Christmas is Worth Waiting For

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord

Merry Christmas!

Today’s Christmas. Today is probably one of my favorite days of the whole year aside from my birthday. And it’s perhaps providential that it’s my very first Frassati reflection, coming right off the very end of Advent and into this wonderful Christmas season. It is also perhaps providential (no, it most certainly is no coincidence!) that today’s publication of my very first Frassati reflection comes right off what has been a very difficult three months for me. Without divulging much here, the past 90 or so days have been among the most difficult in my entire life. Three months ago, I made the decision to leave my PhD program, completely unaware and uncertain as to what the next step of my life would be come the end of this semester. I had prayerfully discerned, during this past fall Frassati retreat, that it was God’s will that I do indeed leave my PhD program, circumstances notwithstanding. Suffice to say, the past three months have been very trying, emotionally and physically. Academia, and completing a PhD, had represented my hopes and dreams for the past 10 years. I knew little else, career-wise. (I had been in and out of grad school for the past five years and had never held a “normal” 9 to 5 job.) 

Often, we all hit a roadblock in the lives we so try to meticulously plan. I know I certainly thought I had my life planned. I then pondered, and asked God, “Ok, God, now what? I’m waiting.” I often thought to how Our Lady must have thought, “How can this be?” when she was told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the Christ, the Word Incarnate (Luke 1:34). “How can this be?” rang often in my prayers, late at night. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on for a while, especially after I felt and knew it was God’s will I be admitted into my PhD program 2.5 years ago. April 15th, 2017, was one of the most joyous days of my life: it was the day I learned I was being admitted into my PhD program, and at my dream program. I now look back on that day with mixed feelings, but I am grateful to the Lord for the knowledge and experience I have gained. But like Our Lady trusted, so should I. True, bearing the Light of The World isn’t quite the same as allowing God to lead you on a different career path, but the sentiment is all the same. Trust. And I felt over and over in prayer, Go to Him.

December 13th was the very last day of my PhD program. I have now resigned myself to never becoming a college professor, never obtaining a PhD, and I am allowing Christ to radically lead me elsewhere. As the saying goes, I am allowing “Jesus to take the wheel.” It ain’t a Carrie Underwood song, it’s life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the midst of all this, my faith was the rock of my entire being and my eyes were ever so planted onto Our Lord. I was waiting. I’m still waiting. I’m still trusting. Today’s Christmas. Most people around us have been hurrying around looking for the perfect gift until the very last minute, waiting in line shopping at Macy’s well past 11pm, putting up decorations, frantically writing Christmas cards, getting stuck in traffic, and planning parties and dinners. We may have been one of those people, too. I know that sometimes I get lost it in all too. (I’m told I overgift and that I go overboard with party planning. I am also told that I can be more wordy than necessary.) It is easy to lose sight of the true significance of this season. 

This entire season, leading up to today, is meant to have been one of joy and hope, of preparation, and of waiting patiently for the coming of the Lord. It is not only about the past, but also very much about the present and the future. I know I won’t be defined by the past, and that I won’t be defined by any lack of ranks, degrees, or titles. I am a follower of Christ and Lay Dominican first, and everything else is secondary.

When I think back to my most recent disappointment with my PhD, I’m reminded that Christmas should be seen as a time for us to step back and take in the deep and rich meaning of this sacred event. We must see, first, that God became the Word Incarnate, that He entered our own human condition, and, in doing so, is able to identify with all that we experience in life. All our joys. All our disappointments. God understands human life! He lived it. God humbled himself in the most profound way so that we would come to know Him and His perfect love for us. The angel Gabriel told Our Lady, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30). Do we step back and look to Our Lord? And when we do so, are we afraid?

Despite what may come, despite anything that has happened this past season, do not be afraid to come and behold the Christ who came as your savior. This past Advent season we have been reminded over and over that Advent is a time of waiting. But it’s now Christmas. We are often waiting for God to literally come to us. (God also speaks in His silence, but that’s another reflection.) We celebrate His birth just like that of any one of us—offering prayers, eating, drinking and making merry. We celebrate his coming into the world, but we often do not welcome Him into our hearts and lives. And we so often get away from Him in such times of trial and tribulation. I know the more and more I struggled these past few months, the more and more I deeply held onto Our Lord.

