Do You Hear What I Hear?

Advent is supposed to be a time of anticipation, preparation and reflection. Sometimes in my busy life I need to slow down and listen to my heart. I need Advent. I need to stop running. Stop shopping. Stop planning. Just stop. And listen.

How often do I ask someone, “How are you?”, only to be told, “I’m fine.” And I’m off and running. Rarely does anyone tell me how they really are and sadly, if they do, chances are I really don’t want to hear the details. “Fine” is just fine. Putting on my brakes and listening, really listening takes time and requires me to engage; to be present; to care. This is not always convenient. And it’s definitely not easy.

At a time when everyone else is running around getting ready for Christmas, I need to sit quietly and think and perhaps pray but certainly LISTEN. My lovely wife sometimes asks, “Did you hear me?” “Huh?” is often my response. I hear stuff all the time but listening is different than hearing. Hearing is just the act of perceiving sounds, but listening is something that I must consciously choose to do. Listening requires patience, thoughtfulness and commitment – these are things that are often in short supply.

adventcandlesOf course the hardest person to listen to is myself. I’m a man of action. I like to get stuff done. Sitting and contemplating what needs to be done is a challenge for me. Give me a task and I’m on it. Put up the tree; decorate the house; wrap the gifts; hang the lights – easy stuff. I guess thinking about Jesus coming 2,000 years ago is easy enough. And I can slow down long enough to listen to some Christmas hymns and get my head and heart in the right place. But that’s not what Advent is about. It’s not just the anticipation of His coming as an infant in Bethlehem and His final coming at the end of time but it’s also about Jesus coming to me, right now, right here – and that gets a little messy and scary.

Advent is counter-cultural. It forces me to stop and listen to my own heart. I need to turn off Holiday television specials and the 24-hour-a-day Christmas radio and walk away from the Black Friday Sales long enough to hear what I can hear.

And in the stillness He will come.

Peace,

Denis

 

 

Through The Eyes Of A Child

Do you remember the anticipation of Christmas as a child? For me it was always an exciting time. I tried to patiently wait through the Advent season for the miracle of Christmas.

There were some certainties: practical gifts wrapped in white tissue from my great-aunts (usually socks or underwear), Christmas cookies baked by Mom, Christmas Day gatherings at my grandparents where all my aunts and uncles and cousins would be together.

And of course there were uncertainties: would I get the Erector Set® that I so desperately wanted, and the transistor radio like my brother’s (the one that I not-so-secretly coveted)? Rarely was I disappointed.

St. NickI loved Christmas presents but I knew even as a child that Baby Jesus was always at the center of it. We were raised to believe he would come (again) each year at Christmas. We set our crèche under the tree with all the characters (except baby Jesus of course until Christmas morning). We lit our Advent candles each week. St. Nicholas would come on December 6th and fill our stockings with an orange and some nuts, a peppermint stick and one Hershey® bar (thanks Dad!). At school we would pray and sing carols, collect money for the missions and go to daily Mass. My little Catholic world was secure. And there was abundant joy!

It brings me great comfort in knowing that my wife and I carried on these traditions with our kids. Now our grandkids are celebrating Advent and Christmas in a similar way. Of course they are excited about potential new toys but they also focus on the mystery of Christ’s birth and they pray and sing carols and go to Mass. St. Nicholas paid a visit to them on Sunday morning. They light their Advent wreath and wait. They wait in hope and joy and love.

I still have uncertainties in my life: they are more adult now, more complex, more troubling. Often it is hard not to become overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel desperate.

But I have certainties, too. I have people who love me. I have friends who are making our world a better place each day. My children and grandchildren give me hope for our future. So I light my Advent wreath and I pray for change in our world, in our church, in our city, in our home, in my heart.

I know that Christ will come again this Christmas. I wait with my grandchildren in hope and joy and love. And for just a little while I can see Baby Jesus through the eyes of a child. And I am blessed.

