At Midnight, in Bethlehem, in Piercing Cold

Today begins the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, also called the Christmas Anticipation Prayer. I first heard about this tradition a few years ago, and it’s a really beautiful prayer:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Traditionally, this prayer is recited fifteen times a day, beginning on November 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, and finishing on Christmas Eve. It is a meditative prayer, helping us to place ourselves in Bethlehem and focus on the coming of the Christ child as we prepare for Christmas. Praying with this novena has given me a richer awareness of God throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. It helps me to connect my own present experiences and petitions with the miracle of the incarnation.

Last year, I created a lock screen for my phone with the novena prayer written on it, so that throughout the day, whenever I checked my phone, I would see the novena and be reminded to pray it. I’ll share it with you here, in case any of you need the same reminder!

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Wishing you all a blessed Advent!

Beyond fearing Doomsday

Dear fellow pilgrims,

If you read/listen to the news on a daily basis – especially when tensions with North Korea were higher – follow what scientists are saying about the breadth and depth of impacts of global warming even in our lifetime, and, ok… maybe if you already have a tendency to worry about things… it’s easy to worry about the end of the world.  Heck, there is even a Doomsday Clock that tells us how close the world is to a global catastrophe – i.e. how many minutes until midnight – a terrifying symbol controlled by a group of scientists.  Right now, it’s at “two minutes until midnight”, the closest it’s ever been to midnight since 1953 (during the beginning of the Cold War).

I grew up in a non-denominational church where the pastor frequently talked about doomsday, and even preached to the children in the room (me) that we were probably going to be among those who would experience the “End Times.” Ok… and does anyone else remember those videos with Kirk Cameron about people disappearing up out of their clothes during the rapture? Those movies were fun reminders of the end of the world, too. My piano teacher even had brochures in her bathroom (that was otherwise decorated with fluffy pink things) about “reading the signs of the end times” that you could leisurely peruse while sitting on the toilet. I guess you could say that my Christian upbringing included a liiiittle bit over a “healthy dose” of eschatological awareness.

So, yeah, it’s easy to be scared of these potential catastrophes we can’t control. It’s also equally as easy to, in the face of being freaked out by the world, retreat to your distracting internet sites of choice and cover up the fear with mindless entertainment. The best way, however, involves facing these fears, no matter how realistic they are (because deciding that can be a whole other can of worms) and then surrendering them to God, proclaiming His victory and lordship over all things, and proclaiming your role as one of His rescued children.

Today, Jesus speaks of this intense anxiety and fear of the people during the end of the world to His disciples in the Gospel reading:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,

and on earth nations will be in dismay,

perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

People will die of fright

in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,

for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

 

But then, He also speaks of the end game and our role in it:

“And then they will see the Son of Man

coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

But when these signs begin to happen,

stand erect and raise your heads

because your redemption is at hand.”

 

“Stand erect…”, do not cower in terror, children. “Raise your heads…”, have confidence enough to look directly at this terror and trust in the Lord more than competing voices tell you to fear. Why? Because “your redemption is at hand,” your salvation is imminent, your God is near.

It’s so easy to be afraid, my brothers and sisters. Way too easy. But no matter when the end of the world will be, and how we or however many generations ahead of us will be experiencing it, we know our faith, hope, and love in the Lord will be the anchor of all hearts in whatever turmoil is encountered. Because building the strength to endure worldly turmoil is not God’s ultimate purpose for our lives, but rather, our redemption, which is the ultimate manifestation of His glory. Our goal is not to just hang on when things get really tough and seemingly unbearable. This is necessary and good and promotes many good virtues, but God wants to use these perseverance and virtues as a conduit for a greater and greater manifestation of His grace, which is always a gift to be received and not something to be grasped at.

Jesus makes all things new; He does not just want to get rid of all bad things. There is Heaven after the end of the world, not just the seared and barren land we see in apocalyptic movies. There is a wedding feast we are all called to as part of His Bride, the Church.

There is always a greater song to be sung over the ruins of Babylon, which we see in the first reading:

“Alleluia!

Salvation, glory, and might belong to our God,

for true and just are his judgments.

He has condemned the great harlot 

who corrupted the earth with her harlotry.

He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

 

The first reading reminds us that the world is ending because the ruler of the world is the evil one, the “great harlot,” and “the wages of sin is death,” which is a judgment. But may we be judged favorably when our time has come, to be counted among those avenged and redeemed, as our Lord intends and hopes for each one of us.

And above all, let us not be afraid!

Pax Christi,

-Alyssa

 

Christ the Victor

Today, I’m cheating by skipping ahead a few chapters in Revelation. I’m not sorry.

Get a load of this:

The King of Kings.

