A sacred reminder

I love Christmas. The rhythm of Advent, the hopeful anticipation, the clarifying cold, the scent of evergreen, the congealed wax at the base of the Advent wreath: these memories and images are so deeply ingrained in my soul and psyche that this time of year, more than any other, embodies a powerful —even sacramental —sentimentality. The nostalgia is an annual reminder that creation is basically, foundationally good.

But over the past few years Christmas has taken on an additional quality for me. As I age and continue to live in a Catholic Worker community, I have more experiences in closer proximity to deep human suffering and social oppression. Many people do not have this luxury. Many, from day one, were born into oppressive conditions and endure the poverty, xenophobia, and bigotry crafted and maintained by those who benefit most from empire.

I was born near the apex of our society’s system of social privileges. I’m a white, straight Christian man born into a class-comfortable family. But my time in the Catholic Worker and participating in activism led by communities of color and poor people has led to a conviction that my understanding of Christmas (and my Christian faith generally) is meaningless if it does not address the social realities of the world in which I live.

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Frank Eichenberg
“Christ of the Breadlines” by Frank Eichenberg

Last spring my community, The Minneapolis Catholic Worker/The Rye Houseworked with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Mennonite Worker to host an annual Catholic Worker “faith and resistance” retreat. Close to 80 Catholic Workers came to Minneapolis from around the country to pray, learn, and participate in a nonviolent direct action.  Our retreat focused on the murder of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man shot by police in November 2015. We reflected on the history of systemic racism in our country and the wake of violence in its path.  We talked at length about the racism embedded in our beloved (and predominantly white) Catholic Worker Movement. Following the lead of organizers from Black Lives Matter and Black Liberation Project we discerned and prepared to take direct action in an attempt to better reveal the endemic racialized violence that killed Jamar.

The day before our action one of our leaders, activist-theologian Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, spoke to us about his faith. As a Christian he believed in what he called “a low Christology.” He believed in a Jesus born under duress, in a dirty stable, to an unwed mother. He believed in a Jesus that drank and laughed. His Jesus was messy, flawed, and beautifully human. But importantly, Sekou saw God’s choice in locating Jesus as revealing an emphasis and preference. In an interview with Medium.com, Sekou says “… the gospel of Jesus [is] a story about God choosing to become flesh … among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world. Jesus — a Palestinian Jewish peasant living under Roman occupation — is the salvation of the world. God in flesh was a subject of an empire.”  

At our retreat, Sekou explained that because God chose to embody when and where God did, the whole context of Christ’s life cannot be read outside of the context of the liberation of the oppressed. Not only is Christ’s historical location an indication of this fact, but the unavoidable emphasis of Jesus’s core message corroborates God’s intention. As Richard Rohr says in his book “Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent,” “Jesus’s consistent teaching … say[s] that there are three major obstacles to the coming of the reign of God … power, prestige, and possessions.

Christmas then signifies the very beginning of this radical embodiment. The holiday so beautifully represents the intentionality of the incarnation and the beginning of a life lived in joy-filled, loving resistance to social and economic oppression. But what does this Christmas reality mean for people like me, who have more in common with Roman colonizers than Jesus Christ?  

First I believe we must acknowledge that Jesus’s message of liberation is for all of us: God locating among the poor and oppressed is a blueprint.  

While American social and economic inequality obviously crushes marginalized communities first and foremost, the mechanisms that replicate the wealth and power of the privileged rob all of us of our humanity and dignity. To be complicit with an abusive economic and social order is an attempt to erase a part of our souls that yearns for connectivity. These social sins obstruct our divine programming that pushes us to see ourselves in others; to love like God calls us to love.

Second, we must be honest and courageous about locating Christ (the crucified) in our midst.  

