Being a dad is heroic stuff. It demands strength, hard work, a quick wit, a compassionate heart, and an unwavering commitment to the health and well-being of this cute little stranger that has captured your heart. Being a dad is usually intentional. Being an adoptive dad is intentionality on steroids. If all men look to St. Joseph as a guide, companion, and mentor, we will have a more just, prosperous, and peaceful world.
While I am writing this reflection for all dads, I want to address young dads or men who are thinking about being dads. My hope is that St. Joseph will awaken in you a clear-eyed grasp of the “fiat” or “yes” of fatherhood.
Let me share where I am coming from. I am an adoptive dad with three sons; the oldest is married with three kids of his own, the middle son is headed to college, and the youngest will be a high school junior in the fall. A life-long Catholic, my professional life is in the Church: campus ministry, priestly formation, and mission. Barb and I, married 23 years, wrote a book a few years ago – Rise, Take the Child – Reflections on the Vocation of Adoption.
Joseph was an “in the background” saint to me until I became an adoptive dad. In my office, I have an icon of the Holy Family. Our oldest was baptized on the Feast of the Holy Family. In that icon, Joseph is holding Mary (on his right) and Jesus (on his left). He is holding Mary, who is holding Jesus, and he completes the “embrace” of Jesus. Who is this “third person” in the Holy Family?
I wanted to encounter Joseph the man. I examined my assumptions. I thought of Joseph as an old man even though biblical evidence suggests he was a strong man, capable of protecting his family, leading them into exile in Egypt and back home, and establishing himself as a successful carpenter.
There is nothing “romantic” about Joseph if Shakespeare’s Romeo is our model of a man in love. I find Joseph, in Franco Zeffirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth, is authentically conflicted; balancing the longing for the completion of marriage, his desire for Mary, the promise of family, the hurt and anger he feels when he learns Mary is pregnant, and his deep desire to do good and avoid evil.
Finally, contrary to Joseph’s Song, which I like in many ways, Joseph was not a “simple” carpenter. In the time of Jesus, and even in our time, a carpenter is much more than a laborer. Carpenters were craftsmen – highly skilled and “essential” for society. Some, perhaps even Joseph, were artists.
When we pray with Saint Joseph, we need to see him first as a man with his own story, network of relationships, aspirations, work, skill, and deep, abiding faith. This is Joseph, Mary’s tender and loving betrothed, a fierce and decisive protector, a skilled and dedicated provider, and a humble and faithful father who raises Jesus, with Mary, into manhood in first century Galilee.
We know the most about Joseph from the Gospel of St. Matthew, which records his four dreams. In his first dream, Joseph “wrestles” with what the law of his faith teaches and what his heart says. Fatherhood is born out of love of a woman. Heterosexual men “long for” the completion a woman provides. This sexual longing (eros) finds its perfection in self-sacrificing love (agape). Joseph does not ignore Mary’s pregnancy – he embraces it as an act of faith and love. He sets aside his fears, welcomes her into his home as his wife, and witnesses God’s saving act unfolding in and through her.
His second dream compels Joseph to protect the Mary and the infant Jesus from Herod. Mary, in Luke’s Gospel, “makes haste” to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Joseph, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “makes haste” at night into an unknown exile to Egypt, away from the threat of Herod. I am sure there were other dangers on the way to Egypt and challenges in finding work and establishing a home there.
There is far less drama in the third dream. Joseph was able to hire himself out as a skilled craftsman and establish a home in Egypt. And yet, he is called by God to help write the great “theo-drama” of salvation so that Jesus, his adoptive son, can fulfill his destiny as God’s “only begotten Son” who is “called out of Egypt.” In some ways, this is Joseph’s “fiat,” his “yes” to God. Through his actions, Joseph accepts the responsibility of raising Jesus as a Jewish man among his people.
The fourth dream, on the road home, points to Joseph as provider – choosing a place where Mary and Jesus would be safe, where Jesus could grow “in wisdom and age,” and he could provide for them through the work of his hands. St. Luke’s Gospel points to the peace and tranquility of this domestic time (sometimes referred to as the “hidden life”) for Joseph when he tells the story of Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple. Imagine the frantic search for Jesus followed by Joseph seeing and hearing his son teaching the elders of Israel in the Temple, the most sacred place on earth. Imagine the rush of emotions – the relief, the wonder, the astonishment.
As I prayed with this passage, I was reminded of my experience of my own son playing basketball. He was about ten or eleven years old, he was fouled, and he cautiously approached the free-throw line. He took command of the ball, set his body, and did a perfect shot. Nothing but net. It took my breath away. Others too. We just did not expect “perfection” from someone so young. Was that what Joseph felt when he heard Jesus teaching the elders of Israel in the Temple?
In many ways, every father is called to be an “adoptive” father in the sense that they, too, must be intentional, like Joseph, in how they love their children. First, love your wife and partner with her to be a family. Protect her and your children from all that is evil with your strength, perseverance, and decisiveness. Provide for your family through your labor, your craftsmanship, your artistry. And raise your children to adulthood through the witness of your life, integrity, and faith.
Pope Francis declared 2021 the Year of St. Joseph, and he wrote a wonderful apostolic letter, Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), that provides further insights into this ordinary hero, this extraordinary “every man,” who raised to manhood the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Click here to read more about St. Joseph in this post written by Barbara and Don McCrabb.
Beauty transformed my soul—waking it up from the depths of hibernation and shaking loose the layers of grief, bitterness, and resentment which had grown over time. My heart could not resist the lure of cobblestone streets, golden light cascading down narrow alleyways, or the shadows of the towering cathedral. I felt alive during those months abroad in a way I had hardly known was possible. Afternoon jogs on an ancient Roman bridge. Secret courtyards and hidden gardens overlooking the city. Tucked-away alcoves and incense emanating from ancient chapels. A croissant shop with an expansive menu that dared me to try them all.
I did, by the way, try them all. I had goals like that while I was studying abroad. For the first time in many years, the over-achiever A-student was not living for grades and recognition. She was living for experience, for delight, for beauty. And in this was a newfound freedom. I remember sitting in the cavernous cathedral of Salamanca for long stretches between classes breathing in the music that played softly between services and basking in the magnanimous splendor. Moments like this made me long for something outside and above myself, though I could not precisely say what or why. Only later would I come realize it was the Bridegroom Nicholas Cabasilas writes of in “The Life in Christ” calling me to glimpse the eternal I was created for.
Cabasilas explains, “When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound."
Beauty wounded me that semester in a delightful way. It awakened my heart with a longing to reach for what transcends human experience: the eternal. My experience living abroad enabled me to delight in creation and life in a way people seldom do or ever get the chance to. And this knowledge humbled me profoundly.
“I do not deserve this,” I thought many times throughout my studies abroad. What had I done to earn the experience of such majesty? The short answer: nothing. It was sheer, unmerited gift. I knew almost immediately who the gift givers were. First: my parents, who had spent their lives providing for their children and modeling servant leadership and sacrificial love. It was because of them and their contributions to my education that I was able to study abroad in the first place. The other gift giver: God himself—the author of beauty.
