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

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

Lent (and perhaps relent)

For millions of Catholics and other Christians, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. In observance of Christ’s death and resurrection, forty days are set aside in the Church calendar. During these forty days, many people make personal sacrifices as part of their Lenten journey.

Some folks feel tremendous pressure to “give up” something to honor Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Or to “do something” honorable or charitable or extra-holy. It doesn’t do me much good to have ashes smeared on my forehead at mass and then act like a complete asshole in the church parking lot. I must admit that I have struggled with Lenten sacrifices through years. Sometimes the sacrifice has had the effect of putting me in a foul mood.

That year without caffeine was painful and probably unhealthy. I was hardly honoring Jesus by snapping at someone because I wanted their coffee and wanted them to shut the hell up. So, I think it might be time to relent and give myself a break. If my Lenten sacrifice falls short of my expectations, I can forgive myself and try something else. Besides, my bad behavior or bad habits or good behavior or good habits will not change the fact that Jesus died for my sins. His gift of love is not earned by my worthiness. Likewise, it is not withheld because of my lack of fortitude.

Again, this year I will try to follow the example of friends and family members who, by their quiet example of love and devotion to God, are models of Christianity. I am thankful for a wife who always shows me how to live a Christ-like life. Deb is never afraid to express her outrage at injustice or display her affection publicly. She loves completely. I’m not her equal when it comes to kindness. I’m polite; she’s loving. I’m accepting; she’s forgiving. I try; she does.

I will try again this year to be kinder, listen better, remain calmer, forgive more, judge less, care more, and love more deeply. And not just for these forty days; for the whole year.  I suppose that I could give up cursing for Lent.

But what the …?

Peace,

Denis

Wisdom Shouts In The Street

Every year I try to prepare myself for Christmas by embracing the Advent Season. Perhaps Advent should be a time of quiet reflection. A time for meditation and prayer. A time to quiet my soul and prepare the way for Christ’s coming into my life. But Jesus is already here. I just don’t always take the time to meet Him or possess the ability to notice anything besides myself or my needs. So, for me, Advent must be a wake-up call.

Sure, quiet, peaceful reflection is beautiful, but I sometimes need a “kick in the pants”. What better way to focus on what is important, what is necessary, than to encounter God shouting at me. “Hey, Denis!” “Pay attention!” “This message is for you!”

I need to let go of what I think is important. I need to look across the table; across the aisle; across the street; across the ocean. When I can find God in everyone and everything around me and beyond me, then I will be ready for Christmas. It’s a worthy goal. And completely overwhelming. But I can start small.

I can light a flame inside my soul. I can share that light with others through kindness and understanding. I can take time to listen, hold a hand, dry a tear, share a laugh, tend a wound or mend a broken heart.

And when I get caught up in my selfishness and lack of empathy for others, I will listen for God’s voice shouting for me. I imagine God, as my Mom, all those years ago when I was boy out playing with my friends, shouting for me to come home.

Wisdom shouts in the street,
She lifts her voice in the square;
At the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
At the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings.
 Proverbs 1:20-2
1

Come home! And then I can light the Advent wreath. One flame at a time…

Peace,

Denis

Do Feast Days Really Matter?

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Denis. He is the patron Saint of Paris and France and headache sufferers. Feast days in the Church seem archaic and arcane. Perhaps that’s why I like celebrating them. They’re a reminder that our Church is ancient and mysterious and somehow still enduring.

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

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. Besides being the patron saint of headache sufferers (for obvious reasons), Denis is also the patron saint of people dealing with frenzy and strife. During this time of pandemic we might learn something from Denis and “keep on keepin’ on”.

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 who has Denis’s spunk. I mean even the biggies like Francis and Theresa and Patrick and Clare didn’t carry around their own heads postmortem. 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.

