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Fourth Week of Advent

Notice the angel Gabriel’s first word to Mary at the annunciation: “Rejoice.” Let’s remember it this week, which can be one of the most hectic in the year. The angel says, “rejoice.” [NAB] Not “spend. Clean. Cook. Decorate. Shop. Bake. Wrap. Shop again. Create the perfect holiday ambiance. Work to exhaustion. Make everyone in the family sublimely happy.”

In his Rule, St. Benedict says, “each day has reasons for joy.” Maybe at this time of year, they are more obvious. The shared belief of Christians is that Jesus has become one with humans, indeed has pitched his tent within us. The once distant face of God has become as close, vulnerable and loveable as a baby’s. None of us deserves this, so we celebrate God’s lavish abandon, the pure gratuity of God’s gift.

If this seems a tall order, if we’re too tired or depressed to rejoice, we can take heart from the ambiguity of the feast. Mary’s reaction to the angel is to be “much perplexed.” Indeed, the whole experience is for her a two-edged sword: joy tempered by natural, human fear.

This season, when we hear songs of praise, Mary’s and Zechariah’s, let’s remember: Hers somehow overcomes the doubt and fear she must have felt. His breaks a long silence, welcomes new possibility, and expresses a hard-won trust in God—and his wife. Let’s try to make this week our own canticle of gratitude and praise.

Third Week of Advent


Sunday’s gospel says that when John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.” During liturgies when we hear Mary’s “Magnificat,” we might remember Elizabeth’s words that precede it: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion.

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”

Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

Excerpted from the current issue of LIGUORIAN.

Second Week of Advent

Improbable Prophet

The people of John the Baptist’s day, like people today, would’ve expected any profound religious announcement to come in its proper place: from the rabbi in the synagogue. Instead, this unorthodox preacher appears in the Judean desert and attracts a crowd. People might be naturally suspicious. He certainly doesn’t use polite language, or worry about disturbing our comfort zones. Yet those too unsettled by this man in camel skin to pay attention might miss an important message. How sad to miss the Christ to whom John the Baptist points!

What unlikely prophets live among us? What surprising spirituality have we encountered where we least expected it? Did it come from someone too young to believe, or someone too oddly dressed to have credibility?

Especially if we’re self-righteous churchgoers, we need a herald like John to shake up our easy assumptions. We may not like the direction in which such leaders point, but their challenge upsets our own infallibility. It’s sadly easy to enshrine our personal opinions and make our preferences into little gods. In the spiritual life, some uncertainty and hesitancy, especially regarding our impeccable selves, is useful.

First Week of Advent

The Mood of Advent

We start Advent not with dread or foreboding, but with joyful anticipation. It’s like welcoming into our homes a dear friend or relative whom we haven’t seen for a while. There’s probably a flurry of cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking—all done with delight. When we look forward to renewing a close relationship, the preparation isn’t a burdensome chore. It may be tiring, but it’s happy.

Jesus gives the disciples similar advice: don’t be snoozing when an important visitor arrives. Be alert, awake, watchful as people are at an airport, searching the crowd for a beloved face.

How much more carefully we await the arrival of God. God is already with us, always and everywhere. Our Advent preparations highlight that presence, helping us become more aware. If we are lulled into anesthesia by busy schedules or overfamiliarity, Advent is the wake-up call. Look at what richness surrounds us! See how blessed we are! Do we look for God with a sharp eye? Or do we surrender our spirituality for the ersatz cheer of sales and malls?

One way of marking time that has been honored by Christians for centuries is the Advent wreath. Googling the phrase produces over 100,000 results—ways to buy one, make one, pray with one. This circle of pine with four candles nestled within can become the center for Advent prayer, reflection and song. It reminds us to pause, breathe deeply of its fragrance, remember what distinguishes this time of year.



Gratitude Journal, Continued

At this time of year, gratitude overflows, so more excerpts from the journal described last week:

a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering over a puffy scarlet flower

a yoga session that works out all the kinks and aches

a library notice that 3 long-awaited books have arrived

a retreat house keeping up the fine tradition of cookies to fuel the spiritual journey

cool weather following  a long hot spell

feeling like a four-year old in new tennies, able to soar over mountains!

the smell of clean laundry dried in the sun

finding my watch, my keys, my glasses, lost in “senior moments”

a fine film that gives lots to reflect on in the weeks following it

home-made bread and veggie soup warming a chilly evening

a binge on Masterpiece Theatre Sunday evening

the fragrance of an orange pomander candle

big arcs of Canadian geese in a twilight sky

snuggly sweaters on cold days

hilarious e-mails planning a family event, fun in anticipation

the help of a 94-year old friend, carrying boxes to my car in the rain

the sloppy wet kiss of a grandson

an empty lap lane at the swimming pool

a reliable car that always starts

fat buds of red poppies

a book club choosing my work, GOD IN THE MOMENT

a square of sun on the wooden bannister or floor

a hike in misty fog early on Saturday morning

fitting into tight black jeans

the lilt of an Irish brogue

seeds given out at  a young friend’s funeral, blossoming into daisies








Excerpts from a Gratitude Journal

In his book THANKS!, Robert Emmons recommends keeping a gratitude journal to enhance our gratefulness. At this time of year, it’s especially appropriate to look back over past entries (I’ve now filled two small diaries), to see patterns, and to be grateful again for:

The Gifts of Time

–fitting in two errands and a quick walk before an appointment

–getting a free evening when it wasn’t expected

–one stop-shopping: finding all I needed in one place

The Gifts of Taste

–a favorite ice cream flavor

–Trader Joe’s dark chocolate lacey cookies or chocolate covered almonds or Girl Scout Samoas

–finding an easy crock pot recipe for pot roast or soup

–cinnamon-raisin swirl toast dripping with butter

–Yakima cherries on the Olympic peninsula

The Gifts of Work and Leisure

–meeting a deadline, finishing an article

–getting home before the snow fall, finished on a Friday with the week well done

–a proposal accepted, a talk scheduled, a project complimented

–finding fine novels: The Light between Oceans, The Truth According to Us, The Invention of Wings, All the Light We Cannot See at the library

–slipping into grubby, comfortable clothes after dressy ones

–falling asleep in deep peace

The Gifts of Family and Friends

–an unexpected call from my daughter, an e-mail from my son, a postcard from another daughter, a text from another son

–a wonderful dinner or hike with special people

–family members getting plane tickets for Thanksgiving or Christmas

The Gifts of Nature

–tiny toes of green buds in spring, turning into full-blown, tax-paying adult leaves

–the first ¼“ of daffodils poking through the mud

–the sound of rain on the roof

–prism light of sun on snow

November, the Month of All Saints

As we celebrate the Feast of All Saints and sing the Litany of Saints, let’s imagine a table where some of the U.S. saints, both officially canonized, and those not yet there, eat and chat.

Elizabeth Ann Seton and Pierre Toussaint exchange news about their parish, St. Peter’s in New York City; she thanks him for donations to the orphanage staffed by her sisters. Katharine Drexel and John Neumann chat about their home town, Philadelphia. Marianne Cope, the first to admit alcoholics to the hospital at a time when they were jailed instead, thanks Bill W., Dr. Bob and Sister Mary Ignatia for founding Alcoholics Anonymous. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez discuss with Henry David Thoreau his essay, “On Civil Disobedience.” He preferred jail to paying a tax which would finance the Mexican War and extend slavery; his stance on resisting injustice underlay their movements. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and Elizabeth Ann Seton compare notes on their shared experiences of being widowed, converting to Catholicism when it was most unpopular, losing a child, and constantly caring for the sick. Frances Cabrini discusses immigration with contemporary experts and marvels that the issues of her day still have not been resolved. Thea Bowman and Katharine Drexel roll their eyes about black women being denied admission to religious communities in the early 1900s. Sister Mary Luke Tobin and  Rachel Carson measure women’s progress in the arenas they pioneered: church and science. Dorothy Day, Helen and Cesar Chavez reminisce about their visits to each other, and her imprisonment in 1973 for picketing several California vineyards. Dorothy Stang and the sisters martyred in Liberia talk with Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel about the ties that bound them so closely to their people, they couldn’t leave their missions even when their lives were endangered.

Excerpt from WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN, Liturgical Press, 800-858-5450,