In Silence This Advent

Quietly, I sneak out of bed in the dark hearing the drops of rain pitter upon our rooftop and the slosh of puddles divided by passing cars. It is five in the morning. Yesterday I told myself perhaps I would have to wake this early to find that elusive state I dreamt of, the one so key to a season like Advent: silence.

Quietly, I gather my laptop and phone and latch the door that separates the living spaces from the sleeping spaces, tightening my jaw in the prayer that the eager kitten outside does not begin meowing at the first sign of light from our living room lamps. In the dark, I plug in the Christmas tree. The soft glow of blue lights from our blue and silver Christmas tree decorations illuminates the room of comfy furniture and scattered books. Softly, I settle by the lamp that will give enough light to see and work.

All is quiet.

Success.

I sit down, laptop in hand, and open the day’s doings. It feels good to reconnect with work, with the calendar, with the to-do list after a week of family-focused hustle and holiday fare. It was a glorious holiday filled with a delicious menu, efficient planning, friends and new acquaintances. It was a time to stop pushing, stop worrying, and just be with the family, letting the pruned branches lay where they will as the water and mud expanded the earth of our backyard.

I catch my breath as I hear a stirring in the hallway. The moments are short; I must make the most of them.

Emily P. Freeman emailed her seasonal “What I Learned This…” feature for Fall.

What did I learn?

I learned my limitations. I learned how to work within my limitations. And then I learned my limitations again.

As Thanksgiving transitioned all too quickly to Advent, I am faced with the well-known reality that grief creeps up where it wills. Turning away will not help, we must face it, lean into it, and discover what there is here, what task of grief must be addressed this season, in order to find any peace. The horizons expand. I pen a presentation for St. Mary’s in Oakdale. In a Brooklinen tote, I gather my Advent resources. One should do it and yet I have five.

Resting at midday on the couch on Sunday, I comb through each one, looking for a connection, hoping for some justification for their numerous quantity. In these weeks leading up to Christmas, with most of the shopping done, I want to seek hope; I want to seek silence.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Perhaps I can commit to a little each day: a little reflection, a little reading, a little quiet.

I say to my children on the way to mass, “you want me to be a good mother right? To be a good mother I must be able to be quiet and pray.” My oldest is nine and still, I have not learned this lesson.

A resource by writer Sarah Damm

encourages me to reflect on my goals and priorities this season leading up to Christmas. What is most important to me? What do I hope to gain spiritually? What traditions bear repeating within my family?

And let go of the rest.

She offers a list.

Cards. I do not really want to write these, send them. A stack of thank-you cards sit on my desk from a month ago, penned by a nine and seven-year-old. They are still here only because I have failed to look up the addresses.

Yes, let’s forget about cards this year.

When we give ourselves permission to let go of it all, we find there are those things we want to hold onto. But instead of burying them in a pile of obligations, we can anticipate them, then savor them, then reflect on them as good things we did.

What are your goals these weeks leading up to Christmas?

What is it time to let go of, without guilt or regret, because it only robs the family of peace (even if Pinterest, family history, and the blogosphere tell you not to)?

What does your heart ache to see again, hold and rest in?

Let the rain and chill outside slow you down. Let the store ads sit neglected. Look to your heart and the hearts of those around you….and decide, in a moment silence, what to do this Advent.

Photo by Zoran Kokanovic on Unsplash

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch

Waiting for Marshmallows

The Marshmallow Test

Photo by Rebecca Freeman on Unsplash

In 1972, Stanford professor Walter Mishel conducted a study in which a child was offered the choice between a marshmallow right away or two marshmallows if they waited until the researcher came back in fifteen minutes. 

Researchers followed up with children thirty years later. The first twenty seconds of the waiting period during the experiment was telling. Those children who held out for the bigger reward, delaying gratification, tended to have better life outcomes as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index and other life measures. 

2018 study by Tyler Watts of NYU and Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan of UC Irvine replicated the earlier experiment, demonstrating that for kids who held out for the larger treat, self-control alone couldn’t predict future outcomes. As Jason Collins, who holds a Ph.D. in Economics and Evolutionary Biology, explains, the reason may not be the problem-solving strategies originally believed, but rather, socioeconomic status, parental characteristics and a set of measures of cognitive and behavioral development were greater predictors.

Marshmallows cannot predict our child’s outcomes, but the actual upbringing has a significant effect. The way we live, the practices we put into effect for ourselves and our children has an effect on how well we do when can’t get what we want, when we want it.

There are opportunities for those practices, even now at Christmas time. 

Christmas Day is our marshmallow. For me, it feels bigger and better if I wait a little longer. 

We call this the holiday season because there are many key holidays in it. In our house, the Christmas season is reserved for the time beginning Christmas day and (following the historic tradition) continues in high festivity for the 12 Days of Christmas, a celebration rather than a countdown.

Thus, we practice Advent,

its own season with its own traditions. For some, this means a December countdown to Christmas Day. For others this means the four Sundays before Christmas, counted by the lighting of a candle per week around the Advent Wreath. Like the paper chain at the end of the school year, the countdown both builds a sense of anticipation and strengthens the feeling of the “not yet.”

Second, considering winter and Christmas as separate.

The commercial pull is strong. Rather than fully resist, we embrace the cozy essentials. I distinguish between winter and Christmas decorations and music. We create time for “x” and a time for “y.” This prevents burnout on “XY” before Christmas Day has arrived. It adds multiple layers of tradition for my children to savor. 

By doing this, like the pumpkin spice and color orange in our autumnal traditions, we embrace wintry traditions with blankets, hot chocolate and pom pom garland. We sing “Sleigh Ride” and “Jingle Bells” but keep other songs like “Rudolph” and “Joy to the World” for Christmas Day and beyond.

Third, we find other ways to practice meaning beyond shopping.

I love gift-giving and getting, but the sense that there is more to it is true. This year we have been reading from the Read-Aloud-Revival reading lists which add texture to the change of seasons in sunny California. We have our religious observances in one of the richest times of the year. And, for the kids, we take advantage of the craft activities Hughson offers.

Hughson Christmas Festival

We can rely on the local library to go all-out saving me from the world of glitter, construction paper and paint. We could spend a nominal fee per child at ReInvent Art Studio. But this season, more than all the other options, I look forward to the generous heaping on of activities at the Hughson Christmas Festival. Last year this meant unexpected photographs with Santa, Christmas cookie decorating, and craft activities for the different levels of ability in my family. There were Christmas cartoons to savor in a nook away from the bustle of the craft table. 

Christmas festivities as crafts and food are part of how we prepare for festivity. The separation of Advent and Christmas is not an issue for many, but with burnout prevalent, the rush to get it all done overwhelming a supposed season of peace, Advent practices might just present the solution. 

We may not be able to shape our home life the way we want. We cannot alter the past. But we can create tangible ways to delay gratification that will not only help us to grow in patience but also help us increase our enjoyment of intentional celebration. 

Something to think about, with or without marshmallows.

Christmas time has come and gone

Yesterday, in the Catholic Church, we celebrated the Baptism of Christ, which marks the closing of the Christmas season. For all of you who find yourselves saying, “I just hate Christmas to end” I think the answer is the Catholic way. We spent Advent in preparation and anticipation. Following Christmas we have the octave of Christmas. In this case “octave” means it is basically Christmas every day for eight days. The octave is held within the traditional twelve days of Christmas which lead up to Epiphany, when the Wise Men from the East found the Christ child, and another week of revelry we call the Christmas season. There are beautiful feasts and beautiful traditions, all rich in meaning, symbolism and ripe for reflection. This was our first year successfully incorporating traditions we’ve dreamed of into our family. We didn’t achieve everything. I over did it with the crafts. But we are finding our way and every step forward is a beautiful step, especially considering we both come from families whose Christmas traditions have more to do with December 25th than the entire season.

Here are some photos of how the decorating adapted throughout the season:

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Our tree was beautiful, a beautiful temptation for our two year old so we brought out our “corral” which is a sort of octagonal baby fence. We did this past the two years. Each year I like the look less and less. This year I supplemented it with a couple white tablecloths. It helped, if you can believe it.

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For Christmas my mother gave me an exquisite silky, indigo, beaded pillow from Pier 1.

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A little before Christmas I received spousal permission to purchase this print “A New England Winter” by Currier & Ives. The perfect frame was purchased from Michael’s. You can’t see it is here but it has a sort of rustic wood textural finish to the frame, which complements the rustic setting of the print. The print is doubly special to me: it represents the vision of winter I have in my head and connects to our dishes, purchased during our time in Virginia, also Currier & Ives.

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The Nutcracker had a comfortable home atop some vintage red wood boxes.

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With the arrival of the Currier & Ives print, the vintage ornaments moved from the mirror to the chandelier.

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On a shopping trip in Walnut Creek I found this star at Pottery Barn on clearance for $6. I don’t remember ever seeing it in the catalogs. It is not technically a tree topper, but I used some florist wire and viola!

 

I began this post sharing the development of our family traditions. Let me return to that.

Hot chocolate! Our favorite is the peppermint hot chocolate from Trader Joe’s made with real dark chocolate and a subtle peppermint taste, perfect for enjoying but not overdoing it. Do we give it to the children? Not yet. This year we used chocolate flavored “shakeables” from Melaleuca, a nutrition shake for children. See the delight?

 

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Then what is a festive season without a party in household? This year, acclimating to life with many children, we hosted a Nutcracker Christmas party. I made a purple tutu for my daughter, and dressed myself in a lavender skirt made from a bridesmaid dress. My daughters eyes widened with joy when she saw me dressed up, hair styled in a bun ready for the party. Naturally dressing her happened with great excitement immediately.

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We borrowed a television from a friend and moved the furniture for movie viewing.

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Set out treats and made room for guests to bring potluck, cultural dishes that have meaning to them, highlighting the different cultures presented in the ballet. We moved the tree to the bay window behind in the dining table. This will be the tree’s home next year.

 

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See how the Christmas lights reflect off the windows? I was so pleased with the change.

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Hot apple cider plus a sparkling rye punch, courtesy of a Real Simple recipe.

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And children!

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The party was so delightful. I’ve learned to let go of a lot. It can’t be fancy with every detailed planned and transformed. Keep it simple. Keep the work light. Keep the kids in mind. Keep the desserts up high. It was a great success. We were also so pleased to introduce our friends to the Nutcracker ballet. We want to host these movie nights every couple months or so, as a way to bring the culture of our heritage to our little town. Ballets, operas, classic movies. There is so much to choose from. It’s a sort of artistic evangelization we have long discussed but not quiet been ready to embark upon. I think the time is now.

Thank you for letting me share with you! Soon I’ll post some photos of the little changes coming soon to our home!

Reflections on Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch 4

Below are my final reflections from Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch 4. As before, the quotes are indented, my thoughts are in italics.

Again and again, Pope Benedict comes to these questions: who are the magi and why did they travel?

 [They] were wise. They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence “philosophy” in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.

The wise men from the east are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ…they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religious and human reason toward him.

He writes that the star represented hope. Today I spoke with a woman whose heart was breaking because of crises in her family and a crisis with a student at the school where she works. “Do you have anything,” I asked, “that can renew or refresh you’re heart?” After some thinking she said: time with her grandchild. It took her a while before she thought of that. How hopeless the world can look when we carry it all on our shoulders, how small the world can look, how frustrating. We know in our hearts there is something more.

The life force pulls us back from the thing that will kill us. But where is the hope? Where is the star in my life? I’m looking for happiness but the sky is full of clouds. There are areas in my life where I feel competent, whole, and I can forget my troubles. But then the troubles come as a storm to stop me. Obstacle after obstacle, I believe I will fail.

How many of us have experienced those thoughts in our life? Where was the star? Where was my hope? The wise men went searching. Why did they go? They were wise. We have to search. We have to find that hidden ingredient and fight, tooth and nail, to restore hope in our lives.

At the end we can only find Christ and each scrap of happiness ultimately points us to him. We can’t make the rules ourselves. We can’t forget the rules because the rules are there to guide us to our proper star. I can’t look at the stars and guide myself. I need the wisdom of ages past to help me understand what it means, to make my way through the wilderness.

 

What from the lofty perspective of faith is a star of hope, from perspective of daily life is merely a disturbance, a cause for concern and fear. It is true: God disturbs our comfortable day-to-day existence. Jesus’ kingship goes hand in hand with his Passion.

And if we aren’t searching? If we aren’t searching, perhaps we are all the more lost. Am I so satisfied with all I have achieved? The danger of wealth is the beginning of believing that in wealth lies my security. To put our trust in anything but God is to make an idol of it. But this makes me happy, we might argue. I have never felt such joy before and now I feel so much more complete. The thing will fail, because it is a false god and the true God is “that that which nothing greater can be thought.” Stock markets will fail, recessions occur, housing opportunities drop, physical ability decrease or slowly disappear, mental ability weaken, nature cause calamity, spouses disappoint. The only thing in our life in which we can truly trust is the one that can never fail. If other things make us happy, wonderful, but they cannot be the end.

The search is a terrible one, painful, stripping bit by bit of our security away from things we have worshiped unknowingly, exterior idols or painted idols of a god made in our image, not the image of the true Triune God revealed to us. Are we willing to be uncomfortable? Are we willing to give up the creature comforts we’ve trusted so much to see how little we are?

There are those for whom this desert comes without choice: illness, death, depression. A star can pull us out, keep us going.

Let us look for the star. Allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and trust the Lord that he can show us the way, the way through the desert. The wisdom of the Church and her moral teaching provides the understanding of how to navigate the stars. It is a long journey to come from the east, full of danger. But when you arrive to that crib, lay down your gifts, and lay down your head to worship him, you have found your star, unrecognizable as it may be in the beginning. But it will grow. First we find him in helplessness, bound by swaddling clothes. As we see the promise in miracles, the path transforms to one that tries us more than we ever imagined, the cross. But then comes glory. Then comes the kingdom. Then comes our God, risen from the dead.

Reflections on Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch 3

When the Christmas break first began there was an explosion of time and thought. Then came Christmas and New Year’s and with it all the tiredness that naturally comes with such things. Thus I have been delayed posting these reflections. I completed the book prior to Christmas, an accomplishment I am quite proud of. Yet little time has there been for computer-based reflections. So without further ado, here we go.

From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.

 I read in The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand that in the fall we became deluded into believing that strength is better than weakness. This delusion leads to the belief that men are better than women or the denial that women are, in fact, physically weaker than men. The belief that to be strong is better than to be weak is such a part of our perception of life and the world, it is seems impossible to think of it in any other way. It is like the falsehood that to be tall is better than to be short. If you say to someone “you are tall” it sounds like a compliment. If you say “you are short” it sounds like an insult. They are merely observations. Strength and weakness should be mere observations. We have to leave behind our old way of looking at things. God really doesn’t care if we are rich. In fact, to be more accurate, he delights in our weakness, our poverty because it puts in us in a position where we must trust him, we need him. It is a good thing not to hold onto riches. That statement flies in the face of everything I was ever taught about money. This does not mean I will go out and spend our rainy day fund on a lavish feast, but I can worry less about our position in the social stratosphere.  Worry less and enjoy more. The $20 I saved two years ago isn’t actually helping me now. Not that I should be irresponsible. Two competing voices. The moral of the story is, do not worry, or worry less.

But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaimed becomes tangibly present. And so, from that moment, the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent.

 This quote stood out to me. It stood out to me like a sound in a quiet place, a light in a dark room. What he illustrates here is a thought I little think about it but it imbues our whole existence. The angels speak in song. Isn’t all good music a shadow of what their song must sound like? And couldn’t good music lift our hearts to the song of the angels? I think and write about the transcendent quality of the arts. I rarely have an image of what we are transcending to. God is so mysterious, so high. This is one step down, a big, big step, but something just a bit closer to us here in the mud. The speech of angels is actually song. It is a song that from that moment has not gone silent. In our heart, in the exterior silence is when we can hear that song. Do we surround ourselves with songs or sounds that will remind us of the angel’s song, or lead us to put the ear of our hearts to heaven’s door to hear it? Imagine your guardian angel who whispers to you to do the right. He speaks in song. This is an image that can alter my day-to-day life, taking me once more out of the mud to see better what God has made me for.

Peace to men of good will – so men “with whom he is pleased” are those who share the attitude of the Son—those who are conformed to Christ.

How many Christians make haste today, where the things of God are concerned? Surely if anything merits haste—so the evangelist is discreetly telling us—then it is the things of God.

We all know what extent Christ remains a sign of contradiction today, a contradiction that in the final analysis is directed at God. God himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself. God, with his truth, stands in opposition to man’s manifold lies, his self-seeking and his pride. God is love. But love can also be hated with it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic “good feeling.” Redemption is not “wellness,” it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the Cross.

Isn’t it so true? My wild, wild children are pushing me to my limits. There in my limits, in my utter weakness, the tears come, I turn off the facet, put the dishes aside, rush to my room and cry out to God. I shake, I tremble. My heart twists in knots as the cries and fits of my little brats before bedtime ratchet up my nerves and anxiety. I am called to this life and at times it is so, so good. When I see myself losing my grip, I try to talk myself out it, calm myself down. Walk down the hallway, prepare myself, then I walk into a recently cleaned room and see a thousand little pieces of torn paper, or I see the four-year old, shoeless and sockless, without a care in the world, while I wanted to leave home fifteen minutes ago. I lose control. I yell. I scold. Her expression collapses in the shock of what her buddy just said, not what her buddy said but how it was said. “You’re making me sad, Mommy.” Am I a failure?

No, I am not. I am living these moments of the cross. My children are not the cross, but my tight-gripped anxious heart is the thing that must die in order for me to be free from this natural-born prison of self-absorption. How do I know I am not failing? It isn’t high self-esteem, I can tell you that. As I entered the nursery to put my infant to sleep, I saw the dolls in the dollhouse. The mommy was in the rocking chair, with the little girl sitting on her lap. That is how she sees me. I’m doing something right, and it buoys me on.

 

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Christmas Decorating, Phase Two: Gaudete Sunday

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It’s time for phase two decorating. Winter decorations have been enjoyed, very much enjoyed as I felt I successfully captured the model motif.

IMG_5865With the coming of Gaudete Sunday, (Gaudete means Rejoice!) it’s time to focus more directly on the Nativity of our Lord. So out comes the Nativity scene, or Creche, along with the Christmas tree and anything and everything that is left. My daughter did her own decorating as she colored.

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I thought her spacing and selection were excellent. However, I did have to remove the crayons because I was concerned they might melt on the tree. Still, she was praised for a lovely job. Now it’s my turn.

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After our first year of marriage my husband shared with me his desire to have a blue and silver themed Christmas tree. He just loves it and quite mysteriously because he is not one to have strong opinions other than “I like it” or “it’s a little too much” when it comes to decorating. Since decor preferences don’t come often from him, my ears perk up and I’m happy to find a way to make it reality. We finished purchasing the ornaments last year, but the garland department was in sad shape and I pieced together what I could to try to make it look complete.

photo 2Last year’s tree consisted of a beautiful glitter olive branch garland, clear beaded garland and some torn fabric from an event I went to seven years ago. Waste not, right?

This year, I bought three inch white brown ribbon for 70% off on Black Friday. The kids strung small strips of black suede cord through silver jingle bells, which I then tied to knots in the ribbon, spaced approximately one foot apart.

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We did this for fifty feet.

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It worked and was wonderful to have the kids involved. 50 feet for a four foot tree.

My four year and I decorated the tree together. It was a neat experience doing it with her.

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Our Creche took the place of my random objects on the mantle.

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IMG_5933We waited to purchase our Nativity set. I wanted a beautiful one from Italy but we were too late, the lire changed to the Euro and everything became expensive (when you’re in the country, it was always expensive otherwise). I was very surprised to find this set, in “Antique style” from Costco.

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We’ve been very happy with it, although it is lacking one ox and one ass.

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We did “complete” our Jesse tree. It only had six ornaments and I couldn’t remember what specific story to tell for the lamb (I know this references Christ). I should have checked the scriptures first. Last year, I looked up how to do a Jesse tree last year and never made any action steps, so this was definitely a success. You can see the tree through the window.

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I also strung some ornaments and hung them on our mirror.

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IMG_5938 I had the opportunity to arrange some flowers.

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All I have energy for now is making the wreath with clippings from the Christmas tree lot and wrapping presents. I’m crafted out (so I have to push myself to finish a tutu for my daughter for the Nutcracker Christmas party). Below is one craft that will go unfinished till next year.

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There is lots of singing in our home. I didn’t realize how much until I was watching White Christmas with some other ladies and they thought it ridiculous for the actors to break into song. It’s quite common over here and the kids love it.

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Peppermint Hot Chocolate from Trader Joe’s in a mug from Williams-Sonoma completes it. Sounds ritsy, right? Does it help if the rocking chair was $15 at a thrift store? I like to imagine it’s worth thousands after an online search for others like it.

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Happy Advent and (very soon) a Merry Christmas to you!

Reflections on Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch.2 (Part 2)

Now regarding Chapter 2: The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, written by Pope Benedict XVI. Due to the length, the reflection has been published in two parts. This is the second.

Now for the second aspect, the presence of hope and joy. Pope Benedict wrote that the permanence promised to the Davidic kingdom, a kingdom not of this world, “is the great force of hope in the midst of a world that so often seems abandoned by God” (p.32). It’s true. What more can I say? The only time I have experienced despair or hopelessness, the steadiness of God’s kingdom preserved my hope. God would not abandon us. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13). It is who God is. God is love (1 Jn 4:8). This became the lens through which I interpreted the events of my life.

Pope Benedict writes later:  One could say that the figures of the virgin and the divine child belong in some sense to the archetypal images of human hope, which emerge at times of crisis and expectation, even without there being any concrete figures in view (p.57). Though he states the Virgin birth is a historical reality, the concept of archetypes stands out to me. Jungian archetypes, taken as he put it, could be quite controversial, but as a general concept, are fascinating. Venerable Fulton Sheen wrote, “Every person carries within his heart a blueprint of the one he loves. What seems to be ‘love at first sight’ is actually the fulfillment of desire, the realization of a dream.” Contained within the concepts of the theology of the body, the man-woman relationship is a type pointing us to the supernatural reality of Trinitarian unity. Because we are made in the image of God, we have, as it were, spiritual DNA pointing us to our potential. We sense when we are on the right or wrong path, fulfilling or denigrating our potential. That is because of the archetype within us. God wrote these into us. Therefore, if, as he says, the virgin and divine son have been archetypes for hope, I believe God put this in us because the Virgin birth would be the fulfillment of that archetype. We would know it when we see it.

Not that that is always the case. We also need the gift of faith, and I grant that, but it would not be a universal church if this story did not resonate with us, and it resonates because it is written in our hearts.

 

Lastly, the portrait of our Lady: interior, asking in faith how it shall be, seeking to discern it (two qualities Pope Benedict identifies as shared with St. Joseph). She is called fearless. She is full of grace, in tune with the word, the law, bold enough to trust the Lord with her life. The drama described here quiets the reflection, “Mary, did you know?” because heaven would not have held its breath waiting for her response if she were some naive waif. No, she is a woman! She is strong, I repeat, fearless, capable of saying and willing yes to what the Lord has commanded. In possession of herself enough to give God the permission he seeks, “be it done to me according to Thy word.”

Here is a model for womanhood! Here is the blueprint. The archetype. The guideposts for what makes a woman great. Great women do not trample on the men in their life, pushing ahead to achieve, silencing those parts of them that make them women. No, she has the power to choose. She chooses to trust. This is the greatest gift a wife can give her husband, to choose to trust him, put herself in his hands and allow him to protect her, even though she may be fully capable of protecting herself.

Reflections from Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch.2 (Part 1)

Now regarding Chapter 2: The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, written by Pope Benedict XVI. Due to the length, I will publish it in two parts.

There are three aspects that stand out to me as I read this chapter, much longer than the first chapter. First, the juxtaposition of grandeur and humility. Second, the qualities of joy and hope present in, what we now call, the Christmas story. The third aspect is the deep portrayal Pope Benedict gives of Mary. To be honest, theology is not my favorite type of reading. For me, exegesis is very interesting, but on the drier side. Some of it is very inspiring and it certainly enriches my later reading of scriptures.

It was many years ago when I first studied the tenants of our faith. I admit the extreme limitations of my memory. I will likely never do a formal debate on matters of doctrine. But there was the time when I had my questions, I asked my questions, and I found deeply satisfying answers and explanations to those questions. Since then, the information I encounter now deepens what I already know, but it is not often that I am shaken by a new revelation. A part of me thinks that probably sounds terrible, or maybe terribly foolish (only fools are satisfied with their level of knowledge, right?) but I’m being honest.

That being the case, I stand by my previous statement that this information can deepen later reflection. So I apply the overarching aspects that stood out to me to my current mental fodder, which I will share with you now.

First, the idea of the temple and the mustard seed (p.21). The annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist takes place in the temple, as Zechariah, a priest, enters. This is the height of greatness, is it not? For a people who will not utter God’s name, the role of the priest is sacred. It is he who can enter the sanctuary. And the temple in Jerusalem must have been magnificent. Then we contrast this with our Lady, a young woman, traditionally portrayed as in her home, perhaps at prayer or in bed, when the angel appears. The number of paintings striving to capture the beauty of this moment is mind-boggling. My favorite is this, by Henry Ossawa Tanner:

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The temple versus the mustard seed. Pope Benedict’s highlights the incredible humility of the setting, the recipient and the reaction of Mary as she receives the angel’s message. She quietly ponders how it shall be, which is different from Zechariah’s doubt. The temple and the mustard seed. God chooses the mustard seed for his greatest gift.

I have to learn to accept the mustard seed. “We are lower class who live like middle class who want to be rich,” my husband said. And it’s true. It is a lesson I come back to time and again, accepting the gift I have with all its blessings and letting go of the greed for money, power and ambition. I won’t say I was groomed to be a career woman. My parents were ever supportive of whatever path I wanted to pursue. The role of motherhood and the work v. stay-at-home debate were never discussed. There were two temples in my childhood: a career or the convent. As of now, God had neither in mind for me and it has taken some doing for me to get used to that. Of course, it helps when we consider what the mustard seed is (Mt 13:31):  it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

In the smallness of our home, our life, the simplicity of raising children as one’s work we will find our fruit. And I have. That part is not difficult to see. But there are still times when I must quiet the ambition. There are still times I must sacrifice because this job or this ministry or this path are not options for me at this time. Yet this is precisely what the Lord wants me to see. In my story, A Girl and her King, the girl is taken from the battlefield, the place of glory, and asked by the king whom she loves, to return to her home inside the walls: a dusty, dry, plain place that lacks all the romance she experienced on the field. She has to talk herself into believing the challenges that exist in returning home have any merit at all. So whether worldly ambition or spiritual ambition, I had to learn to let it go.

And who is my saint? St. Therese of Lisieux, the author of the little way. Why was I drawn to her? Her desire for glory, her audacity before the Lord to ask for whatever she wanted. Never did I realize that God would take me the same little way as he did she. Desire for glory, ambition, he would turn it to his own direction. We must see the glory available to us in the little things, to make countless little sacrifices as a great offering to give him glory, not ourselves.

Stay tuned for part II.

The need for moments of transcendence

Have you ever experience a moment of exquisite beauty?

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You walk into a building, a piece of music, and have to catch your breath.

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You look around you, bewildered at the sight, pause and take in the sounds that are foreign and yet familiar.

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You feel your heart lifted, your thoughts quiet, your soul settles on a higher plane. These are the effects of transcendence.

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We need to experience moments of transcendence from time to time. Is not life bitter? It rains, the clouds overwhelm the visual appeal we may or may not have achieved at in our homes. The crumbs on the floor, the clean and dirty clothes scattered throughout the preschool kid’s room after she has learned she can move her chair, climb up, and empty and all the contents of her dresser; the crying, yours and your infant’s; forgetting to take our the garbage can; wiping noses, rushing to wipe the nose before the toddler uses his hand over and over and over again; stepping unintentionally in puddles (when it’s intentional that is okay). Life is muddy, mundane, monotonous. Fish spend every waking moment looking for food. What else have we?

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We need to be reminded we are not merely men, not merely animals. We have souls, spirits, like the angels and can be lifted up to where the angels are. Why else do we need God? The animals worship God by their very existence. They are not aware. We need something more. It is not enough to just show up and bless him with our presence (he’s just happy I’m here). No! We need to turn out thoughts, our mind, out intentionality, because we are, unlike the brutes, able to will) to God. We must give to God.

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How can I be drawn to give this gift of myself and my spirit if the liturgy merely inspires the brute and not the spirit? Modern liturgical music and architecture are designed so we feel comfortable. Words anyone can sing, therefore no one sings. Melodies that take us back to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Homiletic anecdotes I read in a chain email eighteen years ago when the Internet was up and coming.

But if I walk into the Church building and it is other-worldly, meaning it reminds me of a place not of this world…Heaven, I am reminded that there is more to my life than the again and again of life and family. My life becomes imbued with a sense of wonder and transcendence. It becomes easier to move through the tasks at hand with the recent memory of that moment in my mind. Just as it is not enough to have only heard sweet nothings from my spouse on our wedding day but never again, I need frequent reminders because I am human. Why begrudge each other that? Are we afraid that because we have lost a sense of transcendence that others will not be drawn to it. Did the devil creep when we whispered to ourselves “I feel so small.” Did he creep in and add “because you are nothing” and then block any of the beautiful thoughts that could follow that, “I am nothing, but yet God still cares for me, died for me, created me, protected me.”

It is happening in some places. New churches are being built. Times are changing.

I live in a predominantly rural area. It is common for inhabitants of rural areas to instinctively find the arts superfluous. My father agrees every child should learn music because he believes what he read that learning music early on enhances one’s ability to learn the other subjects. But at the same time, he can say schools should only teach the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. So while our family is being blessed by attending a parish that actually wants my husband’s musical gifts, the memory is still fresh of encountering again and again a “what’s-the-point” attitude from two parishes where he was previously employed.

What’s the point? Perhaps we need to experience more of it in order to know it.

Christmas Traditions

And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! – Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof

I wrote previously about Black Friday traditions in my family. Growing up, my mother and father both worked full time and I was a latch key child. There was much independence, which after 5th grade meant, much television watching. We did not hold many traditions. Every Advent and Lent we went to a penance service. It was in junior high I learned confession was available outside penance services as well. For the majority of my childhood Christmas mornings, my sister and I woke very early, as did my father. We were allowed to open our stocking and waited until my mother rose to open our presents. We opened in a round robin fashion, taking the time to thank the giver. Breakfast followed, then 11am mass. Once I was old enough, on Christmas Eve, we watched a movie, went to sleep for a couple hours and then woke to attend Midnight Mass. My mother converted to Catholicism after she married my father. My father was the typical pre-Vatican II Catholic, devout, faithful, moral, fell away for early adulthood, returned upon marriage. My extended family is not Catholic. Some are Protestant. Most are not.

Thanksgiving was typically held at my aunt’s house in Redding. Christmas was usually celebrated separate from the day at my uncle’s house outside Santa Cruz. Their house, nestled among redwood trees, with its wood-burning stoves and quiet, wet location, still feels like Christmas to me. The family is small, children are few, and once the children were grown, it seems the demands for tradition dwindled and gradually fell away.

Camping locations changed, different parties hosted different holidays, I grew up and wanted to host as well. What traditions are left?

My father has never denied the existence of Santa Claus. He has neither denied the existence of fairies or little men in refrigerators who turn the light on when you open the door. He has a touch of the poet in him. The thing to understand about poets is that there is a touch of madness and a touch of magic in how they see the world. This makes for beautiful art, whether it is technically correct will require other personality facets.

My mom does not have the touch of the poet in her mind. She is pragmatic and driven. My sister does not have the touch of the poet, she is fact seeking and direct. I have it. The man I married has it. It is the quality about him, along with faith, that I need the most in order to be married to him.

I would never consider it a lie to share with my children the Santa Claus tradition. I think people who think it is a lie, probably, lack the touch of the poet. How do you explain to a cynical society that magic still exists in the world?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

Telling children Santa Claus and fairies exist keeps fertile the already fertile soil of a child’s mind for the understanding of angels, the communion of saints, heavenly gates and the Eucharist. It trains their minds in receptivity of spiritual things which we can understand in greater complexity as we grow older.

What are our traditions? My husband and I are developing them. Old movies will be part of it, as will stop motion cartoons. The Advent wreath is important to us. We will maintain a focus on this time as preparation for Christmas, rather than Christmas, but without being so stogy that we can’t also enjoy the things of Christmas now. Advent isn’t Lent after all, though it does demand some penitence on our part in order to truly prepare.

I have the first phase decorations up: winter, Advent, things that reflect warmth and coziness.

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On Gaudete Sunday I will hang the stockings, put out the Crèche; we will buy our tree and trim it. On Christmas Eve, a Santa figurine will come out, as will Baby Jesus to complete the Crèche.

This year we attended the Christmas Festival and parade in this little town of ours.

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The children met Santa for the first time. They were not yet ready to sit on his lap and tell him their Christmas wishes. But they met him, albeit apprehensively.

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Consumerism does not have to define our culture and our practices. Just because every store and advertisement tells me it is Christmas does not mean it really is, just like Charlie Brown taught us.

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Religion can drive culture. Families can drive culture as well. It is our intention to be let these factors be part of our family culture. We can’t ignore that consumerism does largely drive the society we live in. We don’t have to let it define us, so we will work with it, not ignore it. Every year this will unfold more and more. I’m so glad to see how it’s shaping up.