The Baby Who Changed Everything

Merry Christmas Eve, friends!

Last fall, I was blessed to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the more comical moments of the trip was the day we went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Our group made our way down the narrow stairs to the cave where Jesus was born. It was wall-to-wall people, everyone wanting to shove their way through to kneel down and kiss the 14-point star on the floor where our Savior was born (14 points representing the 14 generations leading up to Jesus).

Despite the crowds, I was in awe and humbled by the simple little cave, and I was hoping for a powerful moment with our Lord when it was my turn to kiss the place where Jesus first met the earth. As I knelt down in reverence, imagining how the shepherds felt as they came to see Jesus, one of the people behind me literally shoved me onto the star. I laughed a little to myself and whispered, “Sorry, Jesus,” as I kissed the star, hearing the security guard in the background yell, “HEY! Watch what you’re doing!” at the person who pushed me.

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Nativity Star
The picture of the 14-point star at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that I somehow managed to capture in the crowds.

Though it was anything but a “Silent Night” moment of prayer, there was still something so profound about all the people who so badly wanted to cram into the place where Jesus was born. In our lives, what lengths do we go to to seek our Lord? What do we let get in the way? If we were the shepherds, if we were the Wise Men from the East, would we have trusted and followed the star to find the Messiah? Sometimes we need other people to shove us face-to-face with God, to give us the extra push we need to get past our fear to say yes to Him.

The crowd in that cave in the Church in Bethlehem was perfectly reminiscent of the mess Jesus came into when He was born. He was born among animals and dirt, sin and shame. He didn’t wait until we were in a perfect place to come into the world. Better yet, God chose to send His only Son into the world as a baby boy, totally dependent on human beings just like you and me to care for Him.

Who doesn’t love a cute baby? What baby can’t melt a person’s heart? Jesus knew that sometimes we find God hard to relate to, hard to connect with. God not only took on human flesh to understand what it means to be human, but He became a little baby to go to any length to help us know and love Him more.

I’ve been praying the St. Andrew Novena, which Erin wrote about last month. The most impactful part of the prayer for me has been that it asks Jesus to pray for you and hear your intentions in the exact moment of His birth. How awesome is that, that God works outside of time and that is possible! So, friends, tonight, I encourage you to talk to baby Jesus. Really talk to Him. Delight in Him. Adore Him. Hold Him and rock Him. Bask in His love, His innocence as a precious baby boy. Give Him your whole heart and do not be afraid—after all, what could a baby do to hurt you? Let the baby who changed everything change you.

Blessed Christmas to you and your loved ones! God is with us!

Rejoicing in the Waiting

This Advent, I’ve discovered a newfound love for the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” There is such a richness and beauty to these words of yearning and aching for our Savior. Even just the word “O” at the beginning of each verse is filled with longing. In the chorus, the song instructs us to rejoice because God will come to save His people. This is important—songs like “Joy to the World” are about rejoicing because the Lord has come, but “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is about rejoicing in the waiting—waiting for Jesus’ second coming, waiting for an answered prayer, waiting for healing, waiting for God to show us where He is calling us to next—whatever it may be.

This third week of Advent, we are called to rejoice because we are *almost* to Christmas, not because we’ve already made it. We’re called to rejoice in the uncomfortability of waiting, of that in-between place. For some people, myself included sometimes, being close to the end of a season of waiting can bring more anxiety than joy because of the lingering voices of doubts and what ifs.

But God’s promises are true. The Lord is near, and when we trust that He will complete the good work He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6), how can we not rejoice?

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear the genealogy of Jesus, from Abraham all the way to St. Joseph. Fourteen generations of hopeful expectation, of messiness and imperfection, of striving to seek the Lord and listen to His will. When we look at the lives of the people in Jesus’ family tree in Scripture, we can see God’s hand at work bringing about His divine plan of salvation, though they may not have seen it at the time. But yet they trusted, and they rejoiced, even when things were hard. Infertility, betrayal, broken marriages, and war are just some of the trials that are found within Jesus’ ancestors. They were not immune to suffering, yet they rejoiced and trusted in God. Fourteen generations of the small and great surrenders of ordinary people to God’s will every day, all to fulfill His greatest work of our salvation.

There is the distinct difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is fleeting; joy is everlasting. Joy comes from being rooted in the truth that we are infinitely loved by God as His sons and daughters, that we are created in His image for a purpose, and that He will never forsake us, no matter what suffering we face. St. John Paul II said, “True joy is a victory, something which cannot be obtained without a long and difficult struggle. Christ holds the secret of this victory.” Joy comes from a place of steadfast trust in God, that no matter what, He is with us and is working for our good.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t know if this has been a difficult Advent season for you, or if things have been going well. I know for many this time of year is painful. But we can rejoice in the One who was, and is, and is to come—Christ our Savior.

Saturday night, I went to Adoration, and the church was dark except for candles that were lit and a spotlight on the monstrance. In the middle of the Holy Hour, the spotlight suddenly went out. But that did not mean that Jesus wasn’t there. He was still there, in the dark, even though it was hard to see Him. He was still there, loving us, calling us to seek Him, calling us to draw even closer. May we rejoice in the waiting and darkness of our own lives, confident that He is with us!

O Emmanuel, in our unsure journeys, we rejoice, secure in You. In whatever waiting we’re going through, we rejoice. We rejoice because You call us Yours. We rejoice in the gift of Your Incarnation. We rejoice in Your dying and rising for us. We rejoice that You are always sustaining us and never leave us. O come, O come, Emmanuel! Amen.

Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Today’s saint, St. John of the Cross, is known for his writings on the “dark night of the soul.” He was a man of prayer who was intimately close to God; however, he suffered a great deal throughout his life as he attempted to reform the Carmelite order. St. John, along with St. Teresa of Avila, sought to cultivate a way of life that fostered a greater closeness with God through prayer and sacrifice. They faced strong opposition, however, from those who did not want the Carmelites to change their ways. John was immersed in the experience of the Cross, facing imprisonment, unjust accusations, persecution, and abuse. For seeking to grow in holiness, he was treated like a criminal.

But John’s greatest legacy is not his initial zeal to reform the Carmelite order; rather, it is how he responded when his holy passion was met with censure and condemnation. He turned to poetry and prayer as a means of expressing the great sorrow he felt, and he began to reflect on how he could grow ever closer to Jesus through this experience of suffering. Faced with the bitter reality that even our purest, most faithful actions can be met with cruelty and indifference, and that bad things do, in fact, happen to good people, John refused to believe that God was not present in that darkness. He wrote of his experiences undergoing this dark night of the soul and how the light that dawned on the other end was brighter than anything he had experienced. By passing through the darkness, he came to know a more brilliant Light; by “dying to self,” he rose to new life. John assures us that while the spiritual life will bring suffering and pain, the dark night is not the end. It is preparing us for a greater glory to come.

How do we cultivate a real, lasting joy instead of the fleeting happiness that comes and goes with our ever-changing circumstances? Even when God is hidden to us—even, in fact, when we pass through a dark night of the soul—joy is ours for the taking. We struggle, of course, to have joy in times when we do not feel happy; but true joy is deeper than mere happiness. So what is this mysterious, profound joy that can transcend our outward emotions? It comes from God alone.

The saints exuded joy in every moment of their lives—even amidst intense suffering and grief. God wants us to have this unshakeable joy, too, to be sustained by His promises at every moment, come what may. When we are taken with the joy only God can provide, we know beyond any question that we are known and loved and deeply cherished by a Love that knows no bounds. He wants to sustain our flagging spirits with that boundless joy.

We cannot control our circumstances, but if we are deeply rooted in God’s Word and continue to remind ourselves of His promises, we will have a hope that endures beyond our earthly trials. The joy that remains will cause us to remain convinced of God’s presence and goodness, even as we walk through the deserts of life.

This weekend, we will light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreaths as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Most of Advent is a time of quiet preparation, putting everything in order as Christmas draws near, making our hearts ready to receive the Christ child. But this coming week we will focus on joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. The child has not yet arrived, but we are joyful and confident in His coming; even though we are yet in darkness, we celebrate the promise of the Light. We walk in the midst of darkest night, yet we cannot contain our joy—for the light has already dawned in our hearts.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.
—1 Peter 1:8

Desert Places

“Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” -Isaiah 35:6-7

My brother lives in Arizona, where they are currently enjoying the chilly winter temperature of 72°. A couple years ago, I went to visit him in June, when it gets to be a lovely 115°. One morning, we decided to go hiking in the beautiful desert mountains. We got up really early to beat the heat—well, to try to beat the heat, anyway.

As we were hiking, I kept saying that it didn’t feel that hot, even though it was. This was probably because my body associates heat with the sweaty, sticky humidity of New York summers.

It wasn’t until we got back to the car after our hike that I realized how thirsty I was. My throat was really dry, and I was definitely dehydrated.

Has your heart ever felt this way? Sometimes we go about our lives, thinking everything is fine, that we’ve got it, that we’re in control, and then we realize how much we are desperately aching for our Savior.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Or has your heart ever felt like the vast Arizona desert? Dry, cracked, parched, barren. Sometimes in seasons of desolation, pain, or mourning, we can feel like we are stuck in an endless desert. I’ve definitely had those moments of wondering when the drought would end and God would bring a long-awaited reprieve.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Jesus meets us in our desert places. He knows those seasons well. If you are feeling like you’re in a desert season right now, take heart. He is with you. And no matter how painful, lonely, or never-ending it seems, Jesus is bigger. And He is on the way.