Rev. Sekou says “The situatedness of the first century Palestinian living under Roman occupation is the same situatedness of black people in America. Thus we must resist in the way which Jesus resisted.” Sekou and other black liberation theologians accurately position the social realities of black people in America as modern mirrors reflecting Jesus’ lived experience. In her book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons [Martin], Jordans [Davis], Renishas [McBride] … Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”

The day after Sekou spoke at the retreat we nonviolently blocked traffic and two transit trains in front of the Twins’ home opening game at Target Field. Our hope was to temporarily disrupt the status quo and try to steer white Minnesotans’ attention toward the reality of endemic, state-sanctioned murders of black and brown people in our city. As I peacefully stood in front the train, arms linked with other Catholic Workers, I felt Rev. Sekou’s words rooted in my heart. He helped me locate Christ in Jamar Clark, and in all the other black and brown people killed by the police. He helped me understand that God, through Christ, is calling all Christians to take risks in building the kingdom of God. In the midst of the cacophony of car horns, police sirens and hurled insults from Twin’s fans I felt grounded in my Christian identity, knowing that God demands that I work for an end to racism and modern-day crucifixions.

 

action-jpg
Twins opener blockade action (courtesy of Joe Kruse)

Eight months after our retreat, in the midst of this Christmas season, I hear Rev. Sekou’s words again as I listen to the familiar and sacred story. I feel God calling us, through the work of Christ begun on Christmas day, to learn to embody “Emmanuel” (God with us). I believe that Christmas, for Christians, must be a sacred reminder that we are called to participate in a joy-filled revolution that abolishes social and economic hierarchies and embraces real reconciliation in the form of reparations. “Anything less,” Sekou bluntly, but honestly, reminds us “is heresy.”

 

About the Rabbler Rouser:

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia’s through the La Crosse community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now he spends most of his time working at The Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

In God’s Image: Finding Jesus in the Mundane Mess of Motherhood

“Your loving doesn’t know its majesty, until it knows its helplessness.”   – Rumi

“Pretty bad day here – I think if parenting was something one was allowed to quit I would have by now …”

This was the content of an e-mail I tapped out on the phone to my husband while he was at work and I was home with our two kiddos, age one and three, approximately.  Trust me, if you’re mind is jumping to judgment at the wimpyness of my parenthood or the flakiness of my fidelity to family; I jumped there first and with a larger arsenal of accusations against my ineptitude and impatience.  But regardless of how much I thought I should be more patient and gentle and joyful in motherhood, what I felt was, to put it mildly, overwhelmed.  I was overwhelmed in an implosion is imminent way that the ubiquitously used “overwhelmed” just doesn’t adequately convey.

Nee-Walker Child #2 on the prowl
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“Remember that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, with the lepers?” I ask my husband who has called, concerned, after reading my e-mail.  He does not remember.  Do you?  Despite its campiness, and the Christ figure’s wild falsetto, I was so moved and marked by this scene when I first saw the 1973 film version of this rock opera years ago.  Jesus is walking into the desert, singing to himself of his mission and journey, seeking a quiet space to reflect and pray.  As he walks he is confronted by “lepers”, covered in dark rags, first one, then two, a handful, then hordes, singing out their needs to him, urgently, repeatedly.  At first Jesus reaches out to each one, compassion and determination evident on his face.  By the end of the scene though, his expression has shifted to one of desperation, even terror as he cries out, “there’s too little of me!”  The scene ends with his image all but swallowed up by the beggars as he screams, “leave me alone!”

That is the scene that came to mind as I thought about how parenting felt to me this past week.  As I recounted it to my husband, of course digging up the YouTube clip to share, I recalled to myself why I had found this scene so striking in the first place and carried it with me all these years. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, the rawness of emotion, of vulnerability, the capacity for fear and despair in the midst of determination and faithfulness had never been so evident to me as it was in this midrashic moment.  It was an ‘Oh my God” moment, not in a slanderous slang way but in a Thomas touching wounded hands and feet, “My Lord and my God” way.  The idea of God coming to earth as a man capable of fear and exhaustion can come as a bit of a letdown for those of us who might sometimes hope for a superhero savior who will scoop us up from the messiness of life on earth and spirit us away to a pristine heavenly home. But imagine the radical, outrageous love that compels the God of All Things, Being Itself, Creator of the Universe not to scoop us out of the mess but to join us creatures, and humans in particular, in it for the sake of restoring relationship.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

The same night as the e-mail, after the kids were in bed (hopefully for at least an hour or two before tumbling into ours), I was immersed in the warmth and rhythm of washing dishes, enjoying my empathic bond with an image of Jesus from the 70s and contemplating Incarnation.  I was also listening to a rebroadcast of an interview with Fr. James Martin on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing. It was a seasonally appropriate rebroadcasting and they began to talk about Christmas, commercialism and the often overlooked scandal of the true nativity story.  