11 Then I saw the heavens opened, and there was a white horse; its rider was [called] “Faithful and True.” He judges and wages war in righteousness. 12 His eyes were [like] a fiery flame, and on his head were many diadems. He had a name inscribed that no one knows except himself. 1He wore a cloak that had been dipped in blood, and his name was called the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven followed him, mounted on white horses and wearing clean white linen. 15 Out of his mouth came a sharp sword to strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod, and he himself will tread out in the wine press the wine of the fury and wrath of God the almighty. 1He has a name written on his cloak and on his thigh, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

How does that compare with your image of Jesus? Maybe it’s better stated: How does that compare with your baseline image of Jesus? When you pray to Jesus, or proclaim his Gospel, are you thinking of a Jesus with fiery eyes, many crowns, a bloody cloak, and “King of kings and Lord of lords” tattooed on his thigh?

How do our different images of Jesus color the way we see the Christian life? When we emphasize suffering Jesus, are we more likely to expect or see suffering? When we think of Jesus’ gentleness with children and the downtrodden, I would bet we’re more inclined to think the Christian life is about service and self-gift. Does hearing about Jesus’ miracles make us more likely to pray for one in our own lives?

All of these senses logically follow from the subject matter. There are so many facets to Jesus (he is, well Son of the Creator) and consequently to our spiritual lives, since we are called to be imitators of Christ.

But how often do we reflect on that King of kings dimension of Jesus Christ?

I know that my prayer, confidence in evangelization, and desire to be bold all grow when I reflect on the above passage. Today’s readings (see, I still talked about them!) are all proclamations of God’s victory and faithfulness, and they provided just the right jolt of inspiration and hope for me during my early college years, where self-image and doubt were immense struggles. Jesus, in His powerful, victorious glory, became somebody I could aspire to be like and be happy to serve, and be proud of myself.

Does your faith make you proud of yourself? Does it give you self-confidence? It sounds silly to say, but I’ll say it anyway because it sometimes gets easy to believe this: Christ-like humility and a strong sense of self-worth are not mutually exclusive! In fact, a healthy self-image is crucial to a fully integrated life of faith! Where our imperfections and failures once may have crippled us, our worth comes from God and cannot be shaken.

We are called to be heirs to this glorious Kingdom and serve the all-powerful God who rules in victory over Satan and evil. That’s it. That’s the end of the story. Jesus Christ, the victory, riding in on a white stallion and laying waste to all that is not of God. I’m guessing that’s not your usual “prayer material”.

Take some time to reflect on Jesus Christ in His glorious victory today. I pray you let it mold how you view yourself and how you go about living out your faith.

The Final Trial

“Doomsday is coming!  Doomsday is coming!” the grim voice intoned loudly from the radio by my Grandfather’s chair.  This dire warning was repeated at frequent intervals throughout the weekend.  I asked, somewhat timidly, what “doomsday” was, and an older cousin gleefully told me about the End of the World.  I remember thinking that the adults were taking it awfully casually, continuing to joke and chat as if there were no big deal.  Even at age six, I thought there ought to be some sort of Preparation for such an event.

We returned home from our visit and the impending apocalypse was momentarily forgotten.  Until the following winter, when my (other) grandfather passed away and I attended his wake and funeral.

I still remember how cold it was that January day, as the drops of holy water froze in mid-air as they were sprinkled on the flower laden casket to be lowered into the ground.  I remember the casket itself, and how the night before at the wake, I had seen my Grandfather’s body, lying stately and still.  I was not disturbed, as some might worry, at seeing his body.  I was, however, secretly unsettled by seeing only half of it.

My instinct to prepare for “the End” again kicked in, and in the weeks after the funeral I would lie in bed after my parents had left the room, solemn and still like my Grandfather, my hands neatly folded above the crease in my sheets and blankets.  I kept these morbid contemplations to myself, until one day my concerns got the better of me.  “Mom, I think I am ready to die,” seven-year-old-me confided to my rather shocked mother.  “Except for one part….Why do they have to cut your legs off?”

If I was relieved to learn that Grandpa’s legs were not missing but merely concealed by the closed half of the casket, I was even more amused to learn, decades later, that the Doomsday proclamations of my childhood memory were in fact nothing more than a radio commercial.  As I grew older, my fear of death was eclipsed by other more pressing concerns—fear of embarrassing myself in public, for example, or of forgetting something necessary and important, like homework or a bathing suit.

The idea of preparation for judgment, however, stuck with me.

“If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  The bumper sticker asked a question that deeply intrigued me.  I had been fed on martyr stories from a young age (which no doubt played well with my other morbid fascinations) and I knew which side I wanted to be on in the inevitable persecutions to come.

I set about, courageously at times, creating “evidence” that would prove my worthiness to God and man.  At first this meant being good.  Later, it meant good works: standing up for what was right, even when it wasn’t popular, fighting to effect change in the world, advocating for the needy and oppressed.  I adopted many good causes, working tirelessly throughout my teen years into adulthood.  I spent hours volunteering, running projects, making good things happen so that I could be a good Christian.