There is a beautiful Japanese art form called kintsugi. The artist takes broken ceramics and puts them back together by filling the cracks and places where they broke with gold, turning the art into something even more strikingly marvelous.

kintsugi
Kintsugi art

When Jesus comes to fill in the cracks in our desert hearts, He does the same thing. He redeems our scars, wounds, and dry places by giving us the gift of His whole self and making our scars dazzle with His love.

Let Him fill you today, brothers and sisters.

Hope in the Darkness

And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
—Isaiah 29:18

Throughout this season of Advent, amid the cold and lingering darkness, we seek out light. We surround ourselves with flickering lights that gleam amidst the night, reminders of hope and beauty even in the darkest places. These lights help prepare our hearts to appreciate with awe and wonder the Light that was born out of darkness, in Bethlehem so long ago.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals two blind men who dared to believe that His powerful Light could permeate their deep, unending darkness. Even though they could not see Jesus, they knew that He was the Lord, for even when we cannot see the sunlight we can feel its rays upon us. They could sense, in Jesus’s presence, a sacredness that drew them in, so much so that they truly believed that He could heal them. By their faith in the impossible, their sight was restored.

Only with the light of faith can we see the world around us clearly. Without a sense of hope in God, we cannot understand our true purpose. Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when Mary was conceived without original sin. Out of the darkness of Eve came the luminous beauty of Mary, whose fiat made way for our redemption. Do we believe that God can open our eyes to see hope within the darkness? Do we trust that the Light will prevail, even when it seems hidden to us?

As the days grow shorter and shorter this Advent, may the candlelight enkindle within our hearts a hope that endures through the darkness.

The Perfect Christmas

A year ago, at the start of December, I was determined to create the perfect Christmas scene.  I would have the perfect Advent—peaceful and prayerful, preparing. I would have the perfect Christmas, having cleaned and decorated early, so that we could all relax, and enjoy Christmas as it Ought to Be.

The first Monday of Advent I opened the mail to find a medical bill that was supposed to have been $125 was in fact more than $5000.  My sister called to say that she had been laid off.  Of the two burners on our stove that still worked, one had become increasingly temperamental. And then suddenly I found myself with a project that would take every waking moment of December, preparing for more necessary renovations, including packing up all of my belongings (again) to change rooms.  It was chaos.

It was tempting to temper Christmas, to skip the presents again, maybe even the tree.  But something in me refused to bow to the chaos.  I was determined that we would have a “real” Christmas.  So I bought the full size tree, at full price (not waiting until the last minute to get the more frugal Christmas Eve special as we did in years past).  I bought a new stove, and took pictures as it gleamed perfectly—determined to keep it shiny and new.

There is no need to name names, or identify the culprit who decided to inaugurate the new stove with a dinner of ham and sweet potatoes.  I don’t need to tell you who, exactly, pierced ten sweet potatoes and cooked them directly on the oven rack without a pan to catch the oozing juices.

But when I saw the veritable sea of black char covering the bottom of the new oven, my niece issued a strong warning for That Person.  “You better leave when we do…Aunt Grace won’t say bad words in front of me, but she might if I’m not here anymore…!”

The next day was Christmas eve.  We managed to get the lights up, and the tree decorated, and the presents placed, by early afternoon.  It was cutting it a little close, but it was beautiful and we could actually sit down and enjoy it for a little while before Christmas Eve dinner.

“A little while” is relative.  It was probably about five minutes, before we heard a small pop.   It was probably a few seconds later, when someone said, for the second time in two days, “I smell smoke.”  This time it was coming from the perfect Christmas tree.

Thankfully, we were using a surge protector, which could be unplugged from the wall.  Thankfully, because the light plug had melted into the socket, rendering both lights and surge protector permanently unusable.  Thankfully, we caught the whole thing just before the whole tree went up in flames.

That night, when I went to bed in an unfinished room, half-painted, with only my bed and lamp, and the window cracked open in spite of the freezing temperatures to mitigate the paint fumes, I didn’t cry.  I laughed.  Because of course it was the perfect Christmas.

Because Christmas is the antithesis of the perfect setting.  It is about God coming down to meet us in the mess.  I had written already about this, on many occasions.  From a Holy Thursday (yes!) meditation a few years before:

And so I thought about that feeding trough full of hay. Not the sanitized one we see on Christmas cards and sing about in carols. But rather one that might be found in a real stable–with hay that is speckled with dirt and animal spittle, perhaps with tiny spiders crawling in it, heavy with the odor of other things that animals may do in a barn.

And I thought about how Mary took the First Born of Creation and placed him in that manger, that feeding trough, for all of us.

In my mind of course I wish to offer Him a more perfect room, one clean and spotless and welcoming.  But there is no other room. There will not be on this side of eternity.

I can only welcome Him into the mess that is Me, or turn Him away.

 

 

final tree

 

 

 

 

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”