“It’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo” Fr. Martin was saying, “It is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it… We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute.”  But if you say to people, “Do you believe that that is God incarnate in that stable? What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine, sort of crying and wetting his pants and needing to be nursed? What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that?”

“What did he just say?” I thought. I had to rewind and listen again.  I consider myself someone quite familiar with the nativity story, even the complexity and danger and dirtiness of it.  There was nothing especially new about how Fr. Martin had described it, except that one word; “nursed.”  One of the most beleaguering things for me has been that my daughter, who will be one on Christmas Eve, still nurses, on average, every two hours through the night. Calling it nursing, I feel, is another word that lacking.  My daughter tugs mercilessly at my breast.  I could never have imagined the elasticity of human skin before mothering this child.  Her version of nursing is not a snuggling, nuzzling seeking of nourishment and bonding but a primal, mammalian, devouring of prey.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“And yet,” I am shaking my head in wonder at the thought, “Jesus nursed.”  Jesus cried out in the night with pangs of hunger, of fear perhaps, of a simple desire for warm, familiar flesh.  How did Mary feel?  Was she exhausted and exasperated?  Did she simply move on auto-pilot through the familiar motions? Did she have ever-present the prophecy of an impending sword to her heart and treasure every moment in which she had the privilege to cradle her child, to meet his needs and sooth his troubles?  Here I had been imagining the overwrought Jesus, beat down by the demands of others and suddenly I am confronted by Jesus the infant whose whole being is a bundle of demands.  It occurs to me that Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving.  This is something we all share with him and each other.

The next day, despite the gift of perceiving Christ’s presence both in my weariness and in my children’s insatiableness, I continue to struggle.  My tone of voice slips too often from calm to stern to angry.  I say more “no’s” than necessary.   I am not the person or parent I want to be.  Still, at the end of the day, my son unwittingly reveals to me yet another way in which Christ is manifest in his small, precocious, presence.  Washing the dishes again, this time while the kids are awake, playing with their dad, I am interrupted by my son popping in the kitchen, “Come dance with me,” he says.  “I can’t, my sweet boy.”  A few minutes later, he’s back, “Come play with me, Mama.” A third time, “Come, read with me.”   Despite my eruptions, despite my busyness and rejections, he keeps returning to me, desiring to be with me, delighting in my presence.  In his beckoning, I hear a phrase, so similar, from Jesus, “Come, follow me.”  However helpless you may feel, however you have failed, come, let us walk together.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

A “woke” Joseph and the great Christmas challenge

Merry Christmas!

With the birth of Christ, we’ve entered into the season of the Incarnation. The arrival of the Incarnation is God-made-flesh and dwelling among us as a babe long ago and God’s powerful presence active in each ordinary moment. God is near, God is here: peer into the humble love revealed among the heartaches, the light shimmering and providing peace. This is God among us.

We must wake up and pay attention to the many holy ways Christ is alive and in our midst.

Speaking of waking up and paying attention, in the past year or so I have heard a lot of folks use the word “woke” in phrases like

“Stay woke.”

“The woke people give me hope.”

“Now that I’m woke I can’t go back.”

If you’re not familiar with the modern colloquialism, my friend Sister Nicole Trahan offered a lovely reflection on what it means to “be woke” for Global Sisters Report in June.

Basically, as I understand it, “being woke” means to be aware of injustices; in-tune and conscious of what’s really happening in the world and how oppression seeps into many structures of society.

This sort of consciousness, I’d like to suggest, is a Christmas mode. We can’t help but to expand our consciousness when we come to know The Truth—Truth is one of the many names for God.

Praying and meditating on the Christmas Scriptures, I found myself pondering the impacts of Joseph being woke:

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: 24-25

sleeping-Joseph-baby-Jesus--catholicprayercards.org
“Sleeping St. Joseph” (courtesy of www.catholicprayercards.org)

A woke Joseph? I know the context might be a stretch, but hear me out. Although the word in the Gospel is awoke and not woke, and Joseph was literally waking from sleeping, clearly Joseph gained a new consciousness and awareness in the midst of his dreaming in the dark. When he was troubled, Joseph encountered God in the dark and was forever changed.

