, though, can be destructive; steamrolling organizations or people or ways of life that can’t keep up. The pacing of achievement can creep into the our spiritual life, bolstering the illusion that practices of prayer are meant to merit something not already there. This pacing can even diminish our capacity to rightly see and encounter Jesus coming to us in the form of the one who is vulnerable and in need of care. But the pacing of discovery is a bit different. Thank goodness I am surrounded by friends and neighbors who remind me to receive time as a gift and to release my tight grip on the idol of busyness.  

But discovery takes time.

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Original painting, depicting Psalm 34,  by Janice Little

In Advent, we receive the gift of time as we wait and prepare and learn to eagerly anticipate the coming of our Lord. One of the reasons I appreciate celebrating Advent each year is that it is a season of discovery. In Advent, we wait anew for the coming of Jesus – the same coming we celebrated last year and the year before. Yet each year, we are invited to enter Advent with an openness to being changed by new beauty.

In Advent we unearth our own little obstacles to the transformation of the coming of our Lord who reigns over all the earth. In Advent we excavate our true identities as participants in the very life of God through the birth of this little one – baby Jesus. And yet, Advent isn’t Christmas … so we wait and we sit and we still ourselves and we receive time for silence in order to receive and respond to the one true word of God, Jesus Christ.

Amen, there is a pacing at the heart of Advent. In this, the first season of the church calendar, we are reminded to slow down. This slowing down allows us to remember Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem, Christ’s final and ultimate coming in all glory in the redemption of the world, and Christ’s coming in each moment of our lives here and now through the Holy Spirit. In Advent, we are beckoned to hesitate in front of God in prayer and in front of one another in our relationships. Hesitation makes room for us to wonder at the presence of God in the other and to anticipate in openness the coming of our Lord in unexpected ways. How often does our quick pace cultivate patterns of enclosing ourselves in inattention to God’s presence around us? How often does our haste enclose us in predetermined formulas for God’s activity in our life?

When Psalm 80 framed Amy’s prayer, it was laced with longing. This Advent, may we cultivate a longing for God’s coming. May we gain a vision to see all the tiny ways God comes to us each day.

May the Holy Spirit lead us into a humble openness to discovering and participating in the Word made flesh – Emmanuel … God is with us. May we receive the time to hesitate in front of one another and to kindle desire for God as we echo the prayer of our dear friend, Amy Lynn … Jesus, we want to see you, we want to see your face, we want you to come close and hug us. Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

woman-man-holding-babyGreg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

Most wonderful time of the year

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  

woman-lights-snow-christmas
Image courtesy pixabay.com

Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.

Maybe these or any number of other things has knocked the wind of you and left you wondering how you will make it through the coming days. Instead of joining in the angels’ exultant song of jubilation, your heart resonates more with “O Come O Come Emmanuel’s” plaintive words of mourning in lonely exile.

If this is you, I’m sorry. Whatever your struggle is, it’s legitimate, and whatever hard feelings it elicits – anxiety, grief, anger or sadness – are real. You’re not Ebenezer Scrooge because you’re unable to marshal the inner resources for holiday cheer this year, you’re just human. Even when you try to focus on the positive and what you’re thankful for instead of what you’ve lost, there is no short-circuiting grief. More and more churches acknowledge this reality and now offer “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” liturgies as spaces of prayer and pastoral care for those who struggle.   

As I’ve been accompanying some loved ones who find this season challenging, it seems the general message offered in mainstream culture, “Be joyful and happy! Holidays are filled with magic and delight!” only serves to highlight the chasm between what they wished they were feeling with what they actually are. It is salt in the wound not only to grieve a loss but then to be fed a steady diet of idealized images of the picture-perfect holiday. The crooning singers advising “let your heart be light” because “from now on your troubles will be out of sight” don’t help matters much.

If you’re living in the uncomfortable gap between the ideal and the real, take heart: this perfect holiday tableau of cheerful families in matching pajamas, gathered around a huge turkey or the Christmas tree, is the invention of marketers trying to sell us stuff. That’s how advertising works: it offers an attractive ideal that we invariably fall short of and then pitches a product or service with the promise that we, too, can achieve that ideal. The commercialization is the cultural water we swim in, so it is hard to separate that American capitalist spin from the Gospel truth of the Feast of the Incarnation. But it’s worth dissecting the cultural overlay from the scriptural narrative – especially if you’re not feeling “merry and bright” this holiday season.

If it is any consolation, if we excavate the original Christmas story out from under the accumulated layers of advertising content, it’s plain to see that the first Christmas would not make a feel-good Hallmark movie. When the culture offers images of jolly Santa and his flying reindeer, or affluent families with toothpaste-commercial smiles opening piles of perfectly wrapped gifts, the Gospels offer the story of Emmanuel, God with us, poor and weak.  

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Image courtesy jesus-passion.com

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were vulnerable and faced great uncertainty as Jews living under brutal imperial occupiers. It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t tension in the family when Mary announced she was pregnant outside of marriage, especially when Mosaic law prescribed she should be stoned. Mary and Joseph weren’t wealthy (as evidenced by their offering in the temple) and lived under heavy taxation (which is why they traveled to Bethlehem for the census). There was no room at the inn for them, and then they fled to Egypt as refugees because of Herod’s ruthless decree to slaughter children. The Lukan author reminds us that when the Christ child was presented in the temple, Mary was told a sword would pierce her heart. Myrrh, one of the gifts of the Magi, was used for embalming and prefigures death.

