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 1:20-21
Come home! And then I can light the Advent wreath. One flame at a time…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
Maybe it’s a senior moment because it happens more often as I get older. I start to walk into a room for some reason and then almost immediately I can’t remember why. So I stop and return to where I started, hoping to trigger whatever thought it was that made me enter into that room to begin with. I suppose it’s good exercise but not really all that productive . Or perhaps I’ve lost something and I return to where I remember last seeing it. I literally retrace my steps to see if I might discover where the item was misplaced. “Where did I put my glasses?” is a common theme for me.
It’s human nature, I suppose, to want to hang on to those necessary thoughts and those necessary things. I need to know where I’m going and why. And I need my glasses to see whatever it is I’m going to be doing when I get there.
But Jesus asks us to let go. Lent is a usually thought of as time to give up something. This year, during this pandemic, even more so. What I really need to give up is my need for control. This is easier said than done. As I am struggling to wrap my head around Covid-19 and all of the repercussions of this deadly virus, I feel that I need whatever control I have left. During a normal Lenten Season surrendering to God’s plan is challenging. This year it is downright frightening. What is happening??!! Jesus, how can I let go??!!
In his book, “How Big Is Your God?”, Paul Coutinho writes “a consequence of my life with God is essentially a dying, a giving up, and a self-emptying.” He goes on to say, “Jesus promised to give us inner freedom, joy, and happiness that no one and nothing can take away from us, even in the midst of tremendous pain, suffering, sickness, and death.”
What holds me back? The challenge is thinking about what I need to leave behind.
Is it comfort? Is it fear? Is it pride? Is it hate? Is it anger? Is it anxiety? Is it my need for perfection? Is it my self-righteousness?
The frightening part is the actualleaving behind.
The strain of having to distance myself from my loved ones. Worry for our son who has lost his job in the restaurant industry. The constant concern for my 93 year-old father and 88 year-old father-in-law who are both at high risk. Dealing with the disappointment of cancelled events. Frustration with the lack of leadership in our state and in our nation. Struggling with the uncertainty of my employment. Trying to ignore the foreboding feeling of “who might be next?”. The nearly constant reassurances of “we’ll be fine”, that I both give and receive, which seem grossly inadequate.
And yet, I have to let it go. I have to leave it all behind. How else can I empty myself and wholly embrace the desert experience?
This is exactly why I need Lent. Especially this year. Maybe my journey is meant to be a struggle. A challenge. A reminder that God loves me as I am: worried; woefully unprepared; hopeless; helpless; vulnerable.
We are made in God’s image, but our humanity requires that we accept and even embrace our limitations and our sinfulness. We must accept the fact that because we have free will, we can choose to love God or not. Faith is a choice. Lent should be an opportunity not a burden.
Coutinho talks about how once we let go we are then free to swim in the ‘River of the Divine’. I love these words but I struggle to put this into action. Most days I feel pretty distant from anything divine.
Making sacrifices during Lent is not a bad thing. Giving to charity and serving others is certainly admirable. I read somewhere recently that we will need a “Letter of Recommendation” from the poor in order to get into heaven. I can pray for others during my isolation. Kindness costs nothing. Doing something positive can help combat these feelings of futility. If this time of trial helps me to get to the “desert” I should be thankful. Only there can I face my temptations and acknowledge my weaknesses. Then after I empty myself of pride, I can retrace my steps, jump into that ‘River of the Divine’ and be healed once more.
“Take my hand.” It’s such a simple phrase. It can be delivered as a command. Many times with my children and grandchildren it is imperative that they must ‘take my hand’. It guards against danger – traffic or crowds or unfamiliar surroundings. It can be offered as a gesture of kindness or friendship. Please ‘take my hand’ and I will help you along the way over rough terrain or an uncertain future. It can be a request. ‘Take my hand’ and help me, steady me, hold me, give me strength and the courage to continue on.
For me, it has mostly been an expression of love. ‘Take my hand’ and join our souls. Walk with me on this journey of life.
I have been blessed beyond measure. I have a wife of 45 years who is still the light and love of my life. I have three grown children who amaze me and challenge me and love me as much as I love them. I have five grandchildren who fill my life with love and joy and laughter; they give me hope for the future. I have friends and family who give tirelessly of themselves and bring balance to my life.
Each of them – all of them, have held my hand; have strengthened me; have pulled me up from the depths of despair. They have held my hand in times of joy and sorrow. We have clasped hands in times of immeasurable happiness. I have felt their heartbeats pulsing through my own veins. They have rescued me from mundane annoyance and incomprehensible pain. All of this by simply ‘taking my hand’.
As a child I held my parents hands. Whether crossing the street or being consoled, I felt protection in that hand. I was rescued from fear and uncertainty with the simple gesture of having my hand held. Now with aged fathers, Deb and I often find ourselves holding their hands. The roles have reversed in a way. The protection that our Dads’ afforded us is now being returned by steadying old hands that need support, tenderness and guidance.
I believe in a higher power. I believe in a God who has brought these loved ones into my life. I know when they ‘take my hand’ it is God’s hand holding mine. Each of these people is bringing Christ to me.
My prayer is that I can be allowed to be Christ to them as well. God rescues each of us; sometimes we just need a hand.
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.
Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent; the beginning of our preparation for the Christ-Child. Last night, my wife was playing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ on the piano. That beautiful, haunting and hopeful hymn that has always been part of my life touched my heart again this year.
O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear
Lonely exile.These two words keep playing in head. I can’t help but think of the immigrants and asylum seekers that Deb served at our southern border earlier this year. I’m sure many of them felt lonely during their exile. The stories that she has shared of her experience are heart breaking and yet somehow still hopeful. Our hymn, though mournful, reminds us that God is coming to set us free. In our longing and waiting we have hope. These desperate souls, that were welcomed in McAllen, Texas had hope: Hope of a better life; hope of safety; home of a new home. What my wife and the other volunteers offered was kindness and dignity.
Make safe the way that leads on high; And close the path to misery.
I pray that these less fortunate souls have found their respite. I pray that they have continued to be welcomed by strangers and have found HOME. The people that my wife served didn’t want to leave their homelands but had no choice. The violence and persecution they endured was unimaginable. And still they endured. They needed an end to their misery. Hope was all many of them had left.
To us the path of knowledge show; And teach us in her ways to go
It’s easy for me to turn a blind eye to the suffering in our world. I cozy up to my comforts and toss a few coins in the Salvation Army can at my local grocery store. I pray for those less fortunate because I know that there is immense suffering in our world, our nation, our state, our community but I fail to take the time learn the systemic causes of this injustice. I make a few donations and I shed a tear for the atrocities I see on the television or read about in the news but that isn’t enough. During Advent I will recommit myself to knowledge. As someone living with privilege because of my race and gender I must recommit myself to social justice for all.
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.
The problems in our world can feel overwhelming at times, but the words of this hymn give me hope. During this busy holiday season, when I feel overwrought, I can slow down and listen and re-listen to ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. Our salvation is at hand. Rejoice! Rejoice! All humankind can be changed. All humankind can find peace. I’m going to begin with me. It may not be easy but most things worth having are not easily obtained. I must fight for justice, pray for wisdom, work for peace, and love beyond measure.
And cheer us by your drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night; And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
May you find love, joy, comfort, but mostly peace in this Advent season.
“If Jesus visited me, what would I be able to give Him?” That was the question of the old shoemaker in Tolstoy’s story. The response came back to him from a voice not present, “Dear old shoemaker, tonight I am going to visit your village. Look for Me.”
Of course as the story goes on we learn that the shoemaker is visited by orphans and widows looking for shelter and food. The shoemaker gives to each who approach him. He even shares the soup he has prepared for Jesus. He goes even further by making shoes for children in the orphanage. But ultimately he is disappointed because Jesus does not come.
When he questions God, he is told “I visited you last night and you gave me warmth. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was hungry and you fed me, and I was in the orphanage and you came to visit me. Whatever you did for all these people, you also did for me.”
I wonder, do I serve others as would choose to serve my Lord? Do I have the same spirit of generosity and love for those whom I don’t know? Do I fail to recognize Christ in my fellow humans?
Advent is a good time for me to stop and listen to what Jesus is asking of me. I try to quiet myself and listen to what is truly important. Mostly I fail. But sometimes Jesus shines through. Sometimes my heart is broken open enough to allow the love of God to fill my soul. The love is always there but often it takes a smile or a kind word or a song or a warm embrace to help me let down my defenses. Last weekend my granddaughter gently put her arm around me and told me (again) that she loved me. Christ came to me at that moment. I didn’t even ask for God’s love and there it was!
I have a dear friend who is volunteering at a Humanitarian Center serving immigrants from Central America as I write this. I can’t help but believe that he has been visited by Jesus countless times. And he has been Christ to those families who are in such desperate need of love and care. He is an inspiration to me.
O come, O come Emmanuel. This year when I hear this ancient and beautiful song, my heart is with those immigrant families mourning in lonely exile until the Son of God appears.
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 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.
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…