It was in this way that God revealed himself to me personally and began to bring me back to himself.
The famous line from Dostoevesky, “Beauty will save the world” started for me that fall in Spain. Beauty saved me. God, beauty itself, the author of beauty, created us with a desire to grasp at and experience beauty in order to draw us closer to himself.
Beauty is sheer gift—unnecessary by logical standards and not necessarily functional or efficient. It does more than just appeal to our senses: it awakens our soul. It is meant to draw us outside of ourselves with what Cardinal Ratzinger at the time called a “longing for the Ineffable, [a] readiness for sacrifice, [and lead to] the abandonment of self.” Furthermore, “Beauty does not end with us or with our experience, but calls us outward on mission. Artistic beauty provokes interior emotion, it silently arouses astonishment and leads to an ‘exit from self’, an ecstasy” (Pontifical Council for Culture, Plenary Assembly Final Document-The Way of Beauty. section III.2, The Beauty of the Arts).
This was my experience exactly. I came home a different person—one overflowing with gratitude and humility. It manifested in frequent phone calls to my family, much to their concern. The formerly independent, cold, aloof daughter was calling her parents each week to say thank you and to check in. After ascertaining that my mental health was still sound, my mother offered wise advice to her daughter now bubbling with gratitude: spend 5 to ten minutes a day thanking God.
Beauty was, therefore, God’s entry point into my heart. As a result, I turned back to him in praise and thanksgiving. My friends and family noticed the transformation, the newfound peace that overflowed, the eyes now on the lookout for glimpses of the Creator hidden among his creation.
Beauty resulted in action—slow and gradual, but intentional in my remaining college years. I entered the Campus Ministry office for the first time upon my return stateside. I began making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation weekly and sitting in the beautiful mission church of my alma mater for daily Mass. I attended retreats, began participating in service opportunities, and mentored younger students. Beauty drew me outside of myself and into the other—I had received an unmerited gift and wanted to reciprocate the giving.
As Bishop James D. Conley said at an apologetics conference, “When we begin with beauty, this can then lead to a desire to want to know the truth of the thing that is drawing us, a desire to participate in it. And then the truth can inspire us to do the good, to strive after virtue.”
Almost a decade later, as a mother of small boys, often limited to the sphere of my domestic church, how and where can I experience beauty? How can each of us, in whatever vocation we find ourselves in, find and experience beauty?
After a year in which sin, division, sickness, and isolation threatened to obscure the beauty of life and our world, I believe we are called to reclaim this truth and open our eyes to the beauty and wonder of God once again.
Beauty is not reserved for a special place or time, but can be found all around us: in the newborn’s first cry, the child’s wonder, the cicada’s song, the family dinner, the work done well, the priest’s sacrifice, the nun’s contemplative prayer, the humor of a colleague, the glowing of the stars, the dawn of a new day.
Let us allow ourselves to believe and hope in the glimmers of beauty all around us that reveal a greater beauty we are called to. Let us strive to make the world more beautiful with our kind words and gestures, deeds done with love, hope, and joy, with the way we relish life as a gift and inspire laughter, with the way we live our lives authentically—in such a way that others are drawn to the joy of our Gospel message. Why? So that the world can see and come to know him. The ultimate purpose of beauty is redemption—knowing and experiencing Christ himself.
The then-Cardinal Ratzinger put it so well, “We must learn to see him. If we know him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”
Walking into the endzone of FedEx Field of the Washington Football Team made everything feel real—not some fantasy about playing professional football, but the reality of graduating college and entering into a new stage in life. In the middle of May, I graduated from The Catholic University of America at FedEx Field. It was an experience filled with much joy, but also some uncertainty.
The joy and happiness were palpable throughout the stadium. It was rewarding seeing four long, hard years of work and late nights come to fruition. I felt a happy sense of relief that we had made it through the chaos and craziness of the past three semesters amidst the pandemic. It was exciting getting to celebrate with our friends and family—a truly special ceremony.
Later that day, I began to feel some uncertainty mixed in with my joy. Friends were moving back home or across the country. Some friends were starting new jobs while others were going to graduate school. Some friends were younger and would still be at school another year while other friends had full-time jobs. There was a lot still up in the air.
Over the past couple of weeks since graduation, I have reflected on that uncertainty and realized that it relates to a lot going on today. There’s uncertainty in starting a new job, in moving, or any type of new beginning. There’s uncertainty in returning to work in person maybe for the first time in a long time. There’s even uncertainty about traveling and going on vacations with differing restrictions. As I reflected on the uncertainty I felt from graduating college, I was comforted by one simple fact: the same Jesus who was present and working in my life before will be present throughout the uncertainty.
During the Nicene Creed, we say, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” In these four marks of the Church, catholic is referring to the universality of the Church. This is what I found comfort in. Even though I wouldn’t be going to Mass at Catholic University anymore, Jesus would be present at Mass at my new parish community. Even though I wouldn’t have the ability to go to a chapel as frequently, Jesus would still hear my prayers throughout my workday. I found this realization comforting and encouraging – I knew Jesus would be present throughout the uncertainty and the change.
I began to think of ways that I could actively embrace the uncertainty by welcoming Jesus into the small day-to-day actions that I knew would come about because of the changes. I set two goals for this uncertain time:
Yesterday the Church celebrated the feast day of St. Damien of Molokai. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, I reflected on the life of Fr. Damien and how striking of an example his life can be for us today. Fr. Damien was a priest in the second half of the 19th century known for his work with the leper colony on the Kalaupapa Peninsula in Hawaii. Fr. Damien initially went to the leper colony to provide support for the residents. He helped balance and stabilize the basic necessities of life for the people who lived in the colony. Even though his ministry at the colony was only supposed to be temporary, Fr. Damien discerned God’s will and recognized the need of the residents and stayed there for the rest of his life, walking with everyone in the colony. He eventually died in 1889 from leprosy he contracted from his work there.
As an aspiring Catholic doctor and scientist, I have looked up to Fr. Damien. The funny thing is that Fr. Damien was neither a medical doctor nor a scientist! He was a priest who discerned God’s call to care for the physical health and well-being of the people in the leper colony. Two elements of Fr. Damien’s life have been particularly impactful for me that I think are especially relevant amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Firstly, I am inspired by Fr. Damien’s discernment of God’s will in caring for the health and well-being of the residents, and his courage to follow God’s will. I think it is very easy to see the path of least resistance and assume that it is the “right” path. But Fr. Damien teaches us a different lesson. He knew it would have been easier to stay at the leper colony temporarily, but instead of placing his will first, Fr. Damien placed God’s will first. Even though this meant continuing an incredibly challenging ministry that he was not particularly qualified for, Fr. Damien followed God’s will. He opened his heart to be filled with grace and courage to continue his ministry.
Secondly, Fr. Damien can serve as a role model for us today in recognizing the interconnected nature of physical health and spiritual health. This school year, I have found myself quarantining and isolating on multiple occasions. We weren’t allowed to walk outside or anything in isolation. I found it hard to get the energy to watch online Mass or much less do anything when physically I couldn’t go anywhere. In his ministry on the leper colony, Fr. Damien recognized that part of caring for one’s spiritual health included caring for their physical health. He devoted himself to holistically improving the living conditions of those in the leper colony to the greatest extent that he could. He lived a life of service, always adapting to the greatest need of the people he was with.
I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist yet, and most of us will never be. So, I find myself thinking, how can I connect the lessons from Fr. Damien’s life to my day-to-day life? One way I think we can do that is by discerning God’s will for us, even in small, routine actions. In our workplaces, schools, parishes, and other places we frequent, we can discern God’s will for using our gifts to benefit the community. These might not be big, grand ways like Fr. Damien, but lots of small actions over time that build up to have a great effect! And, just like Fr. Damien, we can pray for the grace and courage to live out God’s will throughout our lives. A second way we can live out Fr. Damien’s lessons is by helping to care for our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. in their physical health. If we know someone is having to quarantine, we can drop off food outside to them. As the weather is getting nicer, we can go on socially distanced walks outdoors or other outdoor activities. While we aren’t called to a leper colony in Hawaii like Fr. Damien, we can still connect our physical and spiritual health right where we are and learn from Fr. Damien as a role model for us today.
St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us!
How are you navigating daily life these days? Are you scurrying around afraid of what is next or are you charging into each day with enthusiasm and hope? That sounds like the opening to an infomercial about to reveal some amazing product to enhance your life in some miraculous way, doesn’t it? But these are questions we need to ask ourselves as Christians; Jesus calls us to be exuberant about our mission in every moment because every moment counts. Life as we knew it before the Covid-19 pandemic has not returned, and all of us are still in some stage of the mess. But, as Easter people, we hold firmly to God’s promise that He is with us always, supplying grace and wisdom, no matter the circumstances of our present life. And this promise envelopes me personally with great comfort and allows me to begin each day with joy! The Easter message we celebrate again this year guides us through the steps of living in joy, filled with hope, even though our world seems dark and scary. Our daily scripture readings walk us through the Acts of the Apostles as the church was newly formed after the Resurrection and we learn once again of our mission as baptized priests, prophets, and kings in the new covenant Jesus established.
Thirty minutes of ingesting current news makes us aware of the many divisions within our nation and on a global scale. There is very little uplifting or good news being reported. Our world is filled with turmoil and unrest, and the doom and gloom can seem overwhelming. But, let’s flash back to over 2000 years ago on a stormy Friday afternoon when Jesus was tortured and suffered an agonizing death by crucifixion and the earth shook. This horrifying event in the news of the time seemed bleak to the early Christians, yet in actuality, this event was the defining moment for all of humanity. It was and continues to be God’s greatest gift to us. In the dismal hours on Good Friday centuries ago, Jesus our Savior exhibited the ultimate “cancel culture” by completely canceling our sins and opening the path for us to enter the glory of heaven!
In recent years, we are more familiar with a different type of “cancel culture” – one that is not merciful and has a negative message. Yet, if we focus on walking closely with Jesus, we can experience the freedom that comes from that horrific sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. Our lives are forever redeemed, and the love and mercy of God allows us to live amidst times of great trial without fear and even be filled with joy. We have been commissioned for the work of heaven and as we live in this Easter season, we have the knowledge of Jesus’ teachings, His examples of how to love and act toward others, and His living Spirit within us to keep us steadfast in being joyful. We can smile when the world is unkind, courageously proclaiming the Good News in a culture that will scoff and try to shame and shun us because, as St. Paul says in Col. 2:13-14, “And you who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us…. nailing it to the cross.” This is truly the “divine cancel culture” that heals us and rescues us from sin and death.
The secular “cancel culture” reviles people who disagree, seeks to destroy those it determines unworthy, and ascribes to inflicting recriminations and paybacks. The “divine cancel culture” Jesus instituted from that Cross on Calvary expects us to always forgive and cancel the wrongs others do to us, as He taught us: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12). We can confidently choose to walk in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior and practice the principles of faith, hope, and love – love being the greatest of these.
We walk together, you and I, as Easter people, united in the mission passed to us personally by Jesus Himself. Even though chaos may be swirling about us, He is who transforms our lives in a miraculous way so that we can live each day with exuberant joy! Help us Lord to be your messengers of love and mercy to the lost, the despairing, the cruel, the innocent and the vulnerable— to draw all your people to your glorious kingdom forever! Amen, Alleluia, Glory!
“Have you seen Him?”
The question is uttered among the bewildered Apostles and echoes out to us this Easter season.
In the Gospel reading for Divine Mercy Sunday, Thomas hadn’t seen him. Thomas didn’t believe the men who had become his brothers when they told him about the resurrected Christ. Not even the details of his wounds swayed him.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe,” he says.
Believing meant vulnerability. It meant more heartbreak. The Man for whom Thomas and the others had left everything, the Teacher who had sent them two by two to preach and heal, the Master who had washed their feet and fed thousands with a few loaves and fish was gone—betrayed, tortured, killed.
It was easier not to believe. It was easier to stay hidden away in the Upper Room with a heart as locked up as the doors. It was easier to go back to what they knew. Even Peter resumed fishing.
Today as we continue in the third week of Easter, I ask you what the disciples likely asked each other in those first days:
Have you seen Him?
We prepared for Easter throughout 40 days with prayers, fasting, and almsgiving. We kept vigil with Jesus on Holy Thursday in the Garden of Gethsemane and in Caiaphas’s prison. We shuddered at His scourging, covered our ears to the mocking, and knelt in front of Him at the foot of the Cross. We waited in silence as the tomb was closed and we entered into Holy Saturday. Then, we celebrated His rising on the third day.
But as we continue in the Easter season, can we truly say we have seen Him? Have we experienced Easter joy or are we locked in the Upper Room or back to fishing?
Grief, anger, passivity, media consumption, alcohol, food, loneliness—all of these could be our Upper Rooms. All of these could be means of locking our hearts to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
But what does Jesus do in response to our locked hearts?
He shows up. He extends His wounded hands. He breathes peace.
This is what this fifty-day Easter season is all about: encountering the Risen Lord. Seeing Him. Touching His wounds. Sharing a meal with Him. Allowing Him to open the Scriptures to us and reveal God’s plan of salvation—even in the here and now, even in our own lives.
Our fasting, grieving, and sighing is over. Our desert is over. But sometimes entering into the light, joy, and beauty of the Easter season can seem jarring after all we’ve worked on spiritually or given up. Even more so, we look at the world and may not hear the Easter song. We see humanity still trapped by sin, death, and division.
Perhaps our hearts, like Thomas’s and the other disciples’, are broken. Perhaps after a year of fear, isolation, confusion, and division, it feels easier to lock the doors than to believe. Believing requires faith, hope, vulnerability. It requires opening yourself to the possibility of another heartbreak. And it requires letting go.
And so, Thomas says, “I will not believe.”
And we may say, “I cannot believe.”
But Christ’s wounds change everything.
They show that suffering can be redeemed. That our scars, while part of our story, are not the end. That death has been humbled, and that glory and resurrection await us.
Over these next few weeks of Easter, as we prepare to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, I invite you to spend time with the disciples as they sit once again at the feet of Christ. Jesus spends 40 days with them—the same length of time as the Lenten season—instructing them, encouraging them, accompanying them. Do not let this most holy of liturgical seasons end on Easter Sunday. I invite you today and every day to encounter the Risen Lord. Spend time with His wounds. Show Him your own. Allow His words to penetrate your heart: “Peace be with you.”
Only then can the doors of our hearts be unlocked.
Only then can our wounds be transfigured.
Only then can we fall to our knees and proclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
Click here for more ideas to cultivate Easter joy.
As we continue through this “Year of St. Joseph” as proclaimed by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, one cannot help but reflect on St. Joseph: adoptive father of Jesus, spouse to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Patron of the Universal Church. These lofty and impressive titles have been given to a man who in many respects is seen as humble, consistently in the background, and having no words come from his mouth in Scripture. His example of what it means to be a man and a father is one men can strive for.
As a father of a precocious one-year-old, I cannot help but look for examples of how to be a father. Of course, we often look to our own fathers, grandfathers, friends, and perhaps even godfathers and spiritual fathers through the priesthood. There are many qualities that we can emulate from these father figures in our lives, indeed very practical ones. How to change diapers without a mess; how to look good while carrying an undersized backpack filled with wipes, pacifiers, and a change of clothes; or at what posture to best steer that not-tall-enough stroller? What prayers should we be introducing to our young family? How can we strive to provide for our child both practically and spiritually? However, I would suggest another figure to look to: St. Joseph.
When my son was baptized, a friend of ours – who happens to be named Joseph – gifted to him (and to us) a statue of St. Joseph. At the time, I considered it more of a funny coincidence, and a nice gesture. As I continued to reflect on it, I really began to see it as providential. Admittedly, as a new father, I was scared and anxious (I still am). St. Joseph undoubtedly faced many of the same anxieties. However, throughout Scripture he is portrayed as a man who sorts out problems and comes up with solutions in practical and brave ways. It is this particular quality that I think we, as fathers, should take as a noble example.
There will be times throughout our fatherhoods when we will come to face challenges, confusion, and doubt. St. Joseph protected the Holy Family and trusted in the word of God when it was easy not to trust. As fathers we are called to protect our own families, not necessarily always from harm or danger, and also to provide an example of kindness, love, and humility that so often is characterized as weak. Instead, I invite you to seek St. Joseph’s noble example and see these qualities as a strength.
We also need to trust in God. Pope Francis says in Patris Corde, “The greatness of Saint Joseph is that he was the spouse of Mary and the father of Jesus. In this way, he placed himself, in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, 'at the service of the entire plan of salvation.'” Let us as fathers follow in St. Joseph’s noble example to place ourselves at the service of God’s plan for us. Then we will truly be able to serve our families without fear or anxiety.
For more on St. Joseph, read our blog post: “Ite Ad Joseph: 10 Quotes to Celebrate the Year of St. Joseph.”
In his book, The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote that, “Beauty will save the world.” For Christians, this phrase takes on an even deeper meaning theologically. The Christian worldview views truth, beauty, and goodness as reflections of the One who is perfectly True, Good, and Beautiful: God Himself. Authentic expressions of human creativity in some way glorify the ultimate Creator who endowed mankind with the freedom to co-create. We do this in a miraculous way through procreation, but also each time we write, dance, paint, mold, shape, sing, and so on. To celebrate art as a form of evangelization, the Catholic Apostolate Center invited two artists to share their perspectives on creating art and how art can also be a form of spreading the Gospel. For our first artist spotlight, Center contributor Dana Edwards Szigeti interviewed graphic designer Tracy Johnston. Our second artist spotlight features Spoken Word performer Michael Mookie C. Manalili in his own words.
Artist Spotlight: Tracy Johnston (Graphic Designer)
How did you get involved in your artistic expression?
Since high school, Catholic artist and mom Tracy Johnston has been creating art for her family, friends, and others. While earning her college degree in Studio Art at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Johnston designed retreat flyers, youth group T-shirts, and fundraising campaign materials for several groups and organizations, including the UCF Catholic Campus Ministry in which she was very involved. After graduating, she continued this service to young adult ministries and youth ministry. These projects provided Johnston with plenty of experience that helped develop the skills she uses today for her small business. Johnston specializes in hand-painted wood signs, canvas art, chalkboards, printables, and Rosary hangers.
Working as a stay-at-home mom and artist has always been a dream for Johnston. While employed as a full-time graphic artist, Johnston began looking for ways to stay at home with her first baby. She decided to open an Etsy shop to sell Catholic artwork – the first big step toward her dream.
What is the intersection between your art and faith? How can art be a form of evangelization?
As part of her research, Johnston reads a lot of Scripture and saint quotes. These holy words challenge Johnston in her prayer life and serve as inspiration to her.
“There is accountability when the products I’m creating are designed to lead people to God and to holiness – it should also be leading me to God and to holiness,” Johnston said. “It is a beautiful thing to be able to spread the words of Christ and the saints, and to know that these pieces I’ve created are in homes all over the country.”
While making the artwork for clients, Johnston takes the opportunity to pray for the people who will receive the art. She desires to lead others to prayer, “but it also leads me to prayer,” she said.
Sometimes people can be discouraged to share a gift or talent because someone else may be doing something similar, but Johnston says there is always room for more at the table for aspiring Catholic artists. “There is always a need for your light in the world!” she said. “God has blessed us with unique gifts and talents for a reason, and He needs all of us to reach different people and work together to accomplish His mission for the Kingdom.”
Artist Spotlight: Michael Mookie C. Manalili (Spoken Word)
Can you tell us a bit about how you became involved in your art/craft?
I was fascinated with the question of "why" since I was a tiny child in the Philippines. The way that stories helped explain our world always seemed to intrigue me - from the life lessons of rehabilitation patients my parents worked with to the theology, folklores, and mathematics taught by pink-habited nuns in our schools. I suppose having to learn different languages along the way also helped - not only adopting English but the different "languages" of the neighborhoods I grew up in. And yet, there always seemed to be the faint hum of something else and something more: the unity of our human experiences.
I've been involved in "spoken word" from the very beginning. More formally, however, I started writing other forms of poetry in high school (sonnets, haikus, etc) - and later started to dabble into performed poetry as I entered college. There was something about the cadence, pauses, and inflections that you can do in spoken poetry that made it feel more.... alive.
What is the intersection between your art and faith?
