The Perfect Gift

Through the years, I have tried to find the “perfect gift” at Christmas. Countless hours have been spent searching for the one thing that will make the recipient completely overjoyed – the one thing that would make their Christmas complete.

Truth be known, I’ve had mixed results. Reactions have ranged from “oh my goodness!” to “you shouldn’t have spent so much!” to “thanks, but I already have one.” to “oh, this isn’t really what I wanted.”

Exchanging gifts at Christmas can be exhausting – physically, mentally and financially. Exchanging gifts at Christmas can be disappointing – for both for the giver and the receiver. A few years ago my lovely wife learned from some wise sage (or someone on Pinterest) that when purchasing gifts you should follow the ‘Four Gifts’ rule: Something they want; something they need; something to wear; something to read. This has served us well with our grandchildren. Usually amongst the four gifts is something wonderful but still not the “perfect gift’.

I’m blessed to be lay member (a Partner) of the Sisters of The Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri. As Partners, we join the Sisters in trying to bring Christ’s reconciling presence to those we encounter in our daily lives. Because 2020 is the 175th anniversary of the founding of the order, “All is Gift” was chosen as the theme for this milestone year. It reflects the Sisters’ openness to accept all with a grateful heart. I’m trying to learn to do that as well.

I recently read something that Pope Francis wrote, “The true gift to us is Jesus, and like him we seek to be gifts to others. It means becoming daily a gift freely given to those we meet on our own path.” You don’t have to be a pope or a nun or a priest or even remotely holy to do that. Even a knucklehead like me can give himself to others.

Take time. Listen. Love. That might just be the perfect gift. And I won’t even have to wrap it.

Blessings on your journey to Christmas.

Peace,

Denis

Am I Ready For Christmas?

This time of year, I am often asked, “Are you ready for Christmas?” My polite answer is usually, “Gosh, I still have a few things to (do) (buy) (wrap), etc., etc.” What I’m often thinking is, “Hell no, I’m not ready, I need more (time) (patience) (quiet), etc., etc.!”

So in these final days before Christmas, I try to find the time, patience, and quiet that I desperately need to prepare myself for Christmas. I want to buy my loved ones the perfect gifts and wrap them beautifully. I want the house to be decorated with holiday charm. I want the food to be plentiful and delicious. I want to cue the music. I want to have lots of good cheer! I want my Christmas to be a Hallmark® Christmas with joyous celebrations and a happy ending.

Then I realize how wrong-headed I am. All I want, is what I want. I want the perfect gifts. I want the beautiful house. I want the food and drinks and cheer. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, except that I’ve put myself first. I want. I want. I want…

advent-candles-third-sunday-quizThe Advent Season is a blessing for me. It gives me the opportunity to set aside my needs and my wants, and to instead focus on the love of a God who sent his Son to be with us. It is a good time for me to reflect how loving (or unloving) I have been. It’s an opportunity for me to reach out to others; to become vulnerable; to stop worrying about perfection and to become perfected in Christ’s love.

Advent is counter-cultural. Turn-off. Tune out. Time to prepare my heart and my soul for the celebration of the coming of Christ. That will require some time and some patience and some quiet, too.

So when next person asks, “Are you ready for Christmas?”, I’ll simply smile and say, “I’m getting there!”

Peace,

Denis

 

Saint Denis

Today is the Feast Day of St. Denis. He is the patron Saint of Paris and France and headache sufferers.

I’ve always been happy to have Denis as my saint’s name because he’s kind of a maverick and a tough guy. According to legend Denis was Bishop of Paris in the third century and was martyred by beheading. He is said to have picked up his own head and walked six miles, preaching a sermon the entire way. Also Denis is the patron saint of headache sufferers, frenzy and strife. This is not surprising considering that six mile trek while carrying his own severed head!