We all have been journeying in the dark; many of us still are. We have felt disturbed and troubled. The Christian invitation has moved us toward the pain.

We, like Joseph, have been transformed because we have come to know the Truth. Being woke, though, isn’t just about knowing. Nor is Christmas.

The Christmas challenge (that Joseph has modeled for us so well) is that we must move into action. Even bold, drastic, counter-cultural actions that might be misunderstood. Do you think it was easy for Joseph to have “no relations” with his wife Mary? Probably not. Can you imagine how much his friends might mock him for that if this story were to happen in the modern world?

And, what about the naming of his son Jesus? Would that have been an easy action for the sake of God’s plan? I’m no expert, but I don’t think it would have been. Breaking with tradition is always likely to disturb the status quo and confuse community. A scene from the film The Nativity Story comes to mind in which the midwives turn to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, after her son John is born, and say “What will you name him?” When Elizabeth replies John, they all protest. “But there is no one in your family by that name!”

Being woke with the Truth that many are suffering compels us to name Jesus, to help people know love in the midst of turmoil. This is the great Christmas challenge: we must let our conversion move us into action for the sake of God’s plan. Through bold acts of love, through courageous defenses of human rights and the dignity of life, we proclaim who Jesus Christ is to the world: Prince of Peace, Counselor, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Light of the World, The Way, The Truth, The Life.

Yes, Jesus Christ is born and is here among us; we shall never be the same!

Merry Christmas!

The joy of receiving

Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing …“

~ Loretta Ross-Gotta

Last night I walked into our parish’s “Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe.” It was a rare occasion for me — a church event for which I had no particular role or responsibility. As our parish’s youth minister/RCIA coordinator/general purpose fire putter outer, it’s rare for me to attend a liturgy or event where I am not working or serving in some capacity. I walked into the sanctuary thinking, “Finally, a chance to just sit and pray for once, without having to do something!” This was my chance to relax!

guadalupe-steven-cottam
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

 

However, as the celebration began I soon found myself not refreshed but restless. I couldn’t focus and was constantly fidgeting. Maybe someone needed help with something? Was anyone seeking liturgical assistance? No; there were plenty lectors and eucharistic ministers. Did someone need help in the kitchen? No, it was already filled with talented chefs. Even the garbage was taken out faster than I could get to it. It was unnerving: no one seemed to need my help. I wandered through the festivities and out into the social hall where the leader of our Hispanic ministry caught sight of me and immediately handed me a plate which she began to pile high with food of all sorts — tamales, rice and sweet breads, as well as a cup of hot chocolate. At first I tried to refuse: “No, no, no … I don’t need this much … I’ll wait for everyone else to eat.” Even though I had missed dinner and found myself terribly hungry, even though it was being offered by a friend, even though there was clearly enough to go around, I nonetheless tried to turn away the fare. Despite my protestations, I was soon holding a heap of food (plus some to take home, “Para mi niña”) and could barely utter an awkward, terribly accented “Eres bastante generosa” before she moved on to bestow another delicious bounty on someone else.

After devouring several tamales I sat down to reflect. And it struck me that I am a terrible gift receiver. I’m always trying to refuse gifts and help. When someone tries to give me something, be it a book or a brownie, I always try to turn it down. (If I accept at all it’s usually after several entreaties.) If someone offers help my first instinct is always to say, “No, I got this.”

I’ve always believed this impulse was a result of my attempt to cultivate a servant’s heart. And to be fair to myself there is a lot of truth in that — I do truly love to give and to serve. But as I sat there, reflecting, I began to notice a dark side. The truth is that a big part of my refusal and reluctance to accept help is pride. I want to be in control. I want to have the power. I want to be the one who has it all together and the excess of time, talent, and treasure to give. Another part is cynicism. I find joy in giving and yet doubt that others do — I fear they give to me reluctantly, and that I will be an undue burden they are anxious to shrug off. This basically amounts to the assumption they are less generous than I am. And the real tragedy in that is it saps my ability to be grateful. I get so anxious about whether or not I should have accepted the gift offered that I am rarely able to graciously accept and simply say “Thank you.”

tamales-daughter-steven-cottam
Steven’s daughter polishing off the tamales (photo courtesy of Steven Cottam)

Recently the Dalai Lama contributed to an op-ed in The New York Times in which he wrote that one real tragedy of modern civilization is that so many people feel unneeded. He said that we all benefit when everyone feels they can meaningfully contribute to building a better world, and that “We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’” And I figure there is no better time to start doing this than Advent and Christmas: seasons filled with giving and receiving. I’ll still give and serve as much as I can to everyone around me. But I’m also going to try to be more gracious in receiving what others give to me. I’m going to try to be a bit more humble about my own abilities, and a bit more trusting of the hearts’ of my friends. I’m going to try to remember that I am not only a servant of the kingdom, but also a son — and being part of a family means receiving love as well as giving it.