There is darkness and tumult to this story; however, in churches or culture in general, it doesn’t get much air time in popular depictions of Christmas. Though I understand adapting the narrative to make it kid-friendly, it is a pastoral disservice to make the Christmas story too sanitized and saccharine. Yes, there is rejoicing, new life and good news. And it comes in the midst of the messiness, fear, uncertainty, loss and oppression that maybe resonates with you if you’re not in a head space to sing “be of good cheer!” Christmas is about the birth of God coming in the middle of a lot of turmoil and pain.

The cleaned-up scene in church sanctuary creches or in pastel tones on Christmas cards distances us from the more complicated truth. God was born as a baby into a messy, broken, chaotic world. From a scriptural standpoint, the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with our American cultural clichés and everything to do with the miracle of a light shining in the darkness that is not overcome. Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was killed for his opposition to the Nazis, wrote that “the early Church viewed Christmas as the feast of the great howl of those whose lives have been upended, shaken – the birth is not a romantic wonder, it’s a chancy rescue mission from the borders.”

So if it doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year – take heart that you are not alone. The birth of the Christ child is not supposed to be “a romantic wonder.” Let’s turn off the TV with its constant flash of idealized images of holiday cheer and close the glossy pages of catalogues peddling a pictures of prosperity and glee. And let’s turn back to the original story of this “chancy rescue mission” of how God chose to enter the world as a vulnerable newborn in the midst of great uncertainty and turmoil.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Rhonda-Miska-red-shirt
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

Rhonda Miska is an apostolic novice with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. After having served as a Jesuit Volunteer, in parish ministry and at retreat/spirituality centers, she is currently in ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Sister Rhonda knows Sister Julia through Giving Voice, a group of Catholic sisters under the age of 50. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.

Light of St. Lucy

I remember spending a lot of time picking out my new confirmation name. Among the saints, the holy men and women who have come before us to help intercede during our lifelong faith development, I was looking for someone a bit out of the ordinary. I had narrowed my choices down to two saints: one simply because I enjoyed her name, and the other, Santa Lucia — St. Lucy — whose name means light.

Ultimately, I asked for her patronage because people have often told me that I light up a room when I walk in. She also is the patron saint of eyesight, and as someone who has had glasses and contacts for over 15 years, that resonated with me. Both of these aspects remind me to look for goodness in the world. Even if I can’t see it, St. Lucy’s example encourages me to be the light in a darkened world.

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Image by Per Palmkvist Knudsen

As I got a bit older and had already selected Lucy as my saint, I started learning more about the traditions of Santa Lucia Day. In many Scandinavian traditions, St. Lucy Day is marked by the eldest daughter coming into a darkened room with a crown full of lit candles on her head. She then proceeds to light the other candles in the room and thusly ushers in the season for the family. 

My heart expanded with joy when I read this. Not only am I the eldest daughter, but I also have a tiny — not at all out of control obsession with Christmas. This information seemed to give me permission (that I wasn’t really seeking) to officially be the herald of the season for my family. They all take it in good fun, chalking it up to one of my quirks. (Make no mistake though, none of them would ever let me walk around with fire on my head. I am much too clumsy for that!)

Advent always seems to slip so quickly away from me. I feel like I never have enough time to truly prepare my heart for the coming of the Lord. But the day of St. Lucy, Dec. 13, always feels like a moment in the season that reminds me to pause. It’s true, The Light of the world is coming. He comes through Mary, through the Grace of God, and it’s up to me to help

It is so symbolic to me where this day falls in the season, only about a week out from the shortest day of the entire year — winter solstice. I have always known the shortest days to be the darkest ones. There is something so comforting in the reminder that the darkness will not last forever. There is something so majestic that from it comes this shining ray of hope.

As the Christmas holiday comes closer and the darkness gets longer remember the day, dedicated to the girl with lit candles upon on her head, right in the middle of it. She was a martyr persecuted for her faith, giving glory to God and physical light to her family and to her people.

Even though St. Lucy’s day is just one in the preparation for Christmas, it is the one that feels most like it belongs to me. It reminds me to ask my saint to help me see God’s glory and look for glimpses of his divine plan. This feast day helps me remember to let the light of Jesus shine through me and that no amount of darkness lasts forever.

In my mind, that is a lot to celebrate.

Alicia Grumley has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They remain connected as members of an online writing group. Alicia’s writing can be found online at OwnYourOxygen.wordpress.com (which is her self-care advocacy site) and AliciasAlleluia.wordpress.com (where she delves into aspects of the Catholic faith that interest her) You can also find her work at Sick Pilgrim.

 

Do you know who you’re talking to?

As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students: why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?

I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?

light-shining-woman-on-bed
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation” (image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)

The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”

“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”

The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”

I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher modeI was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.

I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.

My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which wayif anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed somethingI couldn’t see what he could.

It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.

But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?

Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances —  become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.

My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:

Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.

Lord, let me see who I am talking to. Amen.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.