It is only in recent years that I have been struck by a profound realization: it is not good works that distinguishes followers of Christ.  Let’s be honest—our secular counterparts do many of the same things, and often better (with better funds, with more polish, with further reach).

What distinguishes the Christians is what they don’t do—what they give to God.  I realized this one morning when I was pressed for time with one of my many worthy projects.  I was sorely tempted to cancel my appointment with God, to skip my prayer time, so I would have more time to work on helping out.

But, I realized, if I am really a Christian—if God is first in my life, if I really believe He is in control, then my prayer time “doing nothing” is more productive than my “work time.”  Do I believe this?  Do I live this?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns that the centerpiece of the Jewish religion, the glorious temple in Jerusalem, will fall into rubble: “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  Jesus doesn’t give advice on rebuilding or making do without.  His only commentary: “Do not be terrified.”  He then warns of false prophets that will come as the end draws near.  His advice?  “Do not be deceived.”

There is no preparation, no list of tasks for avoiding fear and deception.  Only intimacy with Christ can protect us against fear and deception in our lives and hearts.

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Image credit:  © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro /  from Wikimedia Commons

 

¡Viva Cristo Rey! (Part 2)

Yesterday, we celebrated one of my favorite feast days, the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Why is it one of my favorite feast days, you may ask? Not just because “Crown Him with Many Crowns” is my jam (really, though, it’s a fantastic hymn). I love this day so much because it is a day to celebrate the powerful truth that Jesus is Lord and I am not.

Praise God for that gift. As the liturgical year wraps up this week, I declare that truth with a sigh of relief in my lungs and with praise and gratitude in my heart—Jesus Christ is King. King over all my problems, King over our hurting Church, King over every situation in this past year that has made no sense, King over all the violence in the world and the turmoil in my heart, King over the days where I feel like I can’t do it, King over every. single. thing.

We praise You, Lord Jesus.

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St. José Sánchez del Río

He is sovereign over all. We get to choose to surrender our control and let Him be King, no matter what the cost. A great Saint did this at just 14 years old, St. José Sánchez del Río. He lived in Mexico during the Cristiada movement of the 1920s, when a bloody war was waged against Catholics. The Church was under total control of the state, and it became illegal for Catholics to practice their faith in public. Monasteries and convents were shut down, Church property was taken over, and priests were arrested and killed for saying Mass. The Cristeros rose up to fight for Christ their King, and St. José asked his parents to join their army. He said, “For Jesus Christ, I will do everything.” He was their youngest member and became their flag bearer. St. José was imprisoned after giving his horse to the General and not being able to escape in time. While in prison, he refused to renounce his faith and could be heard frequently saying, “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!”

St. José’s godfather was the mayor of his town, but he did not let him go. He told him if he just said, “Death to Christ the King,” he would let José go home to his family. But he refused, so he was ordered to be killed. The federalists cut off the soles of his feet with a knife and then made St. José walk ten blocks along a dusty, gravel road to his grave. The soldiers beat him and mocked him, and he just kept shouting, “Viva Cristo Rey!” They then stabbed him several times. They asked him what they should tell his father, and St. José replied, “That we will see each other in Heaven! Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!” With that, the soldiers shot him, and he died.

Jesus was St. José’s King, and he let Christ reign over every area of his life, even when it meant dying a death much like our Lord’s. Is Christ King over every part of your life, or is there anything else that reigns? The ultimate expression of our trust in God is when we have childlike dependency on our Savior and King. As the liturgical year comes to a close and we prepare for the coming of our Savior, where do you need Christ to be your King?

Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

P.S. A great movie on the life of St. José Sánchez del Río is For Greater Glory. Here’s a powerful clip!

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

Miguel_Pro's_execution_(1927)This weekend we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday, and today we honor the feast of Blessed Miguel Pro, who is known for his last words, uttered before a firing squad: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). As we reflect on Christ’s role as king within our own lives, Miguel Pro is an example to us of how we are to orient our hearts toward Christ above all else.

Miguel Pro lived in Mexico during a time of intense religious persecution. The secular government forbade all public worship, and as a Jesuit priest, Father Pro had to carry out his mission in secret. Disguised as a mechanic, an office worker, or a beggar, he administered the sacraments and served the poor. He was well aware of the dangers and knew that this mission would likely cost him his life, but he also understood that following Christ was what gave his life meaning in the first place. If it meant defying an unjust government, he would not hesitate; he would gladly lay down his life for the sake of Christ, who had died on the Cross for him.

