Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas: John 1:1-18

Just as the overture to a Broadway musical sounds themes that will recur in later songs, so the Prologue to John’s gospel begins ideas that will be developed later. One that is especially relevant today is how God seeks out human beings, making them God’s own children. Always, God tries to change human darkness into stunning light.
To apply that truth to our own experience, we might reflect on verse 16: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” What have been the special graces in our lives, spilling over from God’s fullness? Have we been aware of them, and thankful?
No matter what our worries are: about scarcity or loss, unemployment or loneliness, illness or death, today we set them aside and rest in the fullness of God’s overflowing love. This is a day to focus on the wonder of God becoming human, uplifting us all to be brothers and sisters of Jesus. Isaiah expresses the good news: “the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9). In this case, Jerusalem stands for all of us: redeemed, graced, blessed, joyful.
On this day, we sing carols around the crèche, change the prayer space color from purple to white or gold, worship with our faith community, ring the bells, enjoy the decorations, laugh, tell stories, eat the feast and relish Christmas cookies. If that sounds a bit self-centered, we’re also called to hospitality: as in the Benedictine tradition, to welcome all guests as Christ.

Christmas Themes, Part 3

Editor’s note: This is part 3 in a 3 part series.  Read part 1 here, and part 2 here.


John’s first letter says God’s commands “are not burdensome for whoever is born of God conquers the world” (1 John 5:3-4). Our learning to trust may be the work of great happiness which leads to Christmas. Then we celebrate the fact that God “pitched his tent IN us” (John 1:14).

What’s waiting to be birthed in us? If we dismiss that possibility because we’re too old, tired, sick or angry, it’s the season to remember Elizabeth. She and her husband assumed they were too old to have a child, but John the Baptist was God’s surprise.

Another surprise was God’s choice of the most unlikely vehicle, the person who seemed least suited to bring his son into the world. Mary had four strikes against her: she was female, young, unmarried and a Jew, belonging to the ethnic group oppressed by Romans, clearly the dominant culture with all the power. But apparently God didn’t think human obstacles and categories were “flaws” in Mary. If God had approached a heavenly committee to explain the Plan for Salvation, God would have been unfazed by the ensuing chorus of criticism.

Scripture doesn’t record whether a goose was present at the Bethlehem stable. But symbolically, it would be appropriate. Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times that his family raised geese when he was a boy in Oregon. The geese mate for life, and trying to fatten up the male with some delicacy was impossible; they’d always save it for their mates.

The boy’s monthly job was to grab a goose for slaughter. As it struggled in his arms, another goose “would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me.” It would be totally terrified, but it knew something was awfully wrong, and wanted to stand with and comfort its love. The adult Jesus would do that: step forward to stand with us, sacrificing his very life. At our best, we do that for others: fearful, unsure, yet stepping forward for those we love. At this season, we gratefully celebrate holy boldness.

When we reach Christmas itself, Father Patrick Dolan recommends, “for one day, let the child in the manger overshadow the elephant in the living room.” Of course we have “issues” when we gather with our families to celebrate the feast. Old arguments can resurface nastily; old wounds can re-emerge; old habits can still grate. But all we need do to better appreciate our friends and relatives is notice how many have died; how many mourn. Despite his annoying repetitions, we’re blessed to still have Grandpa. Despite their astronomical costs, we’ll miss our children when they grow up and move away.

The Christ Child reminds us that even the small, vulnerable and insecure can make a giant contribution. As an infant, he demonstrates silently what he would say strongly as an adult: the prince of this world has no hold over me. The brute force of the Roman empire, Herod’s murderous thugs: NOTHING could stop a baby and his bewildered parents from bringing forgiveness. When God asks us to be God’s hearts, hands and home in our worlds, do we respond hesitantly or fearfully?

If so, we need the central word: Remember. The forces that drag us down and demoralize have no power because we belong to God. Even as we struggle to believe and internalize that wondrously good news, it’s giving us life. Christmas reminds us how we were saved once–and will be saved again and again and again. Jesus wants to come into our lives, take on human skin and elbows and ears, heal whatever it is that holds us back from being fully ourselves, fully God’s. Like bells on a frosty morning, the themes resound: Attend. Trust. Celebrate.

Christmas Themes, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part 2 in a 3 part series. Read part 1 here.


As we make our wobbly way towards God’s dream for us, the only door to the future is trust. Trusting is not an act like leaping off a cliff, but faith solidly rooted in past experience. As Pat Livingston says, “It’s impossible to trust God in the abstract or just because we’re told God is trustworthy…We learn to trust God because of our ongoing experiences of God’s goodness.”

We’ve all had blessings slide into our foundering boats like full nets of fish, thrashing and gleaming in the sun. This is the time to remember that God who has been faithful before will be faithful again. No matter what desert or wasteland we face, God enters it with us because of Jesus’ incarnation.

Much troubles us, but much has already been resolved. Look, for instance, at an old “to do” list. It records chores crossed off, projects accomplished, calls returned, questions answered and dilemmas either solved or forgotten. All the prickly question marks eventually bend into a smooth highway for God.

Researchers who study happiness find a close correlation between happiness and trust. If we can engage confidently with our government, church, workplace, school or neighbors, we feel supported, and in turn, able to trust.

Christmas Themes, Part 1

Sorry the Christmas posts are late, but the illustrious editor spent WAY too much time playing with grandchildren over the holiday….

From THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC, Chapter 11 (Orbis Books, 2012)

Every time it happens, I catch my breath. Westbound flights to California pass over the Grand Canyon in silence. Beneath us stretches a marvelous sculpture of brilliant red rock, carved over centuries by the Colorado River. J. B. Priestley called it “all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in stone and magic light.”

Seven million years of geological history lie exposed beneath the plane, and the pilot never mentions it. Passengers on Flight 1183 to San Diego or 1719 to Santa Ana doze, read magazines or work on their laptops. “Hey!” I’d shout if security wouldn’t arrest me. “There are only seven natural wonders of the world, and you’re missing one of them!”

Are we equally oblivious to Christmas when it rolls around again? Some things are so important that once a year, we must make a conscious effort to remember them. The themes of attention, trust and celebration are so frail they tend to get swamped in seasonal busy-ness. But they are so powerful they can sustain us through the rest of the year.

A certain amnesia is healthy for humans: the mind simply can’t hold all the details, phone numbers, passwords, jingles, events, etc. that threaten to clog and stall it. It’s as natural to erase the mental clutter as to clean out the garage.

But the hazard of this natural forgetfulness is that it works against our remembering how we’ve negotiated difficult passages before: through illness, job loss, divorce, grief or moving—so we can do it again. Christmas, like the weekly Eucharist, recalls our survival stories.


During Advent, the themes like those of music, begin to build gently, then reach a climax in Christmas. First comes our transition from ordinary time. Isaiah sounds the alert:

“A voice cries out: In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” (40:3). Notice the placement of the colon. The good news comes first to the desert where it’s most needed. There, all is bleak and empty, unless you’ve got a long extension cord and a lot of water. It’s a wasteland without borders where nothing works the way it does in cozy civilization.

We’re always in one wilderness or another: in one year, it’s drought, dismal economy and widespread joblessness. Another year, it might be poor health or the death of a friend. Yet the advice remains the same: always look for the water sources. One year we’re sustained by kind people; another, by the hope of recovery.

Furthermore, Isaiah continues, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The purpose of a highway is to keep moving, not to get snagged or stuck in the desert. The prophet recalls our high calling as God’s construction crew, with lots of work to do. We are not to get sucked into anxiety or worry about what we can’t control anyway. The desert plays its part in awakening us, but we don’t want to stall there.

Where are we getting bogged down, building roadblocks to God? For some people, it’s depression or a hurt they can’t release. For others, a debilitating illness. Even innocent victims of crime can feel responsible, and guilt or shame drains energy. When we’re trapped in terrible circumstances, we can remember the Jews in the Nazi camps. Some went to the ovens angry and bitter; others went singing the psalms. When the problem is unavoidable, which response do we choose?

Each year Christmas reminds us: whatever it is that threatens to sap our strength, we needn’t get trapped in that vortex. We are beloved of God, centers of freedom and fidelity.

Throughout the Genesis account of creation, one refrain sounds over and over: “and God saw that it was good.” The word “good” refers to the stars and sea, the land and plants, the rivers and animals. But as the account reaches its crescendo, the creation of human beings, it shifts to the Hebrew word “tov.” This means blessed, growing towards completeness. While flowers and fish have reached their natural perfection—they can’t get any better by making retreats or taking classes—humans are still in process. We always have the potential to grow into what God envisioned  at our conceptions.

Advent, Part 3

Our Advent yearning is not for Christ to come: he already has come in history. We long for our world to be saturated with the gospel, permeated with Christ’s presence, and our hearts to become more compassionate. His unpredictability then directs us to embrace events that may disrupt our routines.

If we dread the season which alerts us to All We Haven’t Done for Christmas, we’re missing wonder unfolding before our eyes. The four weeks scroll through the magnificent history of human hope, and we concentrate on catalogues. Or we clip recipes, watch the sales, and agonize over what to get Aunt Lucy. Advent asks us to take a deliberate stand that says, “Over centuries, people yearned for Christ’s coming, so I won’t take it for granted. I’ll never let his incarnation be rubbed away by busy-ness.”

Some surprises that should astound us: peoples’ kind efforts to help us, even when they are busy or tired themselves, the discovery of many options in a situation that seemed dead-ended, a sympathetic friend in a wildly dysfunctional office, a window of time in a packed schedule, a flash of beauty, a check in the mail, or a stimulating conversation in an otherwise empty day, someone’s contribution of last night’s leftovers the day we forgot to bring lunch to work. Hunting for the surprises tucked into each day eventually builds a perennial hope, a stubborn refusal to believe that God brings us anything but ultimate joy. If we know that the story ends happily, why waste time on worry?

Poet Mary Oliver in “The Kingfisher” qualifies that small surprises don’t mean unmitigated bliss, but make fine stepping stones through the ordinary:

–so long as you don’t mind

a little dying, how could there be a day in your  whole life

that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?

What if Advent isn’t an exhausting list of duties, but a marvelous scavenger hunt where we keep discovering tantalizing clues of a good master? What if God shares our delicious delight and high expectation in planning a surprise for a dear friend or child? What if God’s coming is like that of someone deeply loved, for whom it is sheer joy to bake, clean, shop and decorate? What if all the preparation time vanishes as nothing to the enormous relief of seeing and holding that loved one? “What ifs?” attune us to surprising promises—what Advent is all about.

Advent: A Season of Surprise (in 3 Parts)

This chapter from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC, originally published in ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER, takes on new meaning as Pope Francis calls God a surprise…

During an Advent session at Mater Dolorosa Parish in San Francisco, one lady stoutly maintained she hated surprises. During a raffle afterwards, she won the turkey!

Such unexpected events help prepare us for Advent, the season of a surprising spirituality. God who could have become human as a respected philosopher like Plato, a military leader like Alexander the Great, or a beautiful queen like Cleopatra, comes instead as a helpless baby. All the Beauty and Power in the universe becomes vulnerable and dependent. Furthermore, God pitches a tent, not only “among” us, but “in” us, as some translations say. What an odd residence for the King of Kings!

As Gaudium et spes says, God “has in a certain way united himself with each individual. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will and with a human heart he loved.” (22) Advent is meant as a time of preparation for that incarnation event, but how can we prepare for something so impossible to imagine?

One answer lies in the direct interplay between scripture and our lived experience. It seems as if God always make an entrance through the door behind us, the place where we weren’t looking. That pattern, also found in the Bible, sensitizes us to look beyond the tried-and-true, socially sanctioned, boring, repetitious rut. As some say, God lurks in the cracks between certainties.

Promise came to the Samaritan woman in a surprising way (John 4: 7-42). She trudged to the well as she had nine million other times, but there she met a stranger who snagged her attention. His request was preposterous: this guy without a bucket wasn’t supposed to use the vessel of a less orthodox Jew! Nor was he supposed to talk with a woman in public. He didn’t make a demand, but suggested a possibility: if only you knew the gift of God…

It’s the kind of tantalizing potential children suspect before Christmas. If only you knew what was in that large box with the intriguing tag… How could the woman at the well resist such a mysterious invitation?

Until then, she’d probably done what she had to do to survive: endless drudgery, reliance on men since she had few rights, enduring the sneers of self-righteous, married-only-once women. The stranger offers her another way, an inner source of vitality that will never dry up or disappoint. He presents God’s life in terms she understands. Who appreciates a fountain more than a desert dweller? She can practically taste fresh drops on her tongue.

Jesus himself isn’t immune to the effects of a long, hot walk. Angels don’t rush in with iced pitchers and shading umbrellas. Like us, he depends on human beings to relieve his human needs. In the architecture of John’s gospel, the request recurs during the crucifixion (“I thirst.” –19:28). Furthermore, he doesn’t use flowery camouflage, but speaks the need, simply and directly. As St.   Augustine pointed out, Jesus’ weariness may spring symbolically from his long journey into humankind, with its flaws and evils.

We all function in familiar grooves; it’s how we organize our time. Especially during this super-busy season, various chores compete for our attention, screaming, “Attend to me!” “No, me!” “I’m next!” Like a chorus of toddlers, all those jobs demand time and energy. It’s tempting to strangle those who want us to be still and quiet in Advent prayerfulness.

And yet. Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie in The Gospel According to John says the woman at the well was too preoccupied with daily necessities. She had to learn to relax and enjoy God. For people obsessed with responsibility, as many are before Christmas, it’s wondrous relief to let God be God. And one of God’s hallmarks seems to be this propensity to surprise.

In the final judgment scene, both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised by the king’s words (Matthew 25: 31-46). Apparently what they thought important isn’t, and vice-versa. “You mean that pbj I made my daughter? That tea I gave the repair man? That’s where you were? Not in the church attendance, the solemn committee meetings, the dutiful donations?”

What may block our awareness is the same demand that swamped the Samaritan woman: intense, seasonal. Picture them jostling, all contenders for our attention, but ultimately imposters. Someone must muscle them aside if the King is to claim the throne, centrality in our lives. Then, as the Buddhists say, if we think we’ve achieved that, we probably aren’t there yet. Surprise!

To be continued…