Amidst our celebrations this Christmas, let us pause a while to look around us to recognize that Jesus was born into the world two thousand years ago. The Incarnation is the very incarnation of hope itself. The Son of God comes Incarnate to fulfill the hope of the People of Israel. He is among us in every person and in every trial and tribulation we encounter in our lives. Whatever has happened to you this past season, Go to Him, have hope, and rejoice in His birth.

Not Dumb Forever

“God wounds only to heal.” His eyes were filled with compassion, as he spoke these mysterious words. Moments ago, this priest had told me that God was going to answer my prayer for joy (fulfilled first here); now he seemed to be promising pain.

What did this mean? I had been taught that even God’s punishments are mercy. However, in reality I regarded this a bit cynically, calling to mind the joke about the ambulance driver who runs over a pedestrian and then proclaims, “Isn’t it great that I am here to save you!”

I was thinking about this later, when I (foolishly) walked across the deck of the beach house barefoot, thereby acquiring one of the largest splinters I have ever seen in the ball of my foot. It was unspeakably large, and unspeakably painful. It was baffling how it managed to get in, because there was no hole by which to extract it. The only way to remove the splinter was to cut into my foot. As I painfully pierced my skin to get at the splinter, I thought about the mysterious ways of God.

In today’s Gospel Zechariah is told, “Your prayers have been heard!” This gift of a son is not a random bequest from the Almighty, but a specific answer to Zechariah’s prayer. And yet he doubts the possibility that his prayer is being answered.

And because he doubts, he is punished.

Or is he? Zechariah is struck dumb, literally, rendered speechless for the next nine months. One can only wonder at what was wrought in that silence. What did he think, as he watched his aged wife’s burgeoning belly? What wonder filled his mind as he placed his hand over her womb, felt the quickening and kicking of the prayed-for-son growing beneath her heart?

He must have gone back over that day a thousand times, not just the angel’s words but what had come immediately before. How it fell to him by lot the honor of approaching the holy of holies, to offer the incense on behalf of all of Israel. How with the incense rose the prayers and longings of countless generations for freedom and redemption. Could it be that God could, would, answer these prayer, too?

In the silence it is God who speaks, God who acts. In the silence, we come to know God’s Word.

What kind of God did Zechariah believe in?

Zechariah, abruptly silenced, was forced to let God get a Word in edgewise. And as he was stilled by silence, he was schooled in the lessons of faith, of hope, of trust in the goodness of God. These are the weapons of life in the desert. These hard-won lessons would be instilled in young John the Baptist. Even in the desert, God provides. Even in the desert, God is good. Even in the desert, God’s promises are being fulfilled.

We know that life grew within Zechariah, too, because when speech returns, he prophecies with joy, about the mission of his son, about the “tender compassion of our God.” Discouragement and doubt have given way to trust in the Promise.

Ultimately, the answer to his prayer and mine, is the same: Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

Fra Angelico Zechariah

Image: Fra Angelico The Naming of John the Baptist

 

Waiting, Groaning, Hoping

Happy Advent, dear friends!

This beautiful season of Advent goes far beyond twinkling lights and perfect Nativity scenes. if we let God really speak to us this Advent, we are pointed back to the aches on our hearts, to our need for a Savior.

Sometimes things about this season seem so perfect and cozy and cute that we forget that Jesus took on human flesh to burst into our world, into our mess…and for our mess. If everything was right, we wouldn’t need a Savior. And how much we do.

How is your heart in need of redemption and restoration this Advent? I feel that all of us have things on our hearts, sometimes buried deep, that are places of aching, longing, and waiting. Maybe you’re waiting for a new job, aching for a vocation, or hoping for good news for that next medical test result from a loved one. Maybe you’re in a season of feeling overwhelmed and not enough. Maybe you’ve given up on praying about something.