In 1927, Father Pro was falsely convicted of an assassination attempt against President Calles and executed without trial. Intending to portray Pro as a coward, Calles sent a photographer to the execution. But this backfired, for the photo portrayed Father Pro as the saint he truly was: standing bravely with arms outstretched, embracing his cross and declaring Christ his king. The photo of his last moments, printed on the front page of newspapers throughout Mexico, galvanized the Cristeros, who were fighting against government persecution. His martyrdom was a powerful witness for Christ.

When our society contradicts the teachings of Christ, are we prepared to stand for what is right? Or are we ruled more by the common beliefs of the culture than by Christ Himself? Unlike Miguel Pro, we do not have to fear a firing squad for practicing our faith, but sometimes much lesser penalties—fear of being misunderstood, ignored, or ostracized—scare us away from allowing Christ to rule in every aspect of our lives. Let us pray to Blessed Miguel Pro to grant us his courage, that we may not allow the fear of how others may treat us to cloud our focus on Christ the King.


Image: Photograph of Miguel Agustin Pro, Mexican Jesuit, being executed by a firing squad in Mexico city, November 23, 1927 / PD-US

Parented by Gratuitous Love

There are many beautiful flowers in the nursery garden, but I am drawn at once to Baby M*.  Only a few weeks old, he is the smallest of all, weighing in at only 2.5 kilos—the equivalent of a small sack of flour with an extra tablespoon or two thrown in.  The list of his medical conditions is longer than he is.  He can do nothing for himself; only receive.

Abandoned at birth, he is without parents; even his name is a gift of the state.  Unlike the other children who reward my attention with laugher and hugs, Baby M lacks the strength even to smile.  He is too weak to suck from a bottle, and so a makeshift feeding tube helps to provide nourishment.  A colostomy bag compensates for his inability to digest and process food properly.  Even his cry is weak—unable to raise his voice, he raises plaintive eyes instead, and his tiny fist squeezes my heart.

*            *            *

Before holding this little one, I would wonder at the words of Jesus to Saint Faustina: “The greater the sinner, the greater his right to my mercy.”

Surely sin has no power, no rights.  But mercy is not about the power of the sinner, but the power of God’s love.  Our weakness draws and compels the heart of God.

“God doesn’t love the way human beings love. We love people because they’re attractive, funny, talented, rich, and powerful,” notes author Father Michael Gaitley.  “God loves us because we’re so weak, broken, and sinful.  God’s merciful love is like water that rushes to the lowest place.”2

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to Jericho, and we are told He “intended to pass through the town.”  But then Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and sinner, the Bernie Madoff of his day, is moved by the desire to see Jesus.  He too was small—so short of stature that he is unable to see Jesus because of the crowd—and so he climbs a tree to get a better look.

One can only wonder at what must have been an awkward sight, a grown man gawking from a sycamore tree.  But Jesus stops and looks up, and says “Zacchaeus come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

This desire of Zacchaeus that moves him to climb the tree to see Jesus, in turn moves Jesus, compels Him.  “I must stay at your house.”

The crowd is scandalized. “They began to grumble.”  Zacchaeus is a notorious sinner, a thief, one of the “bad guys”; he has not behaved in a way to earn God’s favor, he is not one of their own.  His smallness was not only physical. But Jesus explains the “must”: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.”

There is no recording of a preceding moral lecture by Jesus, no setting of prerequisites for His love.  Rather it is the invitation itself which causes Zacchaeus to hasten and “receive Him with joy.” It is the Encounter with Jesus which moves him to moral conversion: “Behold, half of my possessions Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I will repay it four times over.”

Moral behavior is not the prior condition for the love of God, but the consequence of it.  When we receive the unconditional love of God, we are freed to give it and to live it.  Yes—virtue is necessary; we cannot exempt ourselves from the laws of God.  But law is ultimately at the service of love.

It is our need and our desire which knock on the heart of God, which open the floodgates of His mercy.  There is nothing we can do to earn it; we can only accept or refuse it.

The church has always insisted on the right to baptize infants for this reason: all is gift.  We do not wait for proof of wisdom or virtue or even understanding.  We are parented by a love that is gratuitous, born of the goodness of God, not our own.

*            *            *

Baby M’s little heart is also weak, and it is clear from the beginning that his visit with us will be a short one.  And so we give him a special bath, and dress him in white, to prepare him to meet his Father.

On July 18th, his little body gives out, and he is transferred to a New Home, to be cradled in arms that will never let go.  And these days I ask for his help and intercession, that he might now assist me in my weakness.

Little saints, pray for us!

Baby Parenthood Finger Father Hand Love Mother

* Not his real name or initial

2 Father Gaitley explores this theme extensively in his highly recommended book, 33 Days to Merciful Love.  The quote cited is from this article: https://www.northtexascatholic.org/local-news-article?r=AGVJ9RUW3M

Image credit: (modified) from MaxPixel [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons