Perfecting Christmas

I grew up with images of Sweet Baby Jesus being born on Christmas day. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for those days of innocence: Jesus’ and mine. In the comfort of my suburban home, I imagined all good girls and boys had the same kind of Christmas to which I was entitled. I was taught that Jesus was born poor and in a stable but, I had no real understanding of poverty or homelessness. Our Christmases were gloriously predictable: Santa would come; cookies would be baked; dinner would be plentiful; family would gather. And plaster Baby Jesus was perfectly happy to stay tucked away in his manger with Mary and Joseph dutifully at his side while we opened our presents.

While playing with my new toys, I would give an occasional nod to Jesus. We would attend Mass and sing our carols and I knew that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. But my world was small and my understanding of life beyond my family, my neighborhood, and my parish was limited. And I liked it that way. There was security in the bubble that was my young life. Mom and Dad and my brothers and baby sister were all I needed. The messy stuff; the scary stuff; the life outside; was more than my little mind could (or would) comprehend.

Then it happened. I grew up. Life got messy and sometimes scary, but I held on tight to my need for perfect Christmases. I wanted everyone to be happy. “Jingle Bells” would be blaring from my cassette tape player. Reality would be put on hold. As a newlywed I found Christmas to be another opportunity to share our love but with the added stress of finding (and affording) that perfect gift. When our children came along, I tried desperately to give them the Christmas of my youth: warm, secure, loving, with plenty of gifts and a dash of Baby Jesus thrown in for good measure. And we would routinely go in debt to make darn sure that happened. Because no one could be disappointed with a less than perfect Christmas!

They say with age comes wisdom. I’m not sure if that’s true. I think more accurately “with age comes the same mistakes over and over”. And sometimes if we’re paying attention or we get kicked in the head we might actually learn from those mistakes. You can call that wisdom, I guess. At least that’s my wisdom experience.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who needs the image of Baby Jesus at Christmas. I love babies and I think it’s remarkable that our Savior was born an infant. However, Jesus’ humble birth sends a message that for most of my life escaped me. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to the realization that Christmas comes to everyone, not just the happy little families gathered around their tree. I will always cherish my childhood experience of Christmas, but as Christians we are called to have a preference for the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten. “As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’—to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor”. I have some work to do.

But here’s the good news: Jesus comes for all of us! What I need to constantly remind myself is that Christmas comes whether we’re celebrating a beautiful Christmas liturgy or working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. Christmas comes whether the gifts under our tree are beautifully wrapped and plentiful or if they are being given to us by a volunteer at the Salvation Army. Christmas comes if we’re enjoying a sumptuous feast with family gathered or sitting alone at a soup kitchen. Christmas comes while we’re holding our sweet-cheeked grandchild on our lap or holding the hand of a loved who has just received a devastating diagnosis. Christmas comes whether we are celebrating new love or mourning the loss of our lifetime companion. Christmas comes with giggles and joy and with tears and heartache. Christmas comes.

I still strive for those perfect Christmases. The ones where everyone is happy and well fed and sufficiently gifted and loved beyond measure. But now I know to also look for Jesus in the less fortunate circumstances. I try to find Christmas in the hurried shoppers, the beleaguered parents, the refugees searching for a home, the lonely neighbor, the recovering alcoholic, the estranged family member, and that old man that I see in the mirror.

So, my prayer this year is that wherever we find ourselves, we are still able to shout the Good News. Jesus is born! Our salvation is at hand. Whether you’re in a high holy place with a glorious choir singing Alleluia or handing out “Toys for Tots” to children in need; if you are “on top of world” or find yourself lost in despair, hoping for better days to come or pining for days gone by, I hope that Jesus (or whatever/wherever you find comfort at Christmas) touches your heart and lifts your spirits.

May your Christmas this year be perfected by His love.

Denis

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today a savior has been born for you.”