Whatever it is, you’re not alone. In St. Paul’s Letter the Romans, he writes about how all of creation groans awaiting redemption (Romans 8:22-23). Bring it to our Savior. And have hope.

I will say it again, have hope! Jesus is here to save. He came into our world with a face, with a beating heart, and with a voice to speak: “I’m here. Be made well.”

We can enter into this Advent with expectant faith, entrusting each ache of our heart to our Savior. God never fails to come through, and He loves you through it all. Advent is a season for reawakened hope, because we are reminded that Jesus comes to meet us over and over again, that He’s constantly entering into our lives with His relentless love to heal, to restore, to redeem, and to hold us in His tender Heart.

For further reflection on this theme, check out this beautiful Advent song by the Vigil Project!

The Very Wine of Blessedness

“Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
serve the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful song.”
—Psalm 100:1–2

Almost nine months ago, we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which commemorates when Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Having journeyed through many liturgical seasons since then, we are now quickly approaching her nativity on September 8. What a day of great joy that must have been for her parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, for “a woman’s greatest joy is when she brings a child into the world” (Sheen). What a day of great joy it should still be for us, the beloved children of Mary, though we live in a very different world.

From the start, “the melody of [Mary’s] life [was] played just as it was written,” Fulton Sheen writes. Blessed among women and prepared from conception to receive the Lord, she heard the song of Christ, the very Word of God, and observed it, singing back with all her heart. Her fiat began with the Annunciation, continued in the Visitation, and lasted her whole life, even when her heart was pierced by a sword of sorrow. As St. Louis de Montfort says, “Mary is of all creatures the one most conformed to Jesus Christ.” Her own immaculate heart—taken, blessed, broken, and shared with us, much like her son’s—remains perfectly in the sacred heart of her son, the true bridegroom and the new Adam.

Mary is the new Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, chosen by God to be the vessel through which Christ comes into the world. She is “the new wineskin brimming with contagious joy,” Pope Francis writes, as we hear in today’s Gospel. “Her ‘contagious fullness’ helps us overcome the temptation of fear, the temptation to keep ourselves from being filled to the brim and even overflowing, the temptation to a faint-heartedness that holds us back from going forth to fill others with joy.” Her joy is already complete in her son, but it overflows to the children given to her at the foot of the cross. She always leads us to her son and longs for us to remain in his love, to bring us home to heaven, so that our joy may be complete in him for all eternity.

The days have come when the bridegroom has been taken away from us. Jesus has ascended into Heaven, Mary has been assumed after him, and we remain here, “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” We fast, we pray, and we long to see the source of our love face to face, even as we adore him in the Blessed Sacrament. For now, our joy, as Lewis describes it, “is never a possession… [it is] always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” But, when we remain with him in silence, pondering these things as Mary did, he sings to us and makes us into new wineskins, ready to receive him and those he sends us. Over time, “[our] hearts, wounded with sweet words, [overflow], and [our] joy [becomes] like swords, and [we pass] in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness” (Tolkien). Our hearts become new creations in Christ, ready at last to pass from death to life.

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

 

Reading Suggestions
De Montfort, True Devotion to Mary
Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Sheen, The World’s First Love
Tolkien, The Return of the King

Preparing for Our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ!

A wedding is always something to get excited about: the decorations, the colors, the splendor of the Church, the bride’s dress, the groom’s smile watching her walk down the aisle. So much thought and dedication goes into planning a wedding. I have been a bridesmaid quite a few times and the excitement in seeing my friends get married is always the same, an abundance of joy, blessings and love.