The resonance of art and faith can be both complex and simple. It can be complex insofar as beauty, meaning, and divinity always seems to have a resonance. From the Ancients, the pursuit of eudaimonia (or flourishing as opposed to mere 'happiness') requires actions that are excellent (virtue in Latin, arete in Greek) - and these excellent actions are noted as "beautiful" unto themselves. From the chaos and dawn of the Scriptures, the Spirit/Ruach/Breath of life animated the very dust of the humus and marrow of our bones. The echoes of the Word/Logos/Meaning echo forth in us, through the art of our embodiment and actions.
The intersection between art and faith can also be simple insofar as I hope that the meaning echoes forth from the poetry and speaks for itself. The beauty of a sunset amidst creation or bread that is broken and shared for another need not give itself in difficult elaborations - the very presence of something 'beyond-my-self' is given in the experience.
How can art be a form of evangelization?
I believe that art can orient our awareness beyond ourselves. When I practice spoken word poetry, I write with the audience in mind - not for myself. In the performance of the spoken word - my lived experiences, my meaning, my time, and my very breath are poured out for the other. And after the fact, I hope to "speak in congruence" when I act as a therapist for my patient, mentor for my students, and fellow laborer for my colleagues. Indeed, this is not a form of proselytizing evangelization merely through logic - but an invitation to serve and inspire others, given in the second ending in the Gospel of John: "Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Follow me."
“Remember the days past when, after you had been enlightened, you endure a great contest of suffering. At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, at other times you associated yourselves with those so treated. You even joined in the sufferings of those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, knowing that you had a better and lasting possession. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, it will have great recompense. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.
‘For, after just a brief moment, he who is to come shall come, he shall not delay.
But my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.’
We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life.” -Hebrews 10:32-39
We are living in an extremely tumultuous time. For over a year, a virulent sickness has swept over the world and caused havoc with our health, our economies, and the very way we relate to one another. It has separated us from friends, co-workers, extended family, and our church community, to name a few. In battling its transmission, we have been forced into isolation—severely limiting gatherings, celebrations together, and even sharing hugs. We have been stretched beyond our normal mode of living and the equilibrium of our lives has been disturbed, with no end clearly in sight. On top of all this, we have experienced political and social unrest – polarized groups rising against one another, causing great division instead of building unity. For any individual, these circumstances could easily defeat us and have us succumb to despair. I think of the Marty Haugen song many of us sing every year during Advent: “For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits, truly my hope is in you.” It resounds in my mind and heart as we traverse through such unsettling circumstances.
Amidst all the unknowns and unrest, I have witnessed a beautiful vision that overrides all the devastation of the circumstances we are in. I have seen people sacrifice to care for others and people coming together to celebrate the joy of life in trying situations. I have witnessed God living and walking among us through the selfless individuals choosing to stand tall in faith and do all things in love. As Christians we are taught “God is love.” We were created out of love, for love. We are part of God’s great creation and we belong to Him. He guides, instructs, and protects us always. What a magnificent testament to hope in! We pray in our Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This is part of what we profess at Mass before we enter into the liturgy of the Eucharist – which is the source and summit of our faith. We receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord to nourish us in body and spirit. This profession of faith, this gift of communion, allows us to walk through all the adversities of life as joyful people who understand our hope lies not in this world but in heaven, forever.
This living hope comes from being nurtured by the stories from Scripture, being taught prayers and devotions, receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist frequently, singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, and practicing acts of kindness daily. What an ironclad defense we have against any evil that would afflict our body or soul! How beautiful it is that as Christians we can be united together in faith wherever we are. This is how I have remained steadfast in hope and overcome fear during these trials that continue to badger us. Surrounding myself with pictures of the Holy Family, the saints, the crucifix, listening to Christ-centered music, praying novenas and prayers, attending Mass often, and sitting in the quiet and listening for God to speak to me are all ways I actively participate in being a person of hope. Even more simply, just keeping my home clean and neat makes it a peaceful sanctuary where I can experience God’s presence.
I have no control over the things of this world that loom large over me, but that is okay. As long as I adjust my spiritual armor and remain grounded in Christ, I have every reason to walk in hope, joyously, no matter the circumstances. My husband I adopted the habit of praying Saint Patrick’s Breastplate each morning before going out into the fray and it has born much good fruit in our lives. I offer it to you as another tool to assist you in the battle against evil.
We are children of light, born of love and destined for heaven. We belong to Him. He made us a community and all around the world, individually and in groups, we profess our faith boldly, we share His message of love constantly, and we support one another in solidarity of His kingdom. It is our job to remain in Him and He will supply all the grace needed to walk tall in hope. As St. Teresa of Avila said: ‘God withholds Himself from no one who perseveres.’
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As someone who has always looked forward to the next challenge or opportunity both personally and professionally, I haven’t been very skilled at pausing and reflecting on the past. Writing this passage challenged me to settle myself enough to reflect on my journey as a Catholic father, and for that I am thankful as it contains many opportunities for me to continue to grow as both a Catholic and a father.
My journey as a Catholic father is closely intertwined with my Catholic faith. My mother was a practicing Catholic and was always engaged in parish life. She also was a Catholic school teacher for many years. As a result, my sister and I were raised Catholic. In my case, this included attending Catholic school during my primary years and attending a Catholic university. I, like many other young Catholics, made my way to becoming an adult in the Catholic Church through Confirmation. While residing at home led by my mother, my sister and I were actively involved in our local parish.
My first set of real-life religious decisions came when I went away to college at the University of Notre Dame. At this point, my religion did not feel like it was my own. It felt like it was my mother’s religion and my connection to it was not as clear. During my years at Notre Dame, a campus with over 150 venues in which to pray or attend Mass, somehow I managed to not regularly attend Mass. During my college years, I met my wife of now 32 years. She, like my mother, was an active Catholic who felt sure of her connection to her faith. During our early years of marriage, while she strongly modeled the Catholic faith with regular Mass attendance and engagement in parish life, I once again managed to get by with a part-time Catholic mentality while still searching for how Catholicism would be “my faith” rather than my mother’s or my spouse’s. But my wife and my mother were role models who kept me close to the Catholic Church during this period of uncertainty and questioning.
After being married for just over 3 years, my wife and I conceived our first child. After she was born, we immediately began preparations for our daughter’s first step into the Catholic faith with the sacrament of Baptism. During this process, I had a real awakening: many of the questions I had been asking regarding my faith suddenly seemed selfish and self-serving. Although I felt I was prepared to be a father, I felt helpless in many ways to control the events that would impact my daughter throughout her life. It became clear to me that our daughter, and a few years later our son, would certainly need the love and support of their parents. However, they would also need something more—something that would sustain and anchor them throughout their lives regardless of the circumstance or challenge. This was faith, the Catholic faith. Not only would our children need this faith, but so would I. The blessing of fatherhood for me came with many gifts. My Catholic faith had become planted in some very good soil and, as a result of my fatherhood, began to grow.
As our children grew up and became adults, my journeying with them as a father, husband, Catholic, and business leader has had its challenges. There was always an endless stream of competing day to day priorities. It was disappointing when, despite all our best efforts to keep all the balls in the air, inevitably some would drop. Reflecting back, it was being present at those moments that gave my fatherhood and faith deeper meaning—when our children wanted to reach out for support, advice, a kind ear, or just to talk about their journey through both life and faith. In some cases, my children might not see the connection between their life journey and their faith journey, as I certainly didn’t a number of years ago. This provides a great opportunity as a father to create these connections for my children as they become full participants in our society and ultimately leaders in their communities, parishes, and professional lives. Having grown in my faith throughout my vocation as a father, I hope that I can be for my children the same role model of a loving, thriving Catholic faith that my mother presented to me.
On December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as patron of the universal church, Pope Francis proclaimed the Year of St. Joseph. To celebrate this historic moment in the universal Church, the Catholic Apostolate Center has launched a series exploring the depth and richness of fatherhood. We will feature one post a month from fathers at different stages of fatherhood, godfathers, spiritual fathers, priests, and grandfathers throughout the year.
We invite you to join us this year in learning more about masculinity, fatherhood, the dignity of labor, and the importance of faithfulness to the will of God. As we continue in our life of faith, we invite St. Joseph to be a father to each one of us, guiding us ever closer to his adopted son, Jesus. May he teach us how to be faithful disciples constantly adoring the face of Christ.
To kick off our fatherhood series, I’d like to share some powerful quotes from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde, that will help us more deeply come to know the quiet carpenter who helped raise the Son of God.
1. “Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”
Throughout salvation history, God has repeatedly chosen the least likely of candidates to accomplish his will. Moses was slow of speech. Peter was a fisherman. Paul was a persecutor of the Church. Joseph was a carpenter. What matters not to the Lord is our status in life, our accolades, our prestige, or our mightiness, but simply that we do His will. St. Joseph modeled that in every moment of his life—from accepting Mary into his home, to naming his Son Jesus, from fleeing to Egypt, to returning to Nazareth. St. Joseph, teach us obedience and humility.
2. “The greatness of Saint Joseph is that he was the spouse of Mary and the father of Jesus. In this way, he placed himself, in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, 'at the service of the entire plan of salvation.'”
Joseph was a father in every sense of the word. He guided and protected his family, provided for them, and loved them with tender affection. Everything he did was for the well-being of Mary and Jesus. He is a strong servant leader—one that all men can learn from. To be a father is a great blessing and gift. St. Joseph, help us to be servant leaders.
3. "Saint Paul VI pointed out that Joseph concretely expressed his fatherhood 'by making his life a sacrificial service to the mystery of the incarnation and its redemptive purpose. He employed his legal authority over the Holy Family to devote himself completely to them in his life and work. He turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of himself, his heart and all his abilities, a love placed at the service of the Messiah who was growing to maturity in his home.'"
Just as faith without works is dead, so too is love devoid of service. St. Joseph did not love solely with his words, but by his actions—which is likely why Scripture does not recount any of his speech—with St. Joseph, there was no need. His entire life was a song of love for the Holy Family and for God. St. Joseph, teach us to love as you loved.
4. "Joseph saw Jesus grow daily 'in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favour' (Lk 2:52). As the Lord had done with Israel, so Joseph did with Jesus: he taught him to walk, taking him by the hand; he was for him like a father who raises an infant to his cheeks, bending down to him and feeding him (cf. Hos 11:3-4)."
So often, we confuse holiness with otherworldliness. Perhaps we imagine celestial music, bright light, and the presence of angels accompanying the saints wherever they went. But to be holy is to be most fully human—at St. Iraneus said, “The glory of God is man most fully alive.” True holiness means living out our vocations fully, and that includes family life. St. Joseph would have fed Christ and eaten with him, he would have helped him get dressed or tied his sandals, he would have played games with him, sang with him, and worked with him. To be holy is not to be out of touch with reality. St. Joseph was not above the normal duties of fatherhood. St. Joseph, teach us to live out our vocations fully by taking Christ by the hand.
5. "Even through Joseph’s fears, God’s will, his history and his plan were at work. Joseph, then, teaches us that faith in God includes believing that he can work even through our fears, our frailties and our weaknesses. He also teaches us that amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course. At times, we want to be in complete control, yet God always sees the bigger picture."
A life of holiness does not mean one devoid of fear or suffering. This was true even for Joseph and Mary. What makes Joseph such a model for us is not that he was fearless, but that he trusted in God. He did many things that were difficult and probably not what he had intended for his life, but he trusted and obeyed. He hears the will of God and acts. Later on, Christ himself does not promise a life without the cross, but that He will always remain with us as we carry our crosses. It is when we give God our fears, frailties, and weaknesses that He can transfigure us for His glory. St. Joseph, teach us to trust God.
6. "During the hidden years in Nazareth, Jesus learned at the school of Joseph to do the will of the Father. That will was to be his daily food (cf. Jn 4:34)."
The home of the Holy Family was a domestic church in which virtue flourished and sanctity was cultivated. As the head of the family, Joseph served as a priestly figure and an earthly shadow of God the Father. Joseph would have been a man of Scripture who obeyed God’s commandments and lived a life of authenticity and virtue. How beautiful it is to think that Jesus “learned at the school of Joseph.” St. Joseph, teach us to do the will of the Father.
7. "Just as God told Joseph: 'Son of David, do not be afraid!' (Mt 1:20), so he seems to tell us: 'Do not be afraid!' We need to set aside all anger and disappointment, and to embrace the way things are, even when they do not turn out as we wish. Not with mere resignation but with hope and courage. In this way, we become open to a deeper meaning. Our lives can be miraculously reborn if we find the courage to live them in accordance with the Gospel. It does not matter if everything seems to have gone wrong or some things can no longer be fixed. God can make flowers spring up from stony ground. Even if our heart condemns us, 'God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything'(1 Jn 3:20)."
The words of God to Joseph echo once more for us today: do not be afraid! Fear, stress, and confusion are all normal to the human condition. God is not asking us to erase these feelings from our lives, but to give them over to Him. He is calling us to abandon ourselves to His loving providence and not become imprisoned by these emotions. St. Joseph may have feared for his family’s safety and well-being, but he was not consumed by fear or paralyzed by doubt. Pope Francis calls him, “creatively courageous.” “In the face of difficulty,” he writes, “we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it.” Joseph engaged. St. Joseph, teach us to abandon ourselves to God.
8. "Work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion. It becomes an opportunity for the fulfilment not only of oneself, but also of that primary cell of society which is the family."
Work is a part of God’s plan for humanity. What was not part of God’s plan was toil or fruitless labor that does not uphold mankind’s dignity. Prior to the Fall, Adam was called to till and cultivate the land. Christ has redeemed work once again by enabling us to offer all that we do and unite it to His sacrifice on the Cross. Our work can now have immeasurable meaning and be a means of sanctification. Joseph is also known as St. Joseph the Worker. He worked as a carpenter throughout his life and in this way provided for his family. When we work for others, when we work well and faithfully, our work can be a means of building up the Body of Christ and loving or serving one another. St. Joseph, teach us the dignity of human labor.