The Only One

Sometimes I feel like I’m the ONLY ONE. The only one who gets the joke; who knows the score; who sees the absurdity in a given situation; who uses correct grammar and knows the meaning and proper use of the word exacerbated, which is often how I feel. Being the ‘only one’ can be a lonely place. Why isn’t everyone as intelligent, well-informed, and confident? 

Of course, when I think about it (and pray about it) I realize how self-important and misguided I am. At times I choose solitude because I really want to be left alone; to not be bothered by the opinions and needs of others. It’s easy to be uncaring when you remain aloof.

Do you suppose that John the Baptist (the crazy, animal skin wearing, locust eating, hermit) thought that he was the ‘only one’? The only one who knew what was coming? Was he skulking around in the desert because he was disgusted with the callous disregard of others? Maybe. Or did he think that wandering around alone in the desert was a great way to get his message out? I don’t know. But as we prepare for the coming of the infant Jesus at Christmas, John the Baptist reminds us that there is something else coming. We must prepare for the change that Jesus creates; in our world; in our church; in ourselves. While I may feel like ‘the only one’ that is exactly the opposite of the message of hope, peace, love and connectedness that Christ brings to us. I am admonished by the Gospel message.

I need to join humanity. Get dirty. Pay attention. Get involved. Make a difference. Lend a hand. Carry a load. Love. These are not things that I can do alone.

I believe that when I open my heart to others, Christmas will come. In the meantime, I have some valleys to fill and some mountains to tumble. I know that my own arrogance, pride and ‘only one-ness’ need to be made low. And my heart and spirit could use some filling up and straightening out right now.

Then and only then, will I be truly worthy to hold the Christ-Child and be able to encounter Jesus in everyone I meet.

Peace,

Denis

A voice of one crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Matthew 3:3

Waiting (impatiently)

Waiting. Always waiting. Still waiting.

Waiting seems to be the story of my life. Waiting for the end the school year as a boy. Waiting to get my driver’s license as a teenager. Waiting for my bride to come down the aisle. Waiting for our first child to be born and our second and our third. Waiting for promotions and raises. Waiting for grandchildren. And now I’m waiting for retirement.

I’ve been thinking lately about waiting and my impatience. During Advent we are reminded to slow down and be patient. We are expected to wait. We are told to be hopeful. Impatient people like me, try to “gird our loins” and tough it out so that we can get through these weeks of waiting. We prove our worth by being watchful and ready to embrace the impending joy of the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas.

But waiting alone is not enough. Being hopeful about the good things to come isn’t the complete answer either. It misses the point. The beauty is the waiting. The joy is in embracing the longing. Peace comes when I surrender myself to God’s plan. True patience is actively living in the present. It requires that I let go of my need to finish the game; win the race; get to the prize. The true joy of Advent is acceptance. Accepting my here and now; for better or for worse. I live with the hope of better things to come but I must love and treasure what I have now if I am to truly be fulfilled in the future. Baby Jesus at Christmas won’t mean much if I don’t find Christ in everyone I see TODAY.

So, I try to be patient and I try to live in the moment but realistically my impatience is not going away any time soon (or ever). Waiting for my wife to be ready to go somewhere or for the weekend to get here or my coffee to finish brewing will always make me tap my foot and wonder, “How much longer must I wait?”

Anna and me (back in the day)

Today I ran across a text message my daughter sent me years ago when her daughter was only six or seven years old. It reads:

Tonight, at Girl Scouts, we decorated bags that will eventually be used to carry food to the homeless. The girls have nothing to do with the food portion, but were asked to decorate the bags with drawings, stickers, etc, and they could feel free to write a nice Christmas sentiment on them. I did three of Anna’s 5 bags because she’s slow as molasses and I wanted to leave early. And then she showed me her long-awaited 2nd bag (how could it have taken so long?) and her sweet message simply said, “God is love.” Those three words brought me so much joy. She gets it. She’s been paying attention. And she’s sharing that simple message with a stranger. And with me.

