The One Longed For And Yet Present

The One Longed For And Yet Present

The longing of God’s chosen people fills the Old Testament.

For generations they are waiting for God to redeem them, to restore their nation, and to enter into a new and lasting covenant with them. They tell their children and their children’s children about His mighty works and the promises God has made to them. While they don’t know how these promises will be fulfilled, they trust that they will be.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work and muse on all your mighty deeds….You are the God who works wonders, who have manifested your might among the peoples. With your arm you redeemed your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

Psalm 77:11-12, 14-15

For years I’ve viewed the birth of Christ as the end to their waiting and a fulfillment of their longing. All that they were waiting for was there, wrapped in flesh, lying in a manger. The King they were waiting for had come. We celebrate Christmas with that in mind: the Hope of the Nations is born and so we rejoice.

Yet this year I was filled with a recognition that one of the most important moments in human history happened and yet virtually nobody knew about it at the time. Similar to the quiet yet monumental yes at Mary’s Annunciation, the birth of Jesus took place in a relatively hidden way. Angels told some shepherds and wise men arrived from the east, yet as a whole, Israel was unaware of what was happening in their midst.

On the day after Christ’s nativity, they awoke….and didn’t know that anything was different than the week before. They still longed for a king and awaited the redemption of Israel. Yet He was there, the little King, already laboring to save them. When they gathered in the synagogue to pray, recalling the promises and the works of God, they did not know that the incarnate God was with them. As they provided work for St. Joseph, they did not know that it was the God-man who crafted and created alongside him.

Christ was living and working in the world and yet the world did not know it.

For thirty years, Christ was hidden. He lived the ordinary life of a son, a neighbor, a faithful Jew, and a carpenter. People laughed, worked, ate, prayed, talked, and experienced life with the God-man and did not know it. The One an entire nation longed for washed His feet to remove the dust, ate His mother’s food, and slept deeply after a day of laboring.

He was there, known and yet unknown.

Continue reading “The One Longed For And Yet Present”

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

On a plane ride a few weeks ago, I found myself seated next to the founder of a Protestant church. He laughed because he was sandwiched between two Catholics, a married man who had been in Catholic seminary for a little while on his right and me, a Catholic high school Theology teacher, on his left. The conversation was pleasant, but the pastor shared one thing that seemed rather significant to me. Although he founded and now pastors an extremely contemporary church, he said his personal prayer is quite liturgical. This point fascinated me because it spoke of the true desire for liturgy is woven into the fabric of our beings.

As humans, we are bound to worship, whether our focal point is God or something else varies for the individual.  Perhaps overly simplified, the liturgy is our communal worship, the traditional rites we follow to offer praise, thanksgiving, and supplication to God.  Of the various liturgies in the Catholic Church, the highest is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments.  Beyond the structure of this liturgy is the structure of the year.  Too often I take for granted the beautiful gift that is found in the yearly passing through the major points of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, I heard it said that in the Church’s wisdom she developed the liturgical year to satisfy mankind’s love of change and stability.  Having never before thought of it like that, I experienced a new perspective of something that had always been present in my life.  In delving into the rich rhythm of the liturgical year, I have discovered that the feasting and fasting, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary times, provide a healthy balance in life.  Since humanity often tires of the same thing, the Church moves us through different seasons to celebrate and recall the different parts of the mystery of Christ.  Yet constant change is difficult and so the seasons are cyclical, each new year of grace seeking to lead us deeper into these same mysteries of Christ but in a fresh way.

While the Gregorian calendar tells us a month is left of this year, the liturgical calendar is reminding us that a new year is close at hand.  Personally, I like that the two calendars that govern my life are slightly off-center.  It reminds me that I am in the world but not of it.  As a follower of Christ, it calls me to acknowledge that His grace should cause me to see the year in a different way since my sight is imbued with an otherworldly perspective.

With the Church in the first days of a new year, let us consider the gift of the changing liturgical seasons.

Advent: Waiting for Christ’s Coming

The year starts off in joyful anticipation. Joining our hearts and minds with the Israelites, we wait for the coming of the Messiah. Yet knowing that Jesus has already come and ascended, we wait for His Second Coming at the end of time. This pregnant season of waiting calls to mind St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:22-25.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We do not wait without a purpose. As parents of a newborn prepare for the child’s birth, so we make our hearts ready for Christ’s new birth into our hearts and our birth into eternal life. While Advent is culturally forgotten or seen merely as a time of wrapping presents and sending Christmas cards, it should cause us to remember that we need to make Him room, in our hearts and in our lives.

The best Advent I have ever had was the semester I took an Old Testament Scripture class in college. For months we made our way through salvation history, learning about the covenants that God repeatedly offered man and the ways humanity broke those covenants. We ended the semester with a unit on the prophets and, for the very first time, I encountered a taste of the longing that the Israelites must have experienced. Scripture passages that I had heard before were filled with a new life, a new pleading that God would send a Redeemer. While I knew the Savior had already come, I experienced the “wait” in a new way and thus experienced the joy of Christmas in a new way. Continue reading “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year”

Advent: What Lies Ahead

Advent: What Lies Ahead

In our culture’s mad rush to start the Christmas season, I am left feeling a bit Scrooge-like.  I like Advent.  The anticipation that gradually builds as candle after candle are lit on the Advent wreath adds to the beauty of Christmas when it finally arrives.  If we jump headlong into Christmas right after Thanksgiving, I believe we miss part of the joy of the season.  Waiting has a sweet longing to it and I want that sweetness for as long as I can have it.

As a child, I remember the eagerness as I would watch the presents beneath the tree grow as time passed.  My younger sister and I would check to find the ones with our names and then try to analyze what was inside.  It was tempting to tear the wrapping off, but we didn’t.  The soft, foldable presents were obviously clothes.  Yet the ones in boxes?  Those were unidentifiable.  We would give them a light shake and then simply wonder about what lay nestled inside for us to discover.  The waiting was half the fun.  Even if I wanted to figure out what the present was before Christmas (my competitive nature desired to win), I also wanted to be surprised.

I won’t argue that I’m extremely patient, however I appreciate waiting for something good.  When I get my mail, I am excited if I find a letter from a friend or a package that I ordered.  Yet I generally open the less fun things first, allowing the excitement and longing for the most desired thing to build.  After trick-or-treating at Halloween when I was a kid, I tried to eat my least favorite candies first, saving the best for last.  Even now, I often find myself saving a bite of the best part of the meal for the end, as if to end the meal on a good note.  Waiting doesn’t change the contents of the letter or the taste of the food, but it seems to add a bit of sweetness as I anticipate what is to come. Continue reading “Advent: What Lies Ahead”

Captivated By a Baby

Captivated By a Baby

He is only five, but he seemed fixated by the scene unfolding before him.  A mother of a newborn baby girl was gently unzipping the covering, unfastening the safety restraints, and then cradling the baby in her arms.  My nephew is five years old, but he watched this all attentively.  It was at Christmas morning Mass and so I could not help but be struck by the fact that the attention was focused on a baby.

My nephew didn’t say anything as he watched this all unfold and I doubt he reflected on it later.  But it seemed fitting to me that such close attention was being paid to one in the same position that Christ Himself was in nearly two thousand years ago.  A baby, small and frail, cradled in the arms of a mother.

Jesus, though God, was fully human.  The arrivals of shepherds and wise men were most likely events by which He was unconcerned.  At birth, babies can typically see the 8-10 inches between their faces and their parents’ faces but not further.  So as Mary and Joseph are pondering the shepherds that came to kneel before their son, He is simply gazing into the face of His mother.   Continue reading “Captivated By a Baby”

Maranatha!

Maranatha!

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  (The Summer Day, Mary Oliver)

We are on the brink of something new and something old.  Hundreds of years have passed since the birth of Christ and yet we have never before been in this place, at this time, with these graces being offered.  What will we do with it all?

Never again will I be right where I am right now.  And part of me rejoices that this will not always be my lot because I eagerly look forward to the future.  I want my life to change and be different than it is now.  Yet in some future day, I may look back at right now and realize only then all that was good about this time.  I do not want it be that way–I want to, right now, recognize the blessings of this moment, subtle though they may seem to my slow heart.

How is Christ being born into my life this day?  How is He striving to shake up the world I’ve known for twenty-six years and say, “Behold, I am doing something new”?  The graces He offers me today are not the same graces offered yesterday or the day before.  They are always new.  Jesus doesn’t offer left-overs, but rather He offers what is most fitting for the moment.  He only ever offers the best to us.

In a special way, Christ is offering the gift of His birth this weekend.  I cannot go to Bethlehem and see Him be born, but I can experience His birth in my life.  Scripture is living and effective.  It is not a nice story from hundreds of years ago, but rather it is a living reality now.  How am I the innkeeper, refusing room to Jesus?  How am I a shepherd, kneeling before a king yet uncertain of what He is asking of me?  How am I St. Joseph, following the promptings of the Lord when He speaks to me?  How am I the wise man, leaving home in search of a king for my life?   Continue reading “Maranatha!”

A Moment of Encounter

Yesterday, I got out of school and brushed the half foot of snow off my car.  I went home and helped my housemate finish up shoveling the driveway and sidewalk.  Last night, after taking out the trash, I paused under the awning and took in the winter portrait that was painted before me.  It was cool, but without our customary wind, it was nice out.  An icy finger had touched the world, leaving trees outlined in silver and the streets glistening with custom-designed flakes.

Winter, I thought, is quite beautiful.

Then I took a few steps and entered my house, where I could view the frozen art from the ease of a comfortable chair.  In those few steps, though, a thought came to me.

It doesn’t feel that cold because I have a home, right here, that I can step into.  I don’t mind the cold today because I’ve spent very little time in it.  If I were homeless, that wouldn’t be the case.

For yet another time in the past week, I considered again difficulties of homelessness.

Homelessness is never something I have seriously feared.  In fact, it was within the past couple years that I realized that I’ve never even considered it to be a fear I could have.  I live in a rented house shared with other young women and I have a job that pays the bills and loans I’ve accumulated.  Yet I’ve always known that even if I lost everything I own, I could always move back home.  Through the years, as my siblings and I have grown up, we have found it necessary or best to sometimes move home for a while.  We’ve all taken advantage of it, for varying lengths of time.  So if I got sick, lost my job, was in an accident, or something devastating happened, I know I would be able to seek the refuge of my parents’ house.

At the time that I was having this not-profound realization, I thought about how others don’t have that support system.  What if I was all I truly had?  What if I didn’t have parents that were able or willing to help me through rough times?  What if I had no siblings or extended family that would let me crash on their couch or put me up for a while as I sorted through my life?  The result of these thoughts was immediate anxiety and fear.

In the summer of 2014, I walked the Camino de Santiago.  It was 500 miles across northern Spain and I carried all my possessions on my back for just over a month.  While it was a beautiful experience, I was sometimes frustrated to always be packing up my things and moving to some place new.  I didn’t have a home and I found myself wanting to spend two nights in the same place.  Over half way through the walk, it happened when we stayed at a Benedictine pilgrim house.  What a joy it was to leave our packs in our room and roam the town, knowing we would be sleeping in the same place that night and didn’t have to carry our packs that day.

Homelessness is not like that experience.  It often doesn’t include a bed or a mat to sleep on.  You aren’t stopping for a mid-morning cafe con leche or a sit-down lunch on a leisurely day.  There is no communal cooking with lots of wine flowing into the evening.  There isn’t the knowledge that if something goes wrong, you can use your VISA or ATM card to pull you through the dilemma.

In a minuscule way, I understood the struggle of not having a place of one’s own.  I felt a desire to have roots, to remain in one place with a familiar system and order.  I understood not having the luxury of a car and using only my feet to get everywhere, even after a long day of walking.

But, in all reality, I have no idea what it would mean to be homeless.

Last week, I went to help decorate a homeless shelter.  I had little concerns and fears as I walked in, but mostly I found myself frustrated for feeling so awkward.  It is far easier to write a check and donate to an organization rather than to encounter the homeless in the flesh.

“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus.”     -Pope Francis

I was embarrassed to feel out of sorts and out of place.  Instead, I wanted to just interact with the guests as though they were ordinary people.  Mentally, I couldn’t help but note the disparity between our lives.  My inconvenience of a cool basement bedroom was utterly ridiculous in the face of the cold outdoors as a bedroom.

And I did a laughably small thing: I decorated the kitchen and helped bend the branches of a fake Christmas tree.

There was a man washing dishes in the kitchen.  He noticed my arrival and would look over at me every now and then, making a little small talk as I worked.  Internally, I was kicking myself for not being able to think of any good questions to ask him.  I would comment on how many trips he made to get dirty soup bowls and he would comment on me struggling to, once again, find the end of the roll of tape.

Finally, I was stringing up the last bit of garland and he said, “You should have brought your boyfriend to help you.”  I laughed, probably blushed a bit, and said, “Well, if I had one, I would have brought him.”  He said he was surprised “a pretty girl like you” didn’t have a boyfriend.  I laughed and said, “I’m still young, though, right?”  (My one semi-consolation.)  He said I was, but that he was alone, too.

Then, he did it.  He opened a bit of his heart up to me, someone he didn’t even know.

“My wife died.  It was three years ago.  She died three days after Christmas.”

And, suddenly, this wasn’t a man doing dishes at a homeless shelter, but he was a man with real struggles and pain.  He wasn’t looking for sympathy and he didn’t elaborate with a story.  I didn’t ask him to, either.  Instead, I told him I was sorry and said it must be very difficult.  In a warm kitchen with crumbs on the counters and the heavy aroma of chili, I met a stranger concretely in a brief sharing of the heart.

After leaving the kitchen, I went to the entry way to help finish setting up the trees.  Guests from the shelter kept walking by and I wanted to be certain to greet them with a smile, if I could.  Because it would have been too easy to just ignore their presence.  Excuse me, please.  Carry along.  We are setting up these trees for you, but we don’t want to actually interact with you.  So I would smile as they walked past or move out of the way if they were trying to pass by.  In many ways, it was easier to focus on the task at hand (setting up Christmas decorations) than to remember the underlying reason for all of it (the homeless who would be staying there).  I tried to force myself to remember this central reason, rather than obsess over the exact angle of the ribbon on the tree.

Once again, I felt a smallness.  Yet, once again, I felt a desire to do more.  What if I did more than set up a tree?  What if I volunteered far more of my time?  Not to the idealized homeless person in my mind, but to the actual homeless people that I would encounter.  In the midst of their hardship, I want to bestow upon them all kinds of virtues that aren’t necessarily there.  I expect gratitude and humility and kindness.  But why would I expect it more from them than from my students or co-workers?  Rather than set them on a pedestal, I want to concretely encounter them.  In the midst of their brokenness, their chaos, their efforts, and their failures.  Because that is humanity.  They have stories and lives and I choose not to romanticize them because they are real people.

I don’t know how these desires will be lived out, but I want to pursue them.  It is not enough to feel sorry for the idea or concept of homelessness.  Each of these people staying at the shelter and each person I encounter daily, has the face of Christ, if I have the grace to see it.  We are all on the quest for a true home, walking toward the Heavenly kingdom much like I made the trek to Santiago de Compostela: day by day, carrying only what is necessary, walking even if we don’t want to, and journeying to a place that will justify all our suffering and wipe away every tear.

What other homeless pilgrim will you meet on the way today?  Whose face will they have?