When Christmas isn’t What You Expected

When Christmas isn’t What You Expected

Three children. God is good and we were truly blessed. First God gave us Ronan, then Caleb and now a new child would change our life forever (again). And if the miracle of it all weren’t plainly obvious already the baby’s due date underscored what a gift we had been given: December 24th. We were obviously going to need a Christmas themed name. Maybe Noelle for a girl? Or Holly? After two boys we were fairly certain this third child would be a girl. We both liked the name Gabriella in honor of the angel Gabriel.

Just shy of 12 weeks into the pregnancy we learned that we had lost the baby. As our expectations for the future were dashed, the decade old wounds from Ronan’s death reopened, wounds which I thought were fairly well healed. My prayer life shrank. Mostly it shrank down to just one word: Why? If I had my way I would be waking up this Christmas morning to embrace my 10 year old son, his 16 month old brother and their newborn sibling. Jesus, why can’t I have that? I know that my ways are not his ways.   The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.  I have to trust Him.

Trust can be a bitter pill to swallow. This is especially so when our expectations aren’t met. This season can be one of such wonder, excitement and joy. But the season of light can also painfully illuminate those areas of our lives that fall short of our expectations. For so many the joy of Christmas will be accompanied by the sorrow of empty chairs, illness, addiction, divorce, discord with loved ones, financial hardship—the list seems endless. What does God say in answer to our collective why? He asks us to trust Him. To trust that in all things, even the worst things, He is working for the good of those who love Him.

Christmas is all about defied expectations. A young virgin is pregnant and her soon to be husband is not the biological father. The long awaited Messiah of the Jewish people was expected to be a mighty king like David, not a poor, temporarily homeless child born in a stable. And yet this little baby is the rival to King Herod and Caesar Augustus. The Sovereign King of the Universe was tiny, naked, cold and crying in His teen mother’s arms. The only witnesses to the arrival of the Author of Life in our midst are Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, and a few animals. Yet his birth points toward our salvation and gives hints of how it will come about. The manger isn’t a special crib for babies but a place to put food for us, the sheep.  Myrrh is an embalming oil for the dead, not a children’s toy. We hear the story so often we forget how astounding and unexpected it all is. One of the most remarkable things for me is Mary and Joseph’s trust in the Father’s plan of loving goodness. They had no way of knowing then that their difficult circumstances were part of an unfolding plan of cosmic proportion that would ultimately end on the day when their own Son would wipe away the tears from every eye. They simply trusted.

This Christmas will not be what you or I had expected it to be. But with the eyes of faith we can see, despite appearances to the contrary, that our Father still has a plan for us and that plan is ultimately for our good—for a future filled with hope. Our God is with us to save us. Jesus I trust in you. Merry Christmas.

In Jesus and Mary,

Frank

 

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Holy Darkness

Holy Darkness

When I was in fifth grade I went camping with my Dad. Camping was always special for us. Camping trips with my dad are among the happiest memories of my childhood. This one camping trip I remember for a couple of reasons. First, we ate the largest can of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli (the finest ravioli there is) I have ever seen. Second, I just recently had my tonsils removed thus it had to be a more low-key weekend adventure as to avoid dislodging clots and bleeding to death (or something like that). Third, unlike most of our camping trips, which we took in the summer, this one was in December.

At night we walked down to the shore of the lake, which had frozen early that year and was covered in snow. It was a moonless night and being December the Milky Way wasn’t visible so the only light to see by came from the thousands of stars that shone weakly in the sky. They gave the sprawling field of snow in front of us a deep blue hue. The windless winter night was silent—no sirens, no car engines, no insect noises, no rustling leaves.  And I clearly remember feeling, in that darkness and silence, that I was experiencing something profoundly holy. I didn’t have that specific word for it at the time.  I just felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for the temporary elimination of things that so often amuse me and attract my attention, yet hide His sacred whisper which waits just beneath it all.