Peace,

Denis

 

Finding Christmas

My challenge each year is to remember to S L O W  D O W N and embrace the joy of Christmas. As a Catholic, I attempt to use Advent as a time to prepare myself for Christ’s coming (again). Mostly I fail.

I gripe about shopping. I complain about the weather, the traffic, the costs of things, and the rudeness of sales clerks. I eat more than I should and then complain that my co-workers are bringing too much food into the office. I bitch about the lack of consideration of others and then I push my way through crowds to get what I want (when I want it!). And I swear to all that is holy, if I hear Mariah Carey sing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” one more time, I might actually bleed from the ears.

So much for “glad tidings”.

But then, as happens most years, something in me stirs. Sometimes I’m hit over the head with the obvious: A loved one struggling with illness. A friend in need. A tragedy in a far-off land. A crisis at home. Other times I am reminded of my blessings: A granddaughter recovered from a concussion. Grown children home for the holidays. Gainful employment. The kindness of strangers. A loving wife. A forgiving God.

Joseph Anna

Joseph (aka Noah) with proud big sister Anna

Last night we attended our grandson’s preschool Christmas program. There he was bounding up on the altar decked out as Saint Joseph. He was one of many Josephs. In fact, it was a preschool full of Marys, Josephs and Shepherds singing and smiling and wiggling. Little faces beaming! And at least one old face beaming back. O Holy Night!

And suddenly I found Christmas.

Peace,

Denis

 

Let’s Prepare the Way

John the Baptist is often thought of as this (sort of) crazy hermit who lived in the desert and wore camel-hair and ate locusts and wild honey, all the while preaching and telling anyone who would listen to prepare for “the one who is coming!” History tells us that actually his diet was common for poor people of his time. His clothing is reminiscent of Elijah which validates his role as a prophet. And while he may have gone off by himself to pray, he likely didn’t actually live in the desert. Gospel accounts confirm that he was not altogether social but somehow attracted significant numbers, who came to him for baptism. So John is an enigma. He wanted to prepare folks for a Messiah but he lived outside of the normal conventions and lacked social status. He was not necessarily part of the accepted religious community of his time and yet he still attracted followers.

So I’ve been wondering lately who the John the Baptist’s are in my world today? Who are the prophets in my life? From whom am I receiving the good news of Jesus coming? And who is urging me to prepare the way?

Much has happened in my own community in the last few months. The killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson, the grand jury’s decision and the subsequent riots and looting of businesses. Life has been lost. Property destroyed. Families and friends and neighborhoods divided. In my beloved Mexico, where I spend much of my time working, the country has been rocked by the devastating slaughter of 43 Mexican students. The students who disappeared in September are believed to have been turned over by a corrupt police force to a drug cartel who in turn killed them and burned their bodies. So much pain in a world already torn apart by hatred and injustice.

Where is my prophet? Where is my good news? How can I prepare the way for Jesus coming? Where is my messenger of hope?

desertI can’t undo the these tragedies but I can stop the violence in my own heart. And I can defuse the anger and hatred in my own life. Perhaps this year I will follow John the Baptist’s example. I suppose I’m not that different from John – I sometimes live outside of normal conventions, I lack social status and I am certainly not embraced by my church leaders.

But I can cry out in the desert!

I can pray for peace and justice! I can let go of my prejudices. I can remind others that Jesus is coming to save our world (again).

Won’t you join me?

There is hope amidst the shock and sadness we face. And as we journey through this Advent, maybe just maybe, together we can create some peace on earth. Let’s pray.

And prepare the way of the Lord!

Peace,

Denis

Anticipation

In some strange way, I always have enjoyed the hustle-bustle of Christmas anticipation. Not the desperate “must find something!” gift search, but our last-minute preparations:

  • Wrapping the last gifts
  • Cleaning the house and putting up the final Christmas decorations
  • Queueing up our favorite Christmas music
  • Planning the holiday meals and purchasing the food and the wine

I find comfort in these rituals. This is what I do. This is how I prepare. I anticipate Christmas by getting things done. I am proactive.

AdventwreathBut sometimes I’m afraid that I miss out on some golden moments by working too hard; planning too much; preparing for something that won’t meet my expectations. When our children were young they would ask me what I wanted for Christmas. My answer was always the same, “A clean house and good kids.” This was most often greeted with rolled eyes and a groan. Of course I was mostly joking but still there was some truth in my wish.

And yet when I look back on my fondest Christmas memories it has nothing to do with a perfect house or well-behaved children. It has always been those things that I didn’t anticipate that brought me the greatest joy. And this year is no exception:

  • Receiving a kiss on my cheek from my sweet Noah Boy while attending the ‘Novena’ at our local convent this week without prompting.
  • Our grown son Blake unexpectedly being able to secure time off from work and be with us with for Christmas.
  • An impromptu evening with my brother and sister-in-law; sharing laughs and good memories.

Of course there are other unexpected things this year:

  • My friend and spiritual director who is dealing with horrific pain while awaiting back surgery; which will hopefully “fix her” again.
  • A beloved cousin battling cancer and kidney failure.
  • Our dear friends’ Dad who will be receiving hospice care beginning tomorrow.

I cannot think of three people more deserving of a peaceful and pain-free Christmas. It is heart-breaking to think that these three should suffer when we are preparing for the ultimate joy in the birth of Our Savior.

The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel. Isaiah 7:14

And yet I find comfort in these unexpected ‘gifts’ this year; good and bad. I know that it is our faith in God in which we find our peace; our joy.

Today as we light the fourth candle on our Advent wreath my prayer will simply be, “Come Lord Jesus!”

Peace,

Denis

Rejoice, rejoice!

Rejoice, rejoice; Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

RejoiceIt’s the third week of Advent and we light our pink candle. Our focus this week is on hopefulness and joyful anticipation. We still wait but without sadness or despair. Instead we know that Christ’s coming is near.

In this family joyful anticipation is resounding! Our three year-old grandson Noah knows that Christmas is coming. Last night he showed me that Jesus is already in his Fisher-Price Little People® nativity but he explained, “He’s not in the real one until Christmas; we just have to wait!”

Noah is our little Isaiah; reminding us about the coming Christ – Emmanuel. We can be excited but we must wait.

The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song. Isaiah 35:1-2

Of course there is much more joyful anticipation in our home; our two month-old granddaughter Ainsley is coming for a visit this weekend (and bringing her parents along). Nine year-old Charlise and five year-old Anna and of course three year-old Noah will be joining in the Christmas celebrations next week! There will be family gatherings and gift-giving and wonderful food and music and laughter and in the center of it all will be the Baby Jesus safely tucked in his crèche.

So we wait. And we prepare. And Christmas comes again; in our home and in our hearts.

O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all humankind; Bid thou our sad divisions cease, And be thyself our Prince of Peace.

Peace,

Denis

Am I The Only One?

Sometimes I feel like I’m the ONLY ONE. The the only one who gets the joke; who sees the absurdity in a given situation; who uses proper grammar; who cares enough to spell YOUR NAME correctly (Oh, for the love of God: mine is D-E-N-I-S); who knows the meaning and proper use of the word exacerbated, which is often how I feel. Being the ‘only one’ can be 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 want to be alone; to not be bothered by the opinions and needs of others. It’s easy to be uncaring when you remain aloof.

desertDo 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 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 and love and togetherness 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 arms (and heart) to others, then and only then, am I truly worthy to hold the Christ-Child. 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.

Peace,

Denis

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

In The Days of Noah

On this first Sunday of Advent our Gospel reading tell us:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.                                                                            They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.”                                                           Matthew 24-37,39

normal boy 2I’m living in the days of Noah. Not Noah of Ark fame but Noah of grandson fame. My Noah (our Noah) is a three year-old dynamo who is a self-proclaimed “normal boy”. And so he is! He likes to run (indoors) and sometimes forgets to use his ‘inside voice’. He plays hard, laughs big, and loves us all. He likes to tease. He loves to climb, jump and tumble. One of his favorite expressions is “Hey, watch this!” often followed by some daredevil feat. He is always flashing his trademark grin. He is indefatigable! And therefore I am living in the days of Noah…

But as Advent begins I am reminded that even during (pehaps especially during) times of fun and frolic we must prepare ourselves to receive God. It’s easy for me to need God when I am desperate; when I am hurting; when life has dealt me setbacks. I cry out to God in my pain and sorrow! But during happy times I sometimes put God on a shelf to be taken down and dusted off, admired and replaced upon the shelf again. “It’s good to have you there God, I’ll let you know when you’re needed.”

Advent is not just a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, it is also a time to prepare for the final coming of Christ. But for me the beauty of this special season is preparing myself to receive Christ in my life right here – right now.

First Sunday in  AdventSo this season as I light the Advent wreath, I will prepare my heart (once again) to find the Son of God in my “Days of Noah”. While Noah welcomes me into his three year-old world of adventure I will take comfort in knowing that God is at our side. As we play hard, laugh big and love one another I will remember that it is God’s love that we share.

And maybe we can shout together, “Hey, watch this!”

Peace,

Denis

Hope

Tragic. Horrific. Unimaginable.

These are just a few of the headline words used to express the shock and dismay of the merciless attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday morning. Children massacred – it’s still almost too painful to contemplate but I try to understand; to make some sense of it. But I cannot comprehend the hate so virulent in one individual that he would commit the most despicable crime against the most innocent of victims.

As a citizen I am outraged. As a parent and grandparent I am shaken. As a child of God I am broken-hearted.

HandsThere’s a part of me that wants to “put it away”; to not talk about it; not think about it. I would like to tell myself that it happened far away and was random and can NEVER touch me or my precious grandchildren. But as I write this, the tears stream down my face thinking of those grandfathers in Connecticut that won’t get to hold their grandsons and granddaughters on their laps again; who won’t hear giggles and see sweet smiles. Who will never again get another tight squeeze around the neck or a precious kiss on a craggy old face.

Today at Mass our priest asked us to lift up those families in prayer. He implored us to be THE PEACE that we can be in our own families; in our own communities.

I can’t undo the hideous attack that was perpetrated on those children in Connecticut but I can be an agent of peace. I can deplore violence. And I can defuse anger and hatred in my own life. I can try to love as Jesus taught us.

Won’t you join me? Let’s mend broken relationships. Let’s try to ease the pain of others. Let’s stop buying music, movies and video games that glamorize violence. Let’s ask our members of Congress to actively work on real gun control legislation. Let’s stop reacting to violence with more violence.

There is hope amidst the horror. And as we enter into the fourth week of Advent in preparation of the Christ Child, let’s truly create some peace on earth.

Peace,

Denis

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

Prepare the Way

Advent 2012 -4A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”     Luke 3:4-6

Luke’s Gospel is actually recalling the words of the Prophet Isaiah. My personal rule is that any time the New Testament quotes the Old Testament we should probably pay attention because apparently it is something that bears repeating.

During Advent we are called to ‘Prepare the Way’. But what does that mean? This reading always leaves me with images of giant earth-movers, backhoes and dump trucks frantically lowering hillsides and filling in ditches and chasms. But is that what Isaiah had in mind? I don’t think so. I believe that Isaiah was speaking metaphorically. I suspect that some of us are the valleys that need to be filled and others of us are the mountains that need to be toppled. And often, I suppose, we’re a bit of both.

I know that my own arrogance, pride and boastfulness need to be ‘made low’. My heart and spirit could use some ‘filling up’ right now. And of course there is plenty that needs to be ‘straightened out’ and ‘made smooth’.

So this Advent season when I hear those ancient words of Isaiah I am reminded that God is not asking me to fix the world. He is not expecting me to make others walk the straight and narrow. He is speaking only to me about me. He is asking me to prepare myself to receive his Son. To let go of my pride and my sinfulness and to be more loving and giving. God is inviting me once again to be filled with his Spirit. And to prepare myself to revel in the birth of our Savior.

Peace,

Denis