Now that’s a testament to patience. For both mother and daughter. And granddad, too. Anna is in high school now, and she’s still slow but patient (especially with granddad) and she lives in the moment. She challenges me to try (again) for patience during Advent and to embrace my waiting. Even if it means an occasional foot tapping.

Peace,

Denis

Sanctified

I’m an usher at my church; officially a minister of hospitality. My responsibilities include greeting people, finding parishioners a seat, keeping an eye out for anyone in need, opening and closing doors as needed, sending people home with a bulletin and a wish for a good week. Simple job for a simple man. I’m qualified.

Most Sundays, things are pretty predictable: same friendly faces, same unfriendly faces, same older folks with their assorted accessories – walkers, canes, etc.; same crying newborns; same sweet-faced babies; same ill-behaved toddlers; same angelic school children; same skulking teenagers; same off-key singers; same beleaguered families doing their best to be there on time (or to not arrive too late). As the hymn reminds me: “All Are Welcome In This Place”

The truth of the matter is that I usually go about my “duties” pretty mindlessly. Oh, I try to be welcoming and accommodating, but often it all seems pretty perfunctory. A cardboard cutout with a “WELCOME” caption might be as effective. I must admit that often my heart and my soul aren’t in the right place even if my body is. My anger or disenchantment or apathy towards the Church (the capital “C” Church – the hierarchy; the dudes who are calling the shots) keeps me distant from the faith community in my midst. Many times, I dig in and refuse to even listen to the preaching. My failure, my loss I suppose. But sometimes self-righteousness feels so damned good!

Yesterday was different. As families were arriving, I noticed one particular family entering single-file. It appeared to be a mother, father, three or four children and perhaps a grandmother. Rather abruptly, a boy of about 5 or 6 years-old stopped, stepped out of the family line and turned around to wait for his grandmother. When she was next to him, he took her hand, and they walked in together. Simple, honest and, humbling. With his loving gesture, that small boy brought Christ to me at that moment. Suddenly the choir sounded more beautiful. Later the Gospel held more meaning. The prayers had greater depth. All because of witnessing this simple act of love. I realized (again) that God needn’t only be found in the piety of churches, and mosques, and synagogues, nor through intense prayer nor profound worship, but in the love of a small boy towards his grandmother. I just need to put down my sword of anger and pick up my plowshare of compassion in order to witness it.

Later I thought about my own grandchildren and how just being with them lifts my spirits and brings balance to my life. And once again, I am reminded of my blessings.

Peace,

Denis

Quiet Moments

I talk a lot. Too much (some would say). I love lively conversations and big laughs. I like action and music in the background. I’d always rather be a participant than a spectator. I like to be moving and shaking and getting things accomplished.

And I find quiet, well disquieting. Moments of silence seem like an eternity to me. Silent retreats are torturous. And when someone says, “Let’s take a few minutes and quietly reflect”, I can feel my heart start racing and my mind cannot focus on the task at hand. All I can think about is the deafening silence and wonder if I am the only one who is this uncomfortable in THE QUIET. And then I am often amused by a joke that I recall:

There was a monk who took a vow of silence. Every ten years he was allowed to speak only two words. After the first ten years the Abbot summoned the monk and requested his two words, which were: “FOOD COLD“. He was thanked for his honesty. Another ten years passed and the Abbot again summoned the monk and requested his two words, this time it was: “BED HARD“. Again his honesty was appreciated and he left in silence. After thirty years in the Abbey, the monk was summoned once again. His two words: “I QUIT“. The Abbot shrugged and said in reply, “Well, I’m not surprised, you’ve been complaining since you got here.”

Yesterday, once again, I was reminded that quiet moments needn’t be painful, they can in fact be quite beautiful. It’s not easy for me but, when I can shut up long enough to listen with my heart I am blessed beyond measure. Embracing those quiet moments can be a little glimpse of heaven on earth. (Not that I want heaven to be quiet).