In the time of Jesus, first-century Palestine, a couple was betrothed (legally married) for a period of about a year, and during this time the bride still lived at home with her family. After this period of betrothal the wedding feast would begin at sundown, when the bridegroom would go to pick up the bride from her family’s home and take her to their new home. Customarily, family and friends would come out of their homes and congratulate the newlywed couple as they passed by on the streets. Many would follow the couple in a procession of celebration through the streets to their new home and partake in the wedding feast together. This procession was guided by maiden torchbearers (bridesmaids!) as the crowd danced and sang around the newlyweds. Imagine it being the pitch darkness of nighttime, in first-century Palestine, and the one thing that guides you is this glowing light towards a feast.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us a parable about the ten virgins: five wise virgins with oil and five foolish virgins without oil, all of whom were waiting for the bridegroom to come to pick up his bride so they could celebrate and light the way in their procession. For some unknown reason the bridegroom was delayed and all ten virgins fell asleep waiting for him. When he unexpectedly came, the five foolish virgins realized that their flame was low and they would not be able to keep it lit as they did not prepare and pack oil. So they left to go buy some. In the meantime, the bridegroom arrived and the five wise virgins, who packed oil, were fine in relighting their lamps and joining the procession following the bridegroom to the wedding feast. By the time the foolish virgins came back with oil and made their way to the bridegroom’s home, the door was locked and they were not a part of the wedding feast.

That one line in scripture, “then the door was locked” (Matthew 25:10), really pangs at my heart. There is a clear distinction here on who enters the kingdom and who does not. As much as we focus on details and get ready for our friend’s earthly wedding, we must make all the effort to prepare for our own true wedding with Jesus Christ. Be prepared. Bring oil. What does this oil represent? It represents us living the faith, being true to our baptismal promises, celebrating and practicing the sacraments, praying, loving one another, doing good works of mercy. We are all in a state of waiting for our bridegroom to arrive; as Christians we have been waiting for over 2,000 years for the second coming of Jesus Christ. But we don’t know the exact day nor the hour when Jesus Christ will come again. So make sure you pack your oil. All ten virgins had intentions of going to the wedding feast and all ten virgins were waiting for the bridegroom, but only five virgins had oil, and so only five virgins were ready to follow him into the wedding feast.

In the first reading, St. Paul tells us that we should conduct ourselves in a manner that is pleasing to God. And the instructions on how to live a holy life were given through our Lord Jesus. Before Jesus had told us this parable of the ten virgins, he taught us on the Sermon on the Mount. He told us to be the light of the world; our light must shine before others in such a way that they see our good deeds and glorify our Heavenly Father. In order to be this light and remain a burning flame, we must have a flask of oil and continue in a course of action, even in the face of difficulties, to commit to doing good works willed by the Father.

“This is the will of God, your holiness”

For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness.” Through God’s grace we are given every opportunity to continue in good works and so I pray that each of us are overjoyed, excited and well prepared for our own bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and our own nuptials in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Image Credit: 10 Virgins Icon [Public Domain]

Not for a Minute was I Forsaken

Today’s readings are filled with God’s faithfulness—Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven and God’s promise to never leave him, the healing of the woman who suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years, and the raising of the synagogue official’s daughter.

God, in His infinite goodness and faithfulness, will not leave us in our mess, in a place of hurt, or in a sea of confused unknowns forever. God desires to deliver us. God desires to show us the way. All He asks for is our hearts, for our continual trust and surrender along the way.

It can be tempting to give into despair in the waiting, in the seasons of in-between. We can feel like God is holding out on us. We can feel like He’ll never come through. But the truth is that God is always on the move; He is always at work for our good. The woman with the hemorrhages waited for twelve years, trying every doctor to no avail while remaining an outcast of society for being considered unclean. However, despite all of that, she remained hopeful in the Lord, knowing that if she could just touch His cloak, she would be healed. Jesus came through in the best possible way for her—it wasn’t a doctor that healed her, it was God Himself who came to meet her on the road to heal her directly. She got to be healed through touching the clothes of the Son of the Living God, through letting His loving gaze pierce through her shame, her feelings of being forgotten, invisible, and hated. And I’m sure she would tell us now that the twelve years of waiting were more than worth it for her face-to-face encounter with our Savior.

In today’s first reading, when Jacob wakes up from his dream, he exclaims, “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). The Lord is in your spot, too, whether you realize it or not. He has never abandoned you nor forsaken you. He is in your place, your season, working and active—whether you are waiting or rejoicing, overwhelmed or stuck.

We can place our hope in Him. He has never forgotten you or the wondrous plans He has for your life. He is in this place, and He wants to meet you in it.