9. "Fathers are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person."
Fatherhood is so much more than physical procreation. It involves the cultivation of family and of the human person. It means providing for the spiritual or physical well-being of others. For this reason, priests are also called “Father.” They represent our Heavenly Father and make manifest His graces poured out in the sacraments. They accompany us on our spiritual journeys and act as shepherds guiding us towards holiness. Godfathers, too, play an important role in society by serving as models of holiness for their godchildren and praying and interceding on their behalf. St. Joseph, teach men true masculinity and authentic fatherhood.
10. "The Church too needs fathers."
Not only do families need fathers and stable father figures, the Church and world do as well. Authentic fatherhood is an essential part of God’s plan for humanity and is a part of God’s very identity. Society cannot exist and thrive without healthy and holy fathers. God chose to enter the world through a family and was obedient to his foster father Joseph while under his care. Scripture tells us that he "was obedient to them (Joseph and Mary).” St. Joseph, help raise up strong and loving fathers and father figures in our Church and society.
As we journey together in the Year of St. Joseph, let us pray to this powerful intercessor using the prayer of Pope Francis,
Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.
Baptism is one of my favorite subjects to teach my Pre-K students. Often, it is the first time the boys and girls really get a chance to learn about what Baptism is. Other times, it provides them a chance to share about their own sacramental experience or that of someone they know. Throughout the unit, everyone is given a chance to celebrate being part of God’s family in the Church. Learning about Baptism is a PreK standard in their catechesis, and we begin January by learning about Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan. We learn that it was John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus and offered a baptism of repentance. John came before Jesus telling the people to, “’Prepare the way for the Lord!’ preaching a baptism of forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:3-4).
Like the people whom John baptized and preached to, we likely are feeling in need of renewal. As we welcome this new year, we can also be renewed and cleansed from such a challenging year spiritually, emotionally, and physically! We can start fresh this year, and hear John, “a voice crying out in the desert.”
For me, 2020 often felt like a desert. At times, I felt as though my thirst for the Eucharist was unbearable since going to Church was unsafe. Other times, it seemed like I was stranded alone with a new baby and deserted by any additional help. This year has taken its toll on so many, in so many ways, and everyone’s desert has been hard. This pandemic has left many of us yearning, thirsting, and begging the Lord for renewal. Let us consider putting on a new self in renewing our own baptismal promises, participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and entering 2021 with clean and refreshed hearts!
My son was welcomed into the Church through Baptism in September. We followed the safety restrictions, had an option for virtual participation, and were able to celebrate our little child of God being cleansed of original sin. It was a humbling and beautiful Mass and Baptism. While I was holding my son, Vincent (named after St. Vincent Pallotti), I could feel God's presence and see it unfolding before my eyes. For a moment, my desert had become an oasis. Life, water, joy, gratitude, my little boy’s squeals, and love were present there with us. I knew there and then that my son had been renewed and would in turn bring some renewal into our lives. Just as my son’s baptism brought refreshing hope into my family’s life, the Lord’s Baptism can bring renewal and hope into our lives as Catholics. At the Lord’s Baptism, he received his mission. May we continue to reflect upon our own mission as disciples in this upcoming year.
Our hearts are yearning to be cleansed and renewed amidst our many deserts. Like my students learning about Baptism for the first time, let us engage our hearts and open our ears to the Word anew. Like my son’s Baptism showed me an oasis amidst a desert storm, let us find joy in our own Baptisms this year. Here is a prayer to leave you with as we begin the year anew:
Heavenly Father, as a new calendar year begins, cleanse us with new hope and give us nourishment in your Son, Jesus Christ. Wash away our sadness, pain, and fears and help us to know your love throughout this upcoming year. Help us prepare the way for you to come into our hearts, oh Lord. Turn our own desert into oasis. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
January 1, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, one of the holy days of obligation in the Church. This celebration is a special way to celebrate Mary’s special role in God’s plan in the Christmas story, as well as a way to start the year full of grace, ready to tackle those New Year’s resolutions. Although the practice of New Year’s resolutions is not distinctly Christian, our resolutions gain a new significance when we attend to Mary’s story.
Discern Your Resolutions
The story of Mary’s call to motherhood is a paradigm of Biblical discernment. When Mary received Gabriel’s announcement, “She was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). In faith, Mary wrestles with God’s calling. Even after her great “Yes,” and giving birth, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), revealing she is still learning what her vocation means and how to live it.
What’s this got to do with New Year’s resolutions? Discernment is a spiritual, prayerful decision-making process between possible courses of action. What specific habits or practices is God calling you to work on this year? There are plenty of worthwhile resolutions—there’s a million things I need work on—but it’s just not all possible to accomplish in a year, or ever. Prioritize resolutions that strengthen your personal vocation.
Expect Without Expectations
Mary’s faith is “expectant” but without “expectations.” In other words, Mary expects God to act in her life, but doesn’t place limitations on who, what, when, and where. Mary trusts the angel Gabriel’s words, “nothing will be impossible for God” and is free to live and say, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:37-38).
Maybe God will bring about the outcomes of your resolution through unexpected ways or people. That’s the way it often works in scripture and the lives of the Saints. When you give God permission to act on his terms, you are free to boldly expect that God will do new and great things in your life this year.
Make Room For Others
Even free from original sin, God uses other people to accomplish his plan in Mary’s life. Mary’s story was made possible through her reliance upon truthful friends and family. Her cousin Elizabeth speaks truth and hope into her situation (Luke 1:42), and her husband Joseph goes to heroic lengths to let God’s call come to fruition.
Share your resolution with someone you trust. Whether it’s a major lifestyle change or not, ask them to keep you accountable, and always with prayer. Accountability also prevents goals from becoming purely self-centered or even idols from seeking God first (e.g., just to impress people at the beach). No one can accomplish your resolution for you, but you can find people to accomplish it with you.
Resolve to Live the Truth
Mary shows the true path by always making everything about Jesus. “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). A true personal change will always lead us to more fully reflect our true identities as sons and daughters created in the image and likeness of God.
But the truth is, sometimes resolutions are born of self-loathing or lies we’ve bought instead of the desire to more fully reflect God’s truth. This often happens with body or image-related resolutions; to be thinner, smarter, stronger, etc. While these aren’t de facto bad things, the tendency becomes seeking physical solutions for a spiritual or psychological wound that really needs healing. That’s why discernment with spiritual direction and honest accountability is vital. Exercise programs or supplements say we should consult a physician first- but it’s also true when it applies to spiritual exercises for our soul! Mary and the saints save us from spiritual self-medication, which close us off from the Divine Physician.
We find ourselves approaching the end of a year perhaps unlike any other of recent memory. The turmoil and uncertainty of the past months have presented unique challenges—missing out on time with loved ones, in-person celebrations, socializing freely, and carrying out our normal routines. With all this adjustment, perhaps we have had to face challenges to our faith, our hope, and our spirits. Nevertheless, the faithful can assuredly find renewal and peace in the Christmas season as we celebrate God becoming one of us in all ways but sin. While we shall always have to face challenges in life, recent events and how society has responded to them can motivate us to re-evaluate where we look to center ourselves and our priorities in life.
The world celebrates Christmas with music, movies, decorations, presents, and other traditions that set it apart from the rest of the calendar year. With the increasing commercialization of Christmas, the true meaning of the season has become obscured. The bright lights, noise, and pressures of the holiday strongly contrast the stillness and the simplicity of what happened two thousand years ago far away in the town of Bethlehem. The Gospels describe various accounts surrounding the mystery of the Incarnation; especially in 2020 we can be confident that the Christmas story continues to have meaning and reminds us of important lessons to keep in our hearts all year long.
The world our Lord was born into is vividly recalled, during the Vigil Mass of Christmas, with a reading of the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ from the Roman Martyrology. The setting framed by the author details a world under the rule of the powerful Roman Empire, with God’s chosen people, who are forced to pay regular tribute to a ruler they did not select. By that point, the hope for a liberating Messiah by the Jews had narrowed to an expectation that the Messiah would wage a militaristic campaign and preside over an earthly kingdom of God’s people. It was under these circumstances that the Holy Family finally arrived in the City of David, as observed by Fulton Sheen in The Life of Christ:
There was no room in the inn but there was room in the stable. The inn was the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world's moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But there's no room in the place where the world gathers. The stable is a place for outcasts, the ignored, and the forgotten. The world might have expected the Son of God to be born in an inn; a stable would certainly be the last place in the world where one would look for him. The lesson is: divinity is always where you least expect to find it. So the Son of God-Made-Man is invited to enter into his own world through a back door.
The adorers who made their way to the Christ-child certainly had their own situations and positions to consider, but they nevertheless left behind their comforts and security to answer a higher calling. The shepherds made haste after the revelation by the angels; the wise men set off on a long journey to seek out the mystery the star guided them to. They came in humility and awe to behold God’s incarnate love in the darkness and stillness of the winter night. The experience was unlike any other in history; they returned to their lives changed by encountering the Lord God Himself.
This Christmas season, we may not have a star to guide us through the chaos of the world to the blissful peace of Christ, but the invitation to do Him homage is not diminished. No matter our state in life or the challenges we face, we can be confident that the Lord calls each of us to Himself, rising above our troubles and beyond any comforts the world could offer. We have cause to rejoice! The God Who ordered the universe and made all things good has humbled Himself and entered into this world to save us from our sins and claim us as His own through our faith. We cannot lose sight of this significant truth: the pilgrimage through the world in this life does not end in pointless suffering or hopelessness but in happy reunion with our God for all time. We liken ourselves to the first adorers who could not understand what had been revealed to them, but were so moved by the experience that they returned praising God and sharing what they learned with all they encounter. May our encounter with the Christ renew our hope, faith, and love to be shared with all nations.
Glory to the newborn King! Forever and ever, Amen.
A lyric of one of my favorite Advent hymns, “O Holy Night,” shares the simple yet profound posture in which we are called to enter into the Advent and Christmas seasons: on our knees.
Perhaps many of us already find ourselves there—either out of reverence or sheer exhaustion. For many, the year 2020 will forever be overshadowed by confusion, darkness, anxiety, fear or stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you, like me, have just wanted it all to be over. We may feel tired of the masks, the canceled events, the physical distance from our friends and loved ones, uncertain job security, or the fear for our health and for those around us. Our hands are raw from sanitizer. Our hearts are raw from stress and confusion. Pandemic fatigue is real.
Is this exhaustion, stress, and confusion similar to what the Jewish people felt as they traversed to their hometowns for Caesar Augustus’ census two thousand years ago?
“Where is the Savior foretold by the prophets?” they must have thought. “Where is the king who would overthrow all oppressors and establish God’s kingdom forever? Where is God? And why does he seem silent?”
For God’s Chosen People, continued faith and hope must have been a hard choice.
For God’s chosen people, continued faith and hope is a hard choice.
And it is precisely when we are caught up in our feelings of negativity, sadness, or desolation that we fail to see God at work. Too consumed by looking inward, we forget to look up and see the star. It is precisely for this reason that hardly anyone attended the most important event in all of human history: the birth of the Savior of the World, a child born quietly in the recesses of Bethlehem.
So where do we find ourselves? Are we grumbling that God has not done enough to fix our broken situation? Are we stressed about the logistics to get our family to the census? Are we awaiting our own version of the Messiah, making our own golden calves? Do we look back longingly, preferring the slavery of Egypt to the wilderness? Or have we abandoned our relationship with God altogether?
Finally, are we on our knees?
Mary models this posture with her very life. I cannot help but imagine that she received the news from the Angel Gabriel on her knees. “How can this be?” she asked, greatly troubled at what was said in the midst of the holy and miraculous encounter. Her fiat was only possible because of her posture of humility. This receptivity is what every Christian is called to emulate.
This posture in the presence of God is also important because kneeling is a physical reminder of reality: God is God, and we are not. Put another way, God is Creator, we are created. By kneeling in prayer, we enter into a dialogue with God in a posture of humility that reflects the true order of reality. Kneeling is also a posture of vulnerability that manifests our littleness before a great God.
This littleness is not belittling, but reveals our true dignity. We have the courage to kneel because, in a sense, God knelt first. As St. Paul reminds us, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself” (Phil 2:7). How can we then fear to approach such a gentle and humble Savior?
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we are not in control. Mary experienced this too. She did not anticipate a virgin birth, losing her Son for three days, or watching her Son’s crucifixion. This lack of human control is the truth regardless, but it’s a reality often obscured by our schedules, appointments, bank accounts, occupations, or social events. And when many of these good things have been stripped from our day-to-day lives, we are forced to reckon with our vulnerability. We are reminded that, ultimately, our Good Father holds us and our world in existence. We fall to our knees.
Let us therefore approach Him lovingly this Christmas in this humble posture. Let us honor and reverence Him by offering to the Christ-child all our insecurities, fears, or limitations.
I invite you to offer each sacrifice, hardship, or suffering as a piece of straw to warm the Christ-child this season. To look for the guiding star each day that leads us to Bethlehem. To name throughout the day what you are thankful for rather than succumb to grumbling. To spend some time reading Scripture, attending a Mass virtually or in person, sharing food or gifts with the needy, or singing an Advent hymn. To open our hearts to God’s way of doing things rather than grasping for control on our own. To fall on your knees.
This season, may we join the shepherds, the wise men, and all the angels and saints in this humble posture filled with breathless hope, joy, and excitement to adore Christ the Lord, the newborn King, the answer to each prayer, the fulfillment of all desire.
And may we prepare a full, warm manger for the Christ-child to rest in on Christmas Day.