My Aunt Gene Marie used to send me a ‘Saints Day’ card on Denis’s feat day and I will miss that again this year, but I believe she’s in heaven now discussing that fateful day in Paris with Saint Denis and still celebrating his feast day. She’s the one who first introduced me to the saint who shares my name. 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’ll keep celebrating feast days amidst the growing uncertainty about the future of our Church. When we forget that love should be our guiding principal and we refuse to accept ALL of our brothers and sisters, I believe that we are turning our back on God. Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, wrote, “God is all that is good. God has created all that is made. God loves all that he has created. And so anyone who, in loving God, loves all his (or her) fellow creatures.” Julian was a woman who lived during the bubonic plague and still found joy in all creation. I am comforted by the knowledge that our Church is ancient and universal and that Julian’s wisdom still speaks to me today. I wish all clerics would read her words. We continue to make mistakes; to exclude; to blame; to punish. How many times in history have men nearly undone the gift of Church that God has given us? I wish all Christians would remember that we are the Church. I believe that there is room at the table for all of us. We can honor those who have come before us and thank God for the wisdom they have shared. We can pray for those who will follow us and show them that love is never a mistake.

A feast day is as good a time as any to do both. Jesus loved saints and sinners. And He still does.

Peace,

Denis

A few years ago my grandson was Saint Denis at his school’s annual All Saints’ Day celebration. If pride really is a sin then I’m surely doomed.

Saints and Angels

Below is a text exchange I had today with our teenage granddaughter. “Teenage granddaughter”. I still hold my breath a little when I say those words. That tiny baby girl who I held in my arms just moments ago is a teenager. But today I got a glimpse of the woman she is becoming: strong and smart and loving and faithful.

Here’s our exchange:

Me: We honor Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, as saints. We celebrate the joint feast day of Jesus’ grandparents on July 26th. Their love for one another and for Mary is an example to us of how God calls us to live. They also remind us to honor our own grandparents and to thank them for the blessings they have passed down to us in love. Happy Feast Day Anna! (I have to admit that part about honoring your grandparents was blatantly self-serving but I sent it anyway.)

She: I am greatly blessed to have you and Nana as my grandparents and today I am especially reminded of that. I love you.

Those words: I am greatly blessed… and I love you.

Just when the world seems to be too much to bear. Just when I’m not sure if I’m even fit for humanity. Just when I can’t seem to find a kind word or a kind thought, there she is. My girl. My teenager. She softens my roughness. She calms my restlessness. She looks past my ugliness. She ignores my mean-spiritedness. She digs deep and finds the love and beauty and truth that I sometimes keep buried deep under the angst of everyday living. But she finds it! She lifts my spirit and she soothes my soul.

And I am greatly blessed. And I am loved.

Peace,

Denis

Transfigured

Merriam-Webster tells us that to be transfigured means, “to change a thing into a different thing.” In today’s Gospel we hear of Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter, James and John witnessed with astonishment Jesus together with Moses and Elijah. It’s fitting that this reading comes to us during Lent. This is our time to be transfigured.

I don’t suppose my clothes (or yours for that matter) will become dazzling white. I also don’t expect you or I to be seated with Moses or Elijah. But we can be transfigured. We can change into something different, into someone different. I can use this time during Lent to change my heart.

My dear friend Mary sent me a simple but beautiful message this past week: “Fast from anger, and be filled with patience”. Simple and profound but not easy. Not easy for me because I like to hold on to my anger. I need my indignation. That anger can sustain me; it can justify my intolerance. That anger can empower me; it can make my hatred seem righteous.

But that anger can also destroy me; it can steal my soul; it can sap my spirit. It can become part of who I am.

The story of the Transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But did his disciples really have any clue about what they had witnessed? Were they as confused about Jesus’s impact on their lives as I often find myself? Jesus is a good guy and he’s all about love and forgiveness. I love his parables. I am amazed by the miracles he performed. I am in awe of his acceptance of everyone, even sinners like me. But he’s also God. When I meditate on the Transfiguration of Jesus, I realize that my future is in his hands and I need to surrender. I need to let go of my pride and anger and hate. I need to be different. I need to be transfigured. I need to be a better man.

So during this Lenten journey I will try to change into someone different. I will try to “fast from anger”. And when I fail (which is likely), I will try again because my God is the God of second chances. And third and fourth and…

Peace,

Denis

Jesus took Peter, James, and John 
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them, 
and his clothes became dazzling white.
Mark 9:2-3