Last night my grandson and I were in the backyard talking about baseball and some of our favorite players. The conversation drifted to his upcoming school year. Suddenly our conversation stopped when a bunny hopped up to the patio and stared at us. Once it had our attention it ran off. It proceeded to do this about five or six times. It seemed to be playing with us. So there we were grandson and grandfather immersed in the splendor and joy of this simple act. We were stilled and thrilled and washed in this golden moment. As long as I have memories, this will be one of them.

At bedtime, I remembered another quiet moment that will live in my heart forever. Just a few weeks before my Mom passed away I stopped for a visit. Her pulmonary fibrosis had gotten the better of her that day. She and I just sat and held hands in silence. There she was, near her life’s end, still comforting me. Her soft small hand was holding mine and protecting me as she always did. I believe that she felt the strength in my hand that day and she felt comforted too. No words were needed. Love was conveyed.

So as much as I sometimes curse the silence, I am humbled and blessed by those quiet moments in my life. I pray that the next time I am asked to, “Take a few minutes and quietly reflect” I will remember those quiet treasures I carry in my heart.

Peace,

Denis

Invisible Man

I’m an usher at my church. Official title: Minister of Hospitality. Honoring that commitment, I attempt to be hospitable. I try to greet each person with a smile and a “hello” or “good morning”. As an usher our duties are pretty simple, which is why I qualify for the job:

  • Greet people.
  • Assist in finding seating.
  • Keep an eye out for those with special needs.
  • Be friendly and welcoming.
  • Try not to judge others (this is my own personally assigned duty and my biggest struggle).

Let me explain.

I believe most folks come to Mass with a open heart and an open mind. Of course, I realize that many also arrive with a heavy heart. Some people can barely put one foot in front of the other due to overwhelming grief or illness. Others also likely come due to some sense of obligation and perhaps with little thought of why we gather as community. Some enter our church angry with God, the Church, or our clergy. Others are carrying in the hearts any number of social, spiritual, emotional or economic ills. I too, sometimes fall into any and all of those categories.

I remind myself each Sunday of the words of the hymn “All Are Welcome”. And I try…

I try to greet each worshipper. I try to extend a hand of friendship and fellowship. I try to make people feel welcomed and loved. I often fail. Recently I was slightly bemused by the number of people who walk past me as if I don’t exist. They don’t acknowledge my greeting. Some barely glance in my direction. Some appear to go out of their way to avoid making eye contact. I have felt at those times like the “Invisible Man”. On Sundays when I am feeling particularly feisty, I try harder. I push myself in front of the disobliging and force them to look at me or at least nod some recognition of my existence. I realize now that that is a bigger failure.

Perhaps some poor souls are finding comfort in their anonymity. Perhaps their pain or anger is so great that they want to feel invisible. That way no one can touch them, hurt them or rebuke them in any way. In my blindness and self-importance, I was failing to offer them the space that they might so desperately need; the sanctuary, if you will. If they find comfort in entering this sacred space and becoming invisible, then who am I to invade that privacy. I can smile and I can nod and I can leave them alone to find their God.

I’m a slow learner but I have finally realized after many failures that “all are welcome in this place” means ALL, not just the ones who smile back at me.

Peace,

Denis

Just Keep Swinging

I am often discouraged by the divisions in our church, in our local community, in our country, and in our world. At times it seems the chasms cannot be traversed. We stand at odds. There can be no compromises. No one wins.

Last weekend two of our granddaughters received sacraments of our Church, Eucharist and Confirmation respectively. Special days with special graces granted to these two beautiful children of God. Promises of a life with Christ; a life with a community of believers; a life everlasting. And yet, a shadow of division hangs over our heads. During this most sacred time we are reminded by some in our Church that women and girls are not equal to the task of preaching and ministering to others. What are we asking of our daughters and granddaughters? Blind obedience to a patriarchy that seems woefully out of touch?

This week (again) the political circus in our nation is on display. The right and left seem hell-bent on destroying one another and possibly democracy in the process. Abortion rights and the possible reversal of Roe vs. Wade is dominating our airwaves and social media. The ongoing January 6th Investigation paints many of our elected officials as little more that pawns in some power play for political dominance. Where are our statesmen and stateswomen? What example are we setting for our daughters and sons; our granddaughters and grandsons? Blind obedience to political affiliation at all costs?

Last week I was watching my grandson’s little league team playing baseball on a rainy, cool evening. The boys were struggling with the weather and it was certainly not their best performance to-date. But they were undaunted. They kept swinging. They left the game as losers but their spirits were not diminished. And they remained good sports and respectful rivals. Once again, I was reminded of what Jesus said: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

So there remains hope. I have a dear friend who is working to help immigrants that have recently arrived in our community. He doesn’t ask how they got here. He doesn’t judge their worthiness. He is not expecting them to share his political views. He is simply being the eyes, the hands, and the feet of Christ.

And I have another friend who is arranging for housing for a young woman who is homeless with a baby. She doesn’t ask how she found herself in this situation. She doesn’t judge her decisions. Instead she offers love, kindness and generosity. She too, is being the eyes, the hands and the feet of Christ.

My friends have overcome the weariness many of us (me) possess with our dysfunctional political processes and lack of understanding by those “in charge”. They are like my grandson and his team mates. Facing what might seem like insurmountable odds, they just keep swinging. In the process they are helping heal the divisions in our church, in our local community, in our country, and in our world.

And once again my soul is renewed.

Peace,

Denis

Women Proclaim!

On Holy Thursday during his homily one of the priests of our parish made it clear that women have no place in the priesthood. He stated that Jesus gave us a “model” to follow. Jesus gathered 12 men for dinner – no women were invited. Although I would guess that there were women serving the meal. This particular priest seems committed to the exclusion of women from ordained ministry. The irony is that at Holy Thursday services this priest had to wash the feet of several women and girls. I pray that washing their feet humbled him. I don’t know if he’s afraid of women or just insecure in his own vocation. Either way, in my opinion this is his great loss. As the father of a daughter and the grandfather of four granddaughters, I am often troubled by the idea that women (girls) must continue to take a backseat in our Church.

But Jesus also gave us another “model”.

Father James Martin, a Jesuit Priest, wrote this today: Today’s Gospel reminds us that in the time between her encounter with the Risen Christ and when she shared the news of the Resurrection with the other disciples, Mary Magdalene was, in a sense, the church on earth (John 20). Because only to her had been revealed the full Paschal Mystery. Only she, for a time, was able to understand the suffering, death and rising of Jesus Christ. Any discussion of women’s roles in the church must begin with these two facts: First, it was to a woman, not a man, to whom the Risen Christ first chose to appear. And second, it was a woman who, for a time, was the sole recipient, carrier and proclaimer, of the Good News of the Resurrection.

I reflect on my own spirituality. It was my mother who first taught me how to pray. It was her model of faith that I continue to follow to this day. It was my Godmother whose hand I held on my way to receive Jesus at my First Holy Communion. It was my three Aunts, who were Sisters of the Most Precious Blood, who modeled compassion for those in need and service to God through service to others. It is my wife who models patience, love and social awareness. It is my daughter who teaches me to show kindness to children by her example as a Catholic Educator. And it is my granddaughters who model unconditional love by loving me, a cranky, opinionated, old feminist. These women and girls proclaim The Good News to me each day. They don’t need vestments or ordination to prove their worth, regardless of how deserving they may be.

Peace,

Denis

Holy Week for the Unholy

This week is Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. I always find myself a little out step with the truly holy this week or at least my perception of what qualifies as holiness. I believe in the Creator and the Redeemer, but I just don’t pray enough or sacrifice enough or give enough. I do however have a lot of Catholic guilt if that counts for anything.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, is a favorite day of mine. I love watching the folks come to church and take their palm branches. There are those among us who hold on to them reverently like some ancient relic; and those who grab them absent-mindedly with a sort-of “oh right, it’s that day” look on their faces; there are the creative ones who braid them in to crosses and what-not; and of course the kids who use them to “sword fight” when bored during Mass. Please understand, I’m not demeaning the ritual. I love all the sights, sounds and smells of Holy Week. I especially like the fact that it makes people (me) pay better attention to what’s going on. This is different – this is not your usual ‘phone-it-in’ Sunday mass. This is Holy Week.

When I am feeling particularly unholy, Holy Week comes along and rescues me from my complacency. Truth be told, I usually find Jesus in the congregation more often than in any Gospel reading or prayer or ritual. I look at the father of the severely disabled child who shows so much compassion and tenderness. I find myself exhausted just watching this family but the father remains steadfast in his love. I look at the mother of three very young children who deals with the screams and tantrums in what seems like an endless merry-go-round of trips to the ‘Gathering Space’ to comfort or discipline one of her tiny delinquents. Her composure is of epic proportions. I look at the elderly man who often occupies one of the last pews. He seems to pray so fervently. I wonder if he is alone (or lonely). I pray that his prayers are being answered. In my own feeble way, I try to extent some holiness to each of them. A smile; a friendly nod; a kind word. And I thank God for their presence.

So, again this Holy Week I will pray that the examples of the truly holy will lift me up and remind me that God invites sinners to the table as well. And I will be transformed from an unholy participant to a grateful recipient.

Peace,

Denis

Holding On and Letting Go

My daughter shared that on her family’s recent trip to the Grand Canyon her 11-year-old son became concerned with her welfare on one of the trail hikes and took her hand. She’s not sure if he thought that the steep incline might be too challenging for her or if he was worried because she was battling allergies or perhaps, he thought she might be frightened of the heights. Regardless, he held her hand. This is something that this 11-year-old boy doesn’t normally do in public anymore. He’s too big now and too vulnerable to 5th grade peer pressure to be seen holding hands with Mom.

A few weeks ago at church a woman who I know needed some assistance. I know her in the “from church” sense of the word. I know her name and that she was recently widowed and that she had been a teacher years ago, but I don’t really know her well. Still, we’ve always spoken to one another in the polite ‘have a nice day’ kind of way that casual acquaintances do. Lately she has acquired a walker and on this particular Sunday, I helped her retrieve it after Mass. That simple gesture was repaid by a smile and a grasp of my hand and squeeze from her old bony hand. It was a sweet, warm encounter. I wondered as she scooted off how much she must miss the touch of her beloved late husband’s hand.

I lost my Mom nearly three years ago and there is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of her. Usually, they are happy thoughts and fond memories of the times we shared. Sometimes, I feel the ache of her absence profoundly; I feel her loss in my heart; in my soul; and in my physical being. On those days I am comforted by the memory of one of our last times together. A week before she died, I stopped by to visit, and Mom was on the sofa in the family room. Her pulmonary fibrosis had gotten the best of her that day and she was listless and breathless. We sat side by side on that sofa and she put her hand in mine and we sat there in silence. No words were needed. I remember feeling like a young boy once again being comforted and reassured that Mom was going to be okay. There I was trying to take of her and instead she was taking care of me.

Holding on and letting go.

My grandson held on to my daughter on that canyon hike as she was struggling to let go of the baby boy who is no longer there. He let go of his fear of being seen holding hands with Mom. She is comforted in knowing now he will always take care of her while is she busy also taking care of him.

My friend from church is holding on to her walker and letting go of some of her independence. She is forging ahead in a life without her spouse. And she is blessing those around her who offer her small kindnesses.

My Mom gave me a such a beautiful gift on that day on the sofa together. She gave me hope and peace. As we were holding on to one another she let me know without words that it was time to let go.

And here she, is still taking care of me…

Peace,

Denis