I’m going to start by finishing the leftover tamales. And to my friends from the festival, if you are reading this, gracias por el regalo delicioso. I really was quite hungry.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. 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. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

To honor Baby Jesus

Merry Christmas!!

I have an invitation for you this week.

Let us all enter into the story of Christmas and consider the amazing Truth: our God humbly, beautifully, became one of us.

We, as a humanity, have never been the same since. The Incarnation really changed everything. Now, we are people of the New Covenant, this Messianic Age.

God’s entrance into the grime of our human living means that we are transformed into holy co-creators with God.

If we REALLY think about it, and pray about it, we can’t help to have our minds totally blown with wonder and awe.

And, then, hopefully, once we realize that we are empowered to use all of our human potential—our minds, gifts, strengths, and passions—we’ll want to offer it all to God and help create the justice and peace that Jesus proclaimed.

We’ll ask hard questions, seek true answers, and allow ourselves to really be in the messy business of social and personal change.

That’s what I invite you all into this week: to join me in honoring the Baby Jesus by signing up your life; becoming part of the messy business of living as a change-maker.

Together, let’s say yes to the Love of God with all that we are. Amen!

Photo credit: “Christ Child” by Lorna Effler http://revelationchristianart.blogspot.com/

By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s a film that I am excited to see in La Crosse in about nine days that fits with the work of being messy, Incarnation-centered change-makers:

The story in the world’s heart

 

IMG_0925.jpg
The Holy Family in a creche scene in Greccio, Italy, 2014. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.

We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…

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

 

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

Love, Sister Julia

 

A stinky stable and the giving and receiving of Christmas

Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals.”                                                                   – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 197)

Manure, straw, dust, animal hair, insects: all was known by Baby Jesus. Yes, God is in the mess of a stinky stable.

God is here, in the material world. All matter is amazingly made holy through this great event! Joy to the world for now we know: no mess is too much for God, for God is in the mess that intermingles with beauty and peace present in a barn, present in many corners of the world.

Today, God’s presence is known in the stink of human waste, in the villages living in garbage dumps and in the situations of people living in alleys. God is with refugee families fleeing from danger and now huddled together in make-shift tent homes seeking warmth and comfort. In our poverty, in our needs, God is with us.

Photo credit: http://fairforall.org/2011/01/21/aid-for-garbage-pickers-in-manila/

God’s love is certainly revealed in the mess, the chaos, and in the interdependence of relationships. The birth of the Savior speaks clearly about God’s poverty and humility. God is a poor, vulnerable Child who cries and relies on his parents for every human need to be met. God’s love is known in the arrival and the giving, but also in the receiving, the needing and the empowering.

“Mother and Child: Nativity in Greccio” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We are each called to be part of this holy and true story. We each have a part to play in helping God’s love to be known in every chaotic, cluttered corner of God’s Kingdom. We are called to help others and allow others to help and care for us. Love is alive in the giving and receiving, in the charity and humility. The animals and the infant in the stable show us how to participate in the holy activity.

By imitating the poor baby Jesus and admitting our need for one another we too can manifest God’s love in this holy and hurting world, where inequality and poverty is too extreme. The God of Love took on a humble, human form and came to free us! Let us respond to that Love and acknowledge our need to cooperate, to relate, to be humble and poor and care for one another.

Through God’s incarnation we are freed to recognize that great Truth that salvation history and the signs of our time proclaim. Indeed, God needs our humility, our poverty and our great “yes” to working with Love. As we cooperate with God’s great plan we ALL shall come to know the great depths of God’s peace, justice, and love. Let us share the good news of Love. Let us give and receive and celebrate the birth of Christ who has come, who is Emmanuel. Amen!

Merry Christmas!! 

 

Christmas Every Day Conclusion Letter

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

Hey! Don’t roll your eyes, I am not late. The Christmas season actually lasts through this coming Sunday, the feast of the Epiphany.

Now I have a question for you.

This morning I wrote a Christmas letter for 2013 and I’ll mail it out to some family and friends in the coming days. I really appreciate all of you who are the readers of Messy Jesus Business and many of you are also great friends to me, so I thought I’d share an abridged version of my Christmas letter with you.

As you may know, I have been celebrating Christmas Every Day throughout 2013.  Now I have some confessions and lessons to share from my Christmas Every Day experiment.

I started the year with a lot of Christmassy cheer and idealistic intentions while some of the lighter things of Christmas 2012 lingered.  I packed Christmas cookies in the freezer, acquired a Christmas sweater, and I developed a greater taste for Christmas music. I kept decorations up up in my bedroom even after we took them down throughout the rest of the house on Epiphany. So, all year I prayed with a nativity scene and a Christmas tree in my bedroom. And, last year’s Christmas cards are still hanging up as I write this now, on December 31, 2013!

In my classroom, I was surprised when some students asked if I was intending to celebrate Christmas Every Day so I could get a gift every day.  The receiving of gifts hadn’t even occurred to me as a possible perk when I embarked into my experiment- ha! When I told that to my students, some used my admission as a clever way to ask me to make them some Christmas cookies– which I never actually did, to their disappointment and mine.  I tended to be too determined to instill in the lessons of the theology curriculum, not cookies.

A lot of people said “Merry Christmas” to me at random times throughout 2013 and helped me remember my commitment and when this happened, I had a range of reactions.  Sometimes I felt warm and cozy, like Christmas can be. Other times, I’d feel a bit annoyed or embarrassed, because I didn’t want to admit that the fun of my Christmas Every Day experiment had worn off.

Honestly, my Christmas Every Day experiment started to feel a bit like a chore in March or April, while the snow was melting and I was looking forward to the arrival of Spring.  I realized its REALLY difficult to do something radical very well without the companionship of community.  It was around then that I made a more conscious decision to let go of the petty parts of the holiday and delve into its deeper meanings.  Otherwise, I figured, I wasn’t going to keep Christmas Every Day going.

What I needed to focus on was the True meaning of Christmas.  God became a person and this event– the Incarnation– totally changed everything! It got me thinking: how was I being changed, daily by my relationship with Christ? How was the Word of God making me more into a Gospel-centered woman? As I lived into the answers, I grew to understand that Christ-centered transformation is risky, growth-filled mess mixed right into the commotion of being busy and blessed.

And the Word became flesh

and made his dwelling among us,

and we saw his glory,

the glory as of the Father’s only Son,

full of grace and truth.  – John 1:14

One of the major gifts of 2013 were fruits that came from living a life in union with the Word of God. Specifically, I found that I still gain a lot of energy and joy as I try to be a writer.  (I’ll tell you more about that in an upcoming blog post.)

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means “God is with us. – Matthew 1:23

There’s been a lot of goodness throughout my 2013, but it hasn’t all been easy or delightful.  My increased reflections on the Incarnation this year instilled a lesson: the meanings of Christmas are not all jolly.  Santa Claus, gift-giving, and candy canes can be fun, but they’re not the real point. “Merry Christmas” means much more than “hope you’re having fun.”

Celebrating Christmas means entering into the Gospel Truth of Jesus’ dramatic birth story and its lessons about God’s presence in the pain, the mess, the obscene, the awful, the mystery.  That’s the real importance of the Incarnation and the great lesson of this year that I want to pass on to others. No matter how much is difficult, how miserable things may seem, or how discouraging or painful your real life is, remember that you are never alone. God is with you always, you are VERY loved and good and a community of Christians are eager to be with you too- to be the Body of Christ for you.

Perhaps these reflections on community and Christ are what compelled me to want to celebrate the ending of my 2013 Christmas with others.  I concluded the experiment of Christmas Every Day by hosting a party for some friends and then I enjoyed visiting friends and family during my Christmas break.  Life is full and God is so good!

Let us be good to one another. Let us rejoice and celebrate the goodness of God in 2014. It won’t be an experiment or anything special for me anymore, except for my usual counter-cultural Christian living.

Even so, MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY EVERYONE!!

Nativity Scene from Zambia  photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
Nativity Scene from Zambia photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Praying to Slow so Silence may Swallow

In the time of now-and-not-yet tangled together, I pray that my final days of Advent anticipation shall slow down and seem more sacred.

I pray that my waiting will fill with what matters most, as is meditated on in this mini-movie:

Silence swallows by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Silence swallows

me. Holy is this

invasion. Enter

mystery. Evasion

impossible. Listening

lines lift up signs:

Wait. Surrender. 

Forward frosty Light.

Now and not yet makes

me: more free. Hushed. Be.

Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Craving a countercultural Christmas

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. The truth is that I really do not approve of any Christmas consumerism or other commotion that distracts from Jesus Christ.

Last week one one of my students innocently asked me a very normal question.  He poked his head through my classroom door while he waited for his bus after school.  “Sister,” he said “are you going shopping on Black Friday?”  He was probably trying to spark a conversation.

I was impolite. “Ha, that might be one of the funniest questions I have been asked all year! Why would you ever think I would do that!?”  I honestly thought he was joking.

Of course, it only occurred to me much later that the student was asking a very ordinary, culturally appropriate question.  And, I realized, my response may have seemed a bit uncultured, bizarre or down-right rude. (God have mercy!)

I shuddered with shame as I realized my insensitivity.  The thing is, the kid pushed my button. I assumed the student knew me and that I am trying to live a counter-cultural life, understood all my values, and in spite of his youth, he was already dissecting the cultural norms that conflict with Christianity.  He’s a smart kid— so, fair mistake, right?!

All of the emphasis on materialism this time of year really does make me squirm.  I am pretty sure I saw my first Christmas commercial that reminded people about layaway back in September.  I probably could have given out Christmas candy for Halloween, if only I had I asked a shopkeeper for some, since candy canes appeared on the shelves right on November 1st.  And now, even though we’re still in November, jolly Christmas carols seem to be chiming through speakers all around town trying to get us in the mood to shop, shop, shop.  I even heard a radio show host joking about how Christmas already came and went, since it happens around Veteran’s Day now.

If holiday seasons are supposed to stick to a schedule, we have reasons to be disturbed.

Or, more importantly, when we remember what Christmas is really all about, we have reasons to resist.

Christmas everyday, and Christmas in general, is all about celebrating the Incarnation.  Love was made manifest in human flesh. Jesus Christ is God and God came to earth in the most humble and simple of ways. There’s generosity, joy, community, peace, trust, lots of love and pure, human fun wrapped up in the real meaning of  the ancient story of Christ’s coming:

This is the type of Christmas I am craving and I am committed to carrying out through the end of 2013: a counter-cultural and communal Christ-centered celebration! I hope you would join me, even though I’ll admit it’s much easier to talk about these ideas than to do them, when consumerism’s temptations are around every corner.

Here’s how:

  • Collecting donations for anyone who needs anything: some of my students hosted a food drive last week and will host another one in December.
  • Honoring children: I am eager to spend time with my godchildren and if anyone asks me what I want for Christmas I’m ready to tell them that I want donations to Tubman House for Christmas.
  • Praying for peace: several times a day, especially during my assigned adoration hours.
  • Connecting to the tough parts in the Christmas story: advocating for immigration reform and standing up for anyone who is oppressed by violence.
  • Spreading the Love: telling teens that they matter and I care about them, writing letters and cards, and being intentional about how I spend time with others.
  • Hosting some celebrations : a Christmas party in my classroom on behalf of the orphans at Casa Hogar and hopefully hosting a gathering with other friends.
  • Getting creative about how I give presents: re-gifting, buying things at thrift stores, making DIY crafts  out of stuff I have around home, utilizing some of the resources from “Buy Nothing Christmas” and baking goodies to share.
  • Resisting Black Friday: I shall instead celebrate Buy Nothing Day and I’m thinking about joining in on a protest, fast, or at least I’ll send a message of support to those who protest for just wages.

What will you do to resist Christmas’ consumerism and focus on the real reasons for the season?

Zenta 2013, Buy Nothing Day, Adbusters

Merry Christmas everyone!!