St. Denis - Outside the Madeline in Paris (depicted with head intact)

St. Denis – Outside the Madeleine in Paris  (depicted with head intact)

Of course I admire the “saintly” saints who prayed and fasted and gave up all worldly possessions to follow Jesus’ call. We all love the saints who lived simple lives and made tremendous sacrifices for their faith but there’s something about a guy that’s got Denis’ spunk. I mean even the biggies like Francis and Theresa and Patrick and Clare didn’t carry around their own heads post mortem. So in my book Denis is a saint to emulate. Not only was he tough but he was cool. Let’s call it grace under pressure – extreme pressure.

 

St. Denis

Our grandson as St. Denis last year during All Saints’ week at school

Last year our grandson Noah chose to be St. Denis for the All Saints’ celebration at school. This morning he’s doing one of the readings at mass. Holy Noah (AKA St. Denis).

My Aunt Gene used to send me a ‘Saints Day’ card on Denis’ feat day and I will miss that again this year. When Alzheimer’s took it’s grip she forgot about Saint Denis and was sometimes a little fuzzy about who I was, too. But she’s the one who first introduced me to the saint who shares my name. And I have always taken a certain amount of pride (is that a sin?) in the fact that my patron saint was a badass who defied his Roman persecutors!

I’d like to think that Aunt Gene and Denis are in heaven having a conversation about that fateful day in Paris so many centuries ago…

Peace,

Denis

The Great Equalizer

Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. When he had washed their feet and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  John 13:5, 12-15

In our Catholic tradition we celebrate Holy Thursday with foot-washing during the Eucharist. We are reminded by Jesus’ example that to truly serve God we must become servants to one another. Jesus challenges me. How can I be a servant when I so desperately want to be served?

Yesterday I came home after a week-long business trip to discover that our sump pump had stopped working and that our basement was wet. Very wet. So I began trying to salvage things and mop up the mess. Then of course  a trip to purchase a new sump pump. That kind of job ALWAYS requires a second or third trip to the hardware store to buy the additional parts that are needed. I struggled and cursed for what seemed like hours (actually minutes) to disconnect and re-install the new pump. Finally my son-in-law and hero came to my rescue. And peace was restored in the land.

CaptureAt Mass last night I was contemplating this servant-serving thing. My back ached and my knees were sore from my afternoon of unexpected labor. I realized being humbled in the muck of my basement clean-up and repair, I had become a servant of sorts. But even more profoundly my son-in-law Travis had served me. And I had the grace to accept my defeat and allow his much-needed support.

I believe that the Eucharist is our great equalizer. We come together as servants or those being served. We join in servitude or privilege; as peasants or nobility; as haves or have-nots; and leave as equals. We are reminded that we are ALL created in God’s image. As we attempt to serve God by serving one another, we are served the ultimate gift – Life in Christ.

Peace,

Denis

Rejoice Always

Yesterday was the 3rd Sunday of Advent. Pink candle Sunday. We light the pink candle to remind ourselves to rejoice even in times of longing.

Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians to “rejoice always”. I think it’s important to note that while he is making converts in Thessalonica, he was also was being persecuted by their enemies so he decides to high-tail it to Athens. So much for rejoicing.

So how do I rejoice? At times my world seems bleak and there is not much to celebrate. Of course I don’t have anyone trying to chop my head off in Thessalonica, so I suppose I should rejoice about that. Still, often I have anxiety, disappointment, heartache, and sadness. “Rejoicing always” seems to be a tall order. Our government appears to be in shambles. Our president continues to ‘play footsie’ with Vladimir Putin. The number of disgraced politicians, entertainers, and other public figures grows each day. We seem to be on the brink of war with North Korea. There are ever-expanding political, cultural, and economic divisions in our nation. And everywhere I turn, folks seem to be at odds.

What to do? What to do?

The clue for me is in the rest of Paul’s message: “Pray without ceasing” and “In all circumstances give thanks.”

rejoice I’m not that prayerful. Not in the “get-down-on-your-knees-bow-your-head-and-pray” sense of the word. I’m more of a “Oh, God!” “Help me!” kind of guy.