“Not for a minute was I forsaken // The Lord is in this place // The Lord is in this place // I’m not enough, unless You come // Will You meet me here again?” –“Here Again” by Elevation Worship

Living the Ellipses

“Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can.” God invites Abram to faith in today’s First Reading. We’ve all marveled at the night sky, contemplating its vastness and the twinkling of bodies light-years away. But some scholars suggest that it may have been daytime when God directs this upward gaze. Did Abram looking up see the stars with his eyes, or only with memory and faith? In any case, he is asked to envision a promise of progeny too numerous to be counted.

Only Abram has no son. Not even one. So he must wait on a promise.

He waits and waits, and he must have wearied of waiting. For Genesis recounts how Sarah, infertile, offers him her maid Hagar for childbearing purposes. Abraham “listens to the voice” of Sarah, notes Father Anthony Giambrone, a clue that this is not the voice of God, to be listened to with faith1. But Abraham becomes a father to Ishmael. When Abraham asks that Ishmael be the promised son, God reiterates that Abraham will have a son through Sarah, a child of their marriage. Isaac is named laughter because that is Sarah’s reaction.

But let us stop for a moment, to revisit the waiting years. What takes only paragraphs to recount, is a story of waiting more than twenty-five years, fifteen before Ishmael, ten more before Isaac.

What?

For twenty-five years Abraham is schooled in faith. In trust. In waiting on God.

In filmmaking this is known as ellipsis—the merciful passing over the monotonous by skipping from one scene to another much later. Years of sameness, of routine, of waiting, are skipped with a simple slugline: “Twenty-five years later…” We needn’t slog through the tedium of in-between.

But real life, real holiness, is lived in the ellipses.

Hillsong’s recent release Highlands (Song of Ascent), speaks of finding God not only on the mountain but in the valleys and the shadows. “I will praise you on the mountains…I will praise you when the mountain’s in my way.” While we would scale any mountain to find God, He is closer than we think, as the song reminds us, “in the highlands and the heartache all the same.”

We are reminded to find God in the peaks and the valleys, to “sing in the shadows our song of ascent.” For many of us, however, the hardest part is not so much the mountains or valleys, but rather the plain. Plain as in flat, going nowhere, and plain as in boring. Nothing interesting or exciting. No obvious meaning or mission.

Abraham became our father in faith not just in a heroic moment with Isaac on Mount Moriah. He became our father in faith in the years of ellipses when nothing notable happened. When it seemed God was asking nothing, doing nothing.

Saint Josemaría Escrivá, whose feast we celebrate today, preached about sanctifying the everyday. Like Saint Therese, he realized that the making of saints was not in the mountains but in the mundane. Offering little things to God. Offering the littleness that is us.

Josemaría challenges us to offer the material of daily life: the office grind, the homemaker’s chores, everything from our conversations to our recreation to our family or community life. Something as simple as filing papers, done well and with love, becomes an offering to God.

We often think of saints as those who did great things for God, and certainly we can find many heroes among them. But so many were ordinary people in whom God was allowed to do great things, sanctifying simple work and waiting in the ellipses.

Even Our Lady, now Queen of the Universe, was not asked to do anything of itself out of the ordinary. She was asked to bear and raise a Child. Joseph, her husband, was told by an angel to take her into his home. She was not asked to go out, to preach, to sacrifice her own life as a martyr, or to start a new blog or brand. Her tasks were those of an ordinary woman of her time. What is extraordinary is that she did them with a total yes.

Jesus, too, lived the ellipses. For thirty years, He lived a quiet life of obedience, a life so outwardly unremarkable that when He began His public ministry, even His own relatives thought He was mentally ill. Offended onlookers from His hometown said, “Isn’t that the son of Joseph, the carpenter?”

It is this Jesus who today walks with us, in the tedium and trials of the plains, inviting us to join Our Lady in a Song of Assent.

Milky Way for Ellipses


Notes:

1Giambrone O.P., Anthony. “Forbidden Fruit and the Fruit of Faith.” Magnificat. June 2019: pp.403-404. Print.

Featured Image: Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash