Today is the fifth day of the Octave of Christmas and for many of us, the hubbub of Christmas has come and gone and we are getting back to work. On Christmas Day, we were overwhelmed with the joy of the birth of Christ and the excitement of sharing in God’s love for the world. This feeling does not necessarily wear off right away, it can stick with us for many weeks to come and leaves us wondering “what’s next?”
Every time I hear these words I think of the show The West Wing, where President Bartlet’s signature phrase is “what’s next?”. This phrase brings continuity to the story line as the characters continually dedicate their lives to serving the nation. As I think about it now, we can use this simple little phrase to help ground us as we move beyond the Christmas season. The year 2017 is just a few days away and many of us are thinking about what our new year’s resolutions are going to be: from dieting, to posting a photo on Instagram every day, to reconnecting with old friends. While these are great ideas for the coming year, instead of just focusing on ourselves, let us also try to ask “what’s next” for our faith and our relationship with Christ. We can do this in a few simple steps:
Our relationship with Christ is critical and now is the perfect time to evaluate it. We have so many resources available to us: our priests and parishes, our friends and bible study groups, the saints and the Holy Family, and many more. Asking ourselves “what’s next,” gives us the opportunity to recommit ourselves to God, to dive deeper into our faith, and to live out our lives as apostles. Let us use the momentum of the new year and the joy of the Christmas season to motivate ourselves into keeping our faith alive and healthy.
Nicholas Shields is a Young Professional in Washington, D.C.
In Pope Francis’ recent exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, he concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family. The first part of the prayer reads, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love; to you we turn with trust.” In just those few words, we are reminded of the importance of the Holy Family; they are the perfect reflection of true love. They exemplify to us what it means to love God and one another.
Of course, it might be wise to first ask ourselves, “What is true love?” The dictionary defines it as a “strong affection for another” (Merriam-Webster). The author Victor Hugo once equated love to joy when he said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved” (Les Miserables). For our purposes, let us take the definition straight out of the Gospels, that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:18). True love, then, is self-sacrificial. Having true love does not mean that we live to seek the best for ourselves. Rather, it means that we actively seek the best for others.
Using this understanding of true love, it becomes clearer how each member of the Holy Family exemplifies those qualities. St. Joseph is commonly known as the silent man of the Gospels in that he is never quoted. Yet, we see episodes that testify to his goodness. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Mary became pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly to spare her from any shame. Nevertheless, he ended up taking Mary into his home at the urging of the angel (Matthew 1:18-24).
During this period of time, Mary as a pregnant and unwed mother was extremely scandalous. Joseph would have had every right to publicly humiliate her and cast her aside; in fact, accepting her in her state would have brought notoriety to himself. Yet, he took her into his home. He was willing to sacrifice his own reputation to show his devotion to Mary and to her son, an act of true love.
Mary, similarly, shows sacrificial love at the message of an angel. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to her and announced that she would bear the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1: 32). Mary was a teenager, just betrothed to Joseph. Before the arrival of the angel, she was assured a quiet life, a peaceful life. Accepting this message would change everything; Mary’s life ahead would be a vast unknown. Nevertheless, she simply replied, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1: 38). Mary showed true love by sacrificing herself in order for the Son of God to enter the world.
And, of course, it does not take much effort to think of a moment when Jesus displayed true love. In dying on the cross, he destroyed death itself; as the tomb was closed, he opened the gates of Heaven. His willful sacrifice is the ultimate example of “laying down one’s life.” Thus, each member of the Holy Family demonstrates to us, what it means to truly love. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict reminds us that “Love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim” (Deus Caritas Est, 39). As we move forward into the New Year, let us use the example of the Holy Family as our inspiration and bring a bit of light to our world. By being willing to sacrifice some of ourselves each day for the sake of others, we too can become models of true love.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
The story of Christmas illustrates that there are no perfect families (or parishes) but we can hope to be a holy one. Part of becoming a holy family at Christmas means turning our attention to the spiritually lost among our family and friends. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we look to welcome disconnected Catholics to our churches and homes this season.
Make Room for the Lost and Lonely
For some people walking through the church doors, the Christmas season is a difficult and lonely time, a reminder of the families they don’t have. How do we show hospitality to those without a human family? If you are on a church staff or volunteer, slow down and consider the place you are making for those who feel lost and alone. You could, for example, make sure that the elderly and handicapped are able to find seating appropriate to their needs. Or, personally invite those who are alone to join in any parish fellowship that might be happening after Mass. Perhaps you could even invite a few of these people to bring up the gifts during Mass. A special role in the Mass during this important liturgical season can show those who feel unloved how honored we are to have them as members of our parish family. The goal is not to expose or make a scene around these types of parishioners, but to consider their needs and communicate that they are valued.
Make Occasional Visitors Feel Loved, Not Judged
For those coming to church at Christmas for the first time in a long time, many already carry a mild feeling of guilt that they don’t go to church regularly and expect to feel a little judged. Let us welcome these occasional visitors with open arms and encourage them to return by modeling the joy of the Lord through our actions. Joy is persuasive. If we let the love of Christ beam through us this Christmas season it might just be enough to help these occasional visitors desire more frequent encounters with our Lord in the Mass.
Give a Gift to the Poor
The Christmas gift-giving tradition began with St. Nicholas giving a gift to a poor family. While many church budgets are spread thin during this time of year, consider making room in your budget to help the church provide a gift to a local charity or foreign mission. Not only is this celebrating the authentic tradition of Christmas presents, it a sign of generosity that encourages church communities to remember their brothers and sisters whose basic material needs often go unmet. When we demonstrate charity as a parish family, we send a powerful message about what it means to come together on Sundays. Our faith is what is called a “corporate faith,” meaning, that we are all working toward salvation together. For those who have never been to Mass, or haven’t been in a long time, demonstrating parish-wide charity can show how much we as a community care about individual members of the body of Christ who are in need. For those who feel unwelcome or unworthy of joining the Church, communal Christian charity is a great way to demonstrate that we want them with us on Sundays and that we will work together to make sure their needs are provided for.
Evangelize Through Beauty
The Advent and Christmas seasons are rich with light and melody, in both a sacred and worldly sense. Advent is the liturgical season when we encounter beauty in the sparseness and fragility of the barren winter. The Christmas octave and season is full of color and sounds. Beauty has the effect of lessening our defenses and heightening our receptivity to the message of Jesus. What are the elements of beauty present in your church and home? How can you enhance them? Consider playing some soft sacred music in your home during the holidays or decorating your home with a nativity scene or poinsettia plant. It doesn’t take much, just something small to celebrate what a miraculous time Christmas is for all Christians.
Jesus was born in an “irregular” family situation - not a perfect family by worldly standards, but a holy family in God’s plan for the world. Would we Christians today recognize and welcome this same Jesus? He is among us. He is knocking at the doors of our hearts, homes, and churches in the form of family, friends, and strangers in need of peace and hope. Let us welcome Jesus in!
"From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter's icy sting;"
~St. Alfonso Liguori 1732
In a few short days, millions of children will wake up excited to see what is under the Christmas tree. Many will be eager to wake up their families so they can unwrap these gifts. There is a sense of pure joy and excitement that radiates from these children. I have a young Goddaughter, who was explaining to me over Thanksgiving about all the different things she hopes to receive. Her eyes lit up at just the mere thought of Christmas morning. It made me stop and wonder about my own excitement and joy for Christmas. I get caught up in all of the trappings of the season and not the very reason it exists. I started to question if I had that childlike excitement for the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have lost part of that joy.
Advent and Christmas provides one the time to stop and think about how the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Messiah, did not come in some powerful show of force or splendor. Rather, God chose quite the opposite. He came to us as a child, born in a manger. The human embodiment of love and mercy came to us in the form of a helpless baby. In the middle of the holiday season, you rarely take the time to stop and think about how perfect that is.
Being a godfather has taught me about the amazing ability of a child's capacity to love and forgive. Many a family function, I will walk in and my goddaughter drops what she is doing and runs over to give me a big hug. Her face lights up with joy and excitement. One can only imagine a young Jesus showing the same sort of love to Mary and Joseph.
The beauty of this simplicity has inspired the Church for two thousand years. A wonderful example of this is the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. At the end of Mass, the pope carries a small statue of Jesus to be placed in nativity scene as the choir sings the carol "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle". This carol was written by Saint Alphonso Liguori in 1732 and translated from Neapolitan into Italian by Pope Pius IX. This hymn is about Christ as a child who descends from heaven out of love for us.
"Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant, Dire this state of poverty. The more I care for Thee, Since Thou, O Love Divine, Will'st now so poor to be."
I think it is the perfect hymn for these last few days of Advent.
For these next few days, I invite you to join me in a quest to be like a child. A quest to seek the joy of Christ's birth of in a pure, whole hearted, and simple way. Pope Francis tweeted about a year ago "to be friends with God means to pray with simplicity, like children talking to parents." For the next few days, as prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us embrace peace, love, joy, and mercy just like a child who runs to greet you with open arms and an open heart.
For more information on Advent, check out our resources and devotional material here.
My Catholic grade school began everyday with students lining up in the gym for attendance and then filing out to class. One morning after Thanksgiving break, our usual routine was interrupted when the principal, a Sister of St. Joseph, came up to me.
She asked, “Would you like to be Mary for an Advent Mass?”
I immediately blurted out an emphatic, “No!”
The other fourth graders shot me shocked stares. It would have been a dream for many of my classmates to receive such an invitation, especially a personal one from the principal! And then, of course, they were astounded that I would dare to say no to the principal herself.
“Are you sure?” she asked me again.
“Well, umm, I just really don’t want to. I’m sorry,” I said. The disappointment spread across her face and I knew then that she was not expecting that answer either. An awkward pause came and went as teachers and students began marching to their rooms.
Finally, I said, “Well, I mean, I guess I could do that for you.”
The principal beamed and listed off a number of details, like who would be St. Joseph, and when we were to arrive to change into costume.
I often think back to that encounter during Advent when I reflect on Mary’s “yes” and Joseph’s sacrifice. Why did I refuse to help with such certainty? It was out of character for my usual fourth grade self.. Maybe that day my stubborn will and insecurities showed their true colors!
There is an irony to saying “no” to playing the part of Mary when her “yes” was prophesied by Isaiah and echoed in the message of the psalmists. The lives of St. Joseph, St. Paul, and the gospel writers were forever changed by that answer. Now, I’m grateful for changing my answer to yes for something simple. Like Mary, I received special graces to live out the big and small yeses to God in my adult life.
The readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent focus on the message of Emmanuel.They do a good job of showing how even in our wavering human nature, God is with us. Consider the gospel from this week, where a shocked St. Joseph allows God to turn his “no” to a “yes.” I like to imagine St. Joseph’s shock after hearing about Mary’s pregnancy. He responds to the news with a dignified “no,” hoping to protect both himself and his young fiancee, until an Angel shows him the workings of the Holy Spirit in his and Mary’s lives. His sacrifice and hiddenness guides us in family life, work, ministry, and sharing the the gospel message in a noisy world. His “yes” wavered and then seemed to move to a place of confidence and trust. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” (Mt 1:20) What reassurance! God was with him as he transitioned to being the head of the Holy Family, he became the ultimate protector of holiness.
After the Marian story from my fourth grade year to the touch points of this weekend’s Gospel the message of Emmanuel lives. We prepare for Christmas this week with the demands of a commercial culture, family time, the healing of relationships, and the stress of “keeping up”. God is with us, waiting as he did through Isaiah and St. Paul, and the call of St. Joseph. What will we say “yes” to this week? How will God be with us in our moments of “no.”? When your fear or pride brings the word “no” to your lips, remember that God is still with you. As we await our Lord this Advent remember that he too awaits us and our emphatic “yes”.
May your final week of Advent be blessed!
Sophie Lorenzo works in social media marketing for a Catholic publisher in Chicago. An alum of the Echo Program at the University of Notre Dame, she enjoys bridging her background in theology with online ministry.
Lately, I have found myself in circumstances of trial and uncertainty, unsure where the Lord is in the midst of everything. The waiting certainly parallels the season of Advent in which we await the coming of Our Lord, the Messiah. Waiting is painful and uncertainty requires trust, both of which my control-hungry self wrestles with.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast we celebrate today, is the remedy to our fear and doubt. There’s something unique about the portrayal of Our Lady of Guadalupe: she wears a black belt. In the Aztec religion, a black belt indicates someone who is with child, showing that She too is waiting for Christ in solidarity. She wants to wrap her motherly love and protection over us, to mother us through the waiting, through the anticipation, and straight to Her Son Jesus Christ.
Our Lady came to peoples who were deeply enthralled in the Aztec religion, with angry gods who required sacrifice. She spoke a language they understood. The image left on St. Juan Diego’s cloak for the people of what is now Mexico destroyed the power of the Aztec gods and elevated the glory of Her Son. She wants to do the same for you this Advent season. Look at these words she spoke to Juan Diego, the simple farmer turned saint, “My dear little son, I love you. I desire you to know who I am. I am the ever-virgin Mary, Mother of the true God who gives life and maintains existence.”
In my circumstances, I am comforted to know that I am not abandoned. I have a Mother who will fight for me, exclaiming, “Let not your heart be disturbed. Am I not here who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happy within my fold? What else do you wish? Do not be grieved or disturbed by anything.”
As we wait for the coming of the Messiah, find comfort that Our Lady waits with us. From the moment she encountered the Angel Gabriel, to searching for a place to give birth, to fleeing to the desert, to the painful prophecy of Simeon, to the loss of Her child for three days, to the witness of His persecution, to the foot of the Cross, Mary waited. Mary waited in faith of the Father’s goodness, exclaiming, “be it done unto me according to thy will.”
Just like in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, pregnant with Our Lord, Our Lady knows how to wait with peace. She wants to give you Her peace; she wants to speak your language, love you where you are, and guide you to the joy of the coming of the Lord.
For the past 141 years on the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (16th of July) in my hometown of Hammonton, New Jersey, there is a procession through the streets of the statues of various saints that usually reside inside the local parish church. The faithful who are devoted to each saint distribute prayer cards of their patron as they process with the statues through the streets – St. Joseph, St. Anne, St. Anthony, St. Rita, St. Jude, St. Rocco, St. Lucy, St. Vincent Pallotti, and so forth. The Blessed Mother, while at the end under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, appears also in the procession under various names – Milagrosa, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception, whose Solemnity we celebrate today.
Sometimes, these various titles and ways of representing the Blessed Mother can be confusing for some of those who line the streets of the procession route. My mother, Angela, who has been part of the procession for over 50 years, makes a float with a large Rosary and a statue of the Blessed Mother under the title of the Immaculate Conception on it, although some would call the statue “Our Lady of Grace.” The statue, which is over 100 years old, is patterned after the image on the “Miraculous Medal,” around which is inscribed the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” Since many who come to the procession are not necessarily practicing Catholics, my mother always offers a form of “street evangelization” to those who come to her float to receive a prayer folder that provides instructions on how to say the Rosary.
Since the statue of the Immaculate Conception is on a special float, many will come and ask if it is of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Sometimes, my mother is asked what the difference is between the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She responds cheerfully, “Same Lady, different dress.” My mother then goes on to explain why the Blessed Mother has so many titles. She also assists these curious onlookers in understanding how Mary offers us the greatest example of how to follow Jesus as his disciple. She helps them learn that Mary was prepared from the time of her conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, to receive Jesus and did so throughout her life.
We, too, are meant to be prepared to receive Jesus into our lives in an ongoing way, especially during the Advent season. We have not been conceived without sin, but we have been washed clean of Original Sin at Baptism (and all prior sin, if one was baptized as an adult). While we have all sinned since that time, our Baptism offers us a share in the mission of Jesus Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Though followers or disciples, he also sends us as apostles, or as missionary disciples, out into our challenging world to witness to him by what we say and do. The Blessed Virgin Mary offers us the best example of how to follow Jesus Christ. No matter what title of hers might appeal to us spiritually, she is always “same Lady, different dress.” She was the same in her following of Jesus during her life and continues from her heavenly home to invite us to follow her Son, Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
The Catholic Apostolate Center is a ministry of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers). The Pallottines and the Center staff will remember you in special prayer on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
There’s something to be said for silence. In the absence of vocalizations or other sounds, one can focus more intently in his or her surroundings. At first, it may seem uncomfortable, especially if one is usually talkative and used to a noisy environment. At the same time, one might have difficulty focusing his or her thoughts in silence, suddenly having to contend with an onslaught of mental distractions. Especially in today’s society, one is constantly bombarded with external messages, symbols, and other stimuli in a magnitude never encountered previously. In one way or another, we have become numb.
We now find ourselves nearly halfway through Advent, a period of reflection, meditation, and waiting in anticipation of the solemn celebration of the nativity of our Lord. While the rest of the culture may be focused on shopping for gifts and decorating for the holidays, the faithful are called to contemplate the gift of Love made incarnate in a most humble setting over two thousand years ago. Throughout the liturgical year, but especially during this time of Advent, I find that removing myself from the demands of the world and replacing them with the stillness of Bethlehem is not only refreshing, but also an effective catalyst for drawing more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
How can silence help us dwell in this mystery? For one, sacred Scripture contains numerous accounts of how effective silence is for drawing one nearer to God and neighbor. Actually, one of my favorite biblical passages illustrates the friends of the greatly afflicted Job sharing in his miseries through their silent presence: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:11-13). God is not just with us, however, in moments of suffering or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, moments of majestic power and glory. God’s love continuously invites us to draw near to Him in our daily lives as well. Remember that the prophet Elijah experienced God in the sound of a gentle breeze blowing, not in the preceding bursts of wind, earthquake, or fire (1 Kings 19:11-13).
While silence can be beneficial to one’s spiritual life, it itself is not the end of contemplation or meditation. Rather, the focus remains, as it is for all prayer, communication with God. Silence, then, is a medium for encountering God, just as music or the spoken word is employed in liturgy. There are times when words are insufficient or music fails to strike the right chords. In these cases, a silent presence can be the most appropriate expression of closeness, such as in hospice, a cemetery, nursery, hospital, or any other place where the ministry of presence is desired. Similarly, as I prepare myself for a Holy Hour of silent adoration before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, I remind myself of the importance of placing myself before God’s presence. Sometimes, a tender gaze of love can be a beautiful prayer in itself.
As we continue to wait and reflect during the beginning of the new liturgical year for Christmas, let us pray to be able to free our minds from the things of this world that may distract us from seeking our “heavenly peace,” that is, union with God, the Word Incarnate, Emmanuel. For it was indeed a silent night, as the carol goes, during which our Savior came into this world and the shepherds and magi adored him. The wonder and awe of the miracle had passed over the scholars and authority figures and was instead “given to the childlike” to experience and behold for themselves (Matthew 11:25). In silence, our joy is not diminished, nor is our love any less potent, but through it we can continue to focus our attention and energy towards adoring the King of Kings and Lord of Lords: Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
For many of us, the “infancy narratives,” from Matthew and Luke are well loved, but also well worn. Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Our Lord in Bethlehem — not only do we ponder these events every year during Advent and Christmas, but also every time we pray the Joyful mysteries of the rosary. We know the stories, we know what they illustrate, we know why they’re important. But knowing the basic bullet points of the New Testament is not enough. We are called to know our Lord more deeply, more intimately.
Dei Verbum compares the gift of Scripture to the gift of the Incarnation: “for the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (13). The Holy Spirit has bundled the immensity and perfection of God into our limited and imperfect human language. Like Christ contained himself in human form, so too has the Father contained himself in our human tongue. This Advent, let us return to the infancy narratives with fresh eyes. Recognizing that, like St. Ignatius advised his Jesuits to do while on mission, we can use the Word to ignite our senses, engage our collective memory as the people of God, and to understand our Lord as both father and friend.
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56) is one moment from the infancy narratives that can prepare us in a special way for the coming of our Lord this Christmas. It provides us with a snapshot of Mary as a loving servant who is familiar with the Scriptures, bubbling over with joy, and confident in the promises of her God. Her example is one we can imitate even today. Spend some time with the narrative here and then consider Mary’s threefold approach to Advent:
Amidst the flurry of shopping, visiting, and end-of-year work activities that will surely fill our Advent calendars this season, take five minutes a day to spend time with God in prayer. If you struggle with prayer and don’t know what to say, read the Magnificat. Imagine a young, triumphant Mary, glowing before gray-haired Elizabeth and try to imagine the feelings of joy and wonder Mary must have felt in those moments. Then ask the Lord to help you channel that wonder as you prepare a place for him in your heart. Let your soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord this Advent, through joy, Scripture, and service.