I do thank God for tons of stuff: My beautiful wife, who never gives up on me; my kids, who never seem to grow tired of me; my grandchildren, who never cease to amaze me; my friends, who never have abandoned me.

Still, my prayers of supplication and thanksgiving are more like fleeting thoughts (never fully formed or well articulated). Perhaps I should celebrate that, too. God listens to my prayers – poorly formed and selfish as they may be. I pray and God listens. I cry and God hears me. I try and God accepts my humble efforts.

So on this week before Christmas I will rejoice for all that is good (and not so good). And I’ll continue to work on the ‘always’ part. I may need your help…

Peace,

Denis

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks. 1 Thes 5:16-18

Be Strong

Strength. That thing of mighty men and women. Muscle and endurance; toughness and resiliency; brute force and persistence; never-ending and never-failing.

And yet, without warning, we can lose all of our strength. It can be swept away in a heartbeat with a few words. A diagnosis. A tragedy. A lost opportunity. A lost job. A lost loved one.

In a moment’s notice our strength can be sapped. Our hope can be diminished. Our greatest fears can be realized. Our fight can seem lost. We become demoralized and frightened. We are suddenly as helpless as infants and we struggle to find our way. The “why?” keeps ringing in our ears.

be-strongSo we pray and we cry and we hold on to one another. And somehow we survive. Perhaps not in the way we had hoped. Maybe not as long as we would like. But we survive. Strength returns. Different strength. Renewed strength. And we are changed. Our misfortune gives us the wisdom to cherish what is good and right in our lives. Our suffering reminds us that our blessings always outweigh our pain. We are lifted by the love and prayers of others and as the Alleluias ring out at Christmas, we know that we are never alone. When we light the pink candle this Sunday on our Advent wreaths we are reminded that in our longing there is also hope.  O Come Emmanuel!

I often wonder why Christ came to Earth as a poor child. Why not as an Emperor/King? Or like a superhero? Why not as an Omnipotent God blazing in glory and power and might? And as I often do, I suppose I miss the point. As humans, we have an amazing capability of adapting to our environment and more importantly our circumstances. Jesus came to Earth as much a human as me. A baby who was feeble, week, helpless and frightened. My Savior walked my walk and gave His life for mine. Jesus knew how to be strong. My job is to make my life worthy of His love and sacrifice.

Wishing you strength and peace and love this Advent season,

Denis

Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!

Isaiah 35:3-4

“Let the children come to me”

garyLast week our newest granddaughter Gwendolyn Elizabeth was baptized. Our good friend Deacon Gary baptized her; as he has baptized our four other grandchildren. It was beautiful celebration of God’s love for us. I was reminded (once again) that Baptism isn’t just for the baby being Christened but for the entire family gathered to experience the sacrament. We all renewed our faith and promised to help Gwen in her spiritual journey. As Gary so eloquently pointed out, Gwen really had no idea what was happening to her but our love and support would give her a foundation on which to build a life-long relationship with God. So with parents and siblings and Godparents and grandparents and great-grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, Gwen was welcomed into a new life in Christ. And we were all blessed.

bannerBaptism doesn’t end with the sacrament. This will be the beginning of Gwen’s life as a disciple of Christ. She was presented for Baptism but her parents and Godparents will bear the responsibility for her formation. We will all support their efforts in raising her as a Christian but ultimately she will have to choose to accept her faith as an adult.

But how often do I think about my responsibility to be a witness of Christ’s love? How often do I forget that we are all called to this in Baptism – to be Christ to one another?

As her grandfather I can model Christ’s love in the way in which I love and honor Gwen’s grandmother (my wife) and her parents and Godparents (my children) but most importantly it will be in the way that I will love her. Gwen’s journey in life is unknown at this time but my belief in Jesus’ saving grace is certain and it will sustain her forever; inasmuch as my love for her will never end.

Peace,

Denis

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14

Alleluias and Easter Bunnies

Throw open the shutters. Spring has arrived! Daffodils and tulips and the dogwood are blooming. Birds are singing. New life is in abundance!

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, the day in which Christians celebrate Christ’s rising from the dead. As believers, our salvation is ‘a done deal’ if we choose the gift of His redemption. So churches will be filled to capacity.

Easter 1958aWe need the joy of Easter. It is a welcome balm that can ease the pain in our world. I for one love the carnival atmosphere of Easter Sunday services. Kids dressed in itchy new Easter clothes barely able to sit still because of all the candy that they have consumed before breakfast; beleaguered parents who rose before dawn to hide eggs and prepare baskets full of the aforementioned candy for the little darlings; folks who have not been to church in a while looking conspicuously out-of-place; ‘the regular-attenders’ barely able to conceal their annoyance of having to share their pew. We squeeze in and make room for all. And we love and forgive and ask for forgiveness for the times that we have failed to love. The Alleluias return!

Baked ham, lamb with mint jelly, hot cross buns, deviled eggs and asparagus will adorn our dining tables. Desserts will be rich and plentiful. And don’t forget the candy, surreptitiously snatched from the kiddies Easter baskets while they’re being distracted by yet another treat left behind by the Easter Bunny. Welcome home Springtime!

Some Christians are bothered by all the focus on the Easter Bunny, feeling that it diminishes the sanctity of Easter. After all what does a bunny that hides eggs and gives candy have to do with our Risen Savior? I’m not sure. But what difference does it make? Easter supplanted pre-Christian spring festivals and it doesn’t make it any less sacred to me.

So I’ll welcome the Easter Bunny to hop into my back garden again this year and hide his (her) eggs and leave behind some treats. I’ll smell the sweet aroma of new flowers and tree blossoms. I’ll love and forgive and ask for forgiveness. I’ll eat some ham and sing my Alleluias. And be thankful for it all.

Peace,

Denis

 “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” Luke 24:5

 

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

 

Who Is Worthy?

Pope Francis’ message is LOVE above all else. He strives to strike a conciliatory tone while some conservative bishops and cardinals appear to be focused only on the LAW. Sadly many American bishops display some of the harshest criticism of our Holy Father. Instead of reaching out to those in need of Christ’s love, they prefer to remind us of our sinfulness; our unworthiness. Instead of finding ways to evangelize and share God’s love, they prefer exclusion and divisiveness. It’s sad that in a world aching for reconciliation and peace these bishops have chosen a very narrow view of Christ’s Gospel.

Recently Archbishop John Myers from New Jersey has given a directive to his parish priests concerning those ineligible to receive communion. He seems to be primarily concerned with those “guilty” of sexual sins. So once again another bishop has decided to “police” the Eucharist. So who is worthy to receive Christ? The publicly pious person who refuses to support legislation that will serve the poor? The folks who attend weekly mass but find no time to serve those less fortunate in their communities? What about the priest who makes it abundantly clear that he has no time for pastoral care but reminds us weekly that we are sinful?

And who are the unworthy? Only those guilty of sexual sins? Ironic that a clergy still plagued by the sexual abuse of the most innocent among us is seemingly obsessed with contraception, homosexuality and infidelity. I am dismayed that many Catholics flock to protest at abortion clinics yet remain virtually silent about the abuse of minors by priests. When was the last time members of a parish stood outside a bishop’s residence protesting the grave sins of pedophile priests at the urging of their parish priest?

Some progressive Catholics have suggested that we boycott communion. Some have suggested that we band together wearing our rainbow attire in support of our gay brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Others have just decided to walk away. None of these options will bring reconciliation to our church.

imageHaving lived in Europe for a year, I’ve seen the empty churches; the cathedrals and abbeys that are little more than museums today. How sad that some American bishops seem to be working feverishly to empty our churches as well.

Come Holy Spirit, renew the face of the Earth! And when you’re done with me, maybe you could work on a few priests and bishops.

Peace,

Denis