Sometimes I play a really strange game in my head. I say, “If I were Satan I would…” This isn’t my idea so I should get neither the credit for its ingenuity nor the blame for how weird it is. My little mental and spiritual exercise is in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which you should read if you haven’t, followed by Peter Kreeft’s Snakebite Letters). This exercise helps me to discern some of the invisible forces that influence our world. A number of years ago I came to this conclusion: If I were Satan, I would never permit darkness or silence. TV, smartphone, tablet and computer screens would never go blank. Lights would never go down low enough to allow the heavens to declare God’s glory. Noise would be ceaseless, whether music (good and bad) or the ceaseless hums, buzzes, beeps, chirps, and whirs of modern life. Incessant chatter about nothing and constant gossip would fill in any quiet pauses. There would be no time for peaceful contemplation—the kind where we might hear Jesus speak deep within.

I think this is exactly what Satan has done, and it is working. Our world is so often full of “noise and fury, signifying nothing,” that we can barely hear our own thoughts, let alone hear the still, small voice of Jesus in our hearts. The world is blinding and loud. Compare this map to this map and you can see what effect this has on our ability to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit within us. Sometimes I wonder if we could halt and reverse the western world’s flight from God and religion by shutting off the electricity for one night every few years. That’s unlikely, and our aim as Catholics shouldn’t be to find God by shunning modern life but to find Him in the midst of it.

Advent is a season of darkness and silence that ushers in a season of light and joyous celebration. Without the former we can’t fully appreciate the latter.  By embracing silence at times we can hear what we otherwise would not be able to hear. When Katie was pregnant, she felt Caleb moving within her long before I could feel him outside. In silence we can feel the Holy Spirit moving within, even when the world tries to tell us otherwise. In darkness our eyes adjust to see even the faintest stars. In the darkness of Advent the eyes of faith adjust to see the light of Christ that shines in the darkness—the Light that the darkness cannot overcome. I pray you find time in the remaining days of Advent to be immersed in holy darkness and sacred silence as you prepare your heart to receive the Light of the World.

Click Here and You Could Have a Free Fiat!

Click Here and You Could Have a Free Fiat!

Did I get your attention?

Now I get to be a huge disappointment. There is no car giveaway. Sorry.

There’s good news though. Keep reading and there might still be a free fiat in this for you.

I love the Immaculate Conception. And by that I mean the Solemnity we celebrate today as well as the person. After all, the BVM did tell Saint Bernadette that she is the Immaculate Conception. Immaculate Conception is one of those Catholic buzzwords that can easily end up being so heady and profound that it loses any useful meaning. It did for me until a few years ago when I read for the first time what Immaculate Conception meant in terms that were so simple even I understood them.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe (a recurring hero you know if you follow this blog) taught that the Holy Spirit is the “uncreated, eternal conception” of the love between the Father and the Son. And the Spirit is, by His divine nature, immaculate or free from sin. When Mary declared to Saint Bernadette that she is the Immaculate Conception what she was really saying was that she has identified with the Holy Spirit from the very first instant of her existence. As long as she has been, the Holy Spirit has dwelt with her and in her.

Because of this indwelling of the Spirit, Mary’s “yes” to the Angel Gabriel was the freest “yes” ever uttered by human lips. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

(She actually said, “Let it be done” which is fiat in Latin. So…there’s the free fiat. I never disappoint)

This is a special grace Mary received from her Son Jesus–the indwelling of the Spirit. A few years after I learned this, I found out something else too. The exact same grace given to the Blessed Mother at her conception is offered to us as well. The prayers for today’s Mass make clear,  the grace of the Immaculate Conception is the foreseen grace given by Christ from the cross.

The Holy Spirit desires to dwell in you and me. And by receiving Him we will be made free. Hopefully, we’ll be made free enough to echo the fiat of the Immaculate Conception. So we offer Mary our veneration*, ask for her intercession, and look to her as the model of perfect discipleship.

“And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.'”

 

*Hyperdulia if you’re looking to get fancy.