Christmas presence

Start with perspective.

I was driving somewhere one day last week and just buried in work and deadlines beyond the usual, and the usual are demanding enough. It was all overwhelming, and the thought hit with urgency ‘how will I ever be able to get Christmas together this year?’ There was not time nor opportunity to decorate our home, select gifts appropriate for each beloved family member as I’d like to do, send out greetings, gather and deliver items for the community outreach to families in need, and so on.

Stopped at a red light, thoughts cascaded. Starting with Wait….

Think of all those people who can’t afford the luxury of worrying about these things. The families who have lost their homes to terrible storms and natural disasters this year. They lost everything they had, in some cases even loved ones, and still face inestimable hardship. Just weeks ago the freakish day of storms in Illinois left the town of Washington devastated beyond belief in the midst of otherwise happy, normal daily life. The town was virtually wiped out. People living in shelters and trying to exist day to day aren’t thinking about Christmas shopping and baking and decorating.

Even though it’s all done with the sense of loving tradition and sacred meaning, this is a gut-check moment to reconsider how we do what we do for Christmas, and why. Or least it was for me that day last week. What started as a panic moment quickly transitioned to a learning moment about what people call ‘the reason for the season.’ But some of those people still work hard to ‘do’ Christmas right, and to the fullest.

So what does it mean to observe, honor and celebrate Christmas? Really?

Right now, our world is besieged with violence, terrorism, natural disasters and man-made ones, and they keep erupting.

That’s the reality for a huge population of people, while other populations on different continents across the world are preparing in their own way for this occasion, Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, known among many other names as the ‘Prince of Peace.’

Recall the meaning, honor the occasion, I told myself in that car while grappling with the most overloaded Christmas I can recall. Don’t get caught up in perceived expectations and material trappings, though I saw them more as manifestations of the celebration carried out so joyously by those of us who honor the origins of Christmas. But there’s no time to even do the basics! Or so I thought.

What are the basics of ‘doing’ Christmas? Preparing decorations and presents? Ah. Preparing, yes. That is what ‘Advent’ means for Christians. Making ready the way of the Babe of Bethlehem who was the Prince of Peace. But that’s an interior thing, cleaning out the clutter of the heart, mind and soul more than the clutter of the home and office and worldly spaces to make a special preparation for something special.

On my radio program last week I interviewed someone behind the Mary of Nazareth movie that features a captivating young woman in that role who almost wasn’t, in that role. Alissa Jung had her bags packed for humanitarian relief work in Haiti when she got a call to audition, and politely said ‘no thanks’. Several exchanges resulted in her recording a brief reading of some script and sending it in to be done with it, only she wasn’t. Because she was the one who most represented the humility and purity of spirit the producer wanted to capture on the screen as Mary, whose acceptance of a mission to serve humanity remains the model for that mission.

So this all reminded me of the story of the original meaning of Christmas, and the simple, humble beauty in the gift of presence and being. Being for others.

That doesn’t need or require the decorations and festivities and wrapped gits and baked cookies and special dinners and all, of course. But I’m doing what I can toward those traditions because they matter in the intent of doing them and giving to others out of love. Because they designate a special occasion to celebrate, a time set apart for giving, and checking how open your heart is for that, and for receiving.

There’s a reason ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas‘ (alert: Wiki link) became a hit and annual tradition. And A Charlie Brown’s Christmas also.

The story was a simple one, delivered in an understated way. Charlie Brown is down. His friends’ quest for presents and the best decorated house (or doghouse) seems to miss the point, but he’s not sure what the point is anymore. Exasperated, he exclaims, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus then poignantly reminds everyone that the day is about the birth of a “savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Overcoming a final setback, Charlie Brown returns to a welcoming throng singing “glory to the newborn king.” …

(Charles) Schulz, often beset by financial worries, would pioneer the mass marketing of his characters…Yet, despite its incorporation into the very sea of commercialism that it bemoaned, A Charlie Brown Christmas is still a gift that keeps on giving. For many, it is the only time they will hear the Incarnation narrative amid the holiday hype and Ho, Ho, Ho’s.

That’s true. For those who have access to televisions or other technology. Which gets back to the basics. The world has the tumult and turmoil we can’t seem to escape. Let’s pay attention to that and be present for those people who need aid and relief. Pause and consider the meaning of Christmas, those of who will. Slow down, don’t be in a hurry for once.

We are people in a hurry. We are people who are saying, insistently: Give it to me. Now.

Once, overnight delivery was more than enough. Then we wanted same day delivery. Now, we want everything in 30 minutes—whether it’s a pizza or a paperback. We want our food fast, our dinner microwaved. We can’t wait to get to a phone or a computer—and we don’t, because the phone and the computer are with us, every second, of every day, in our hand or in our pocket. Remember when we used telephones in phone booths? Remember when computers were confined to big boxes on desks in our offices?

What did we do before we had tiny smartphone screens to check every 10 minutes?

In 2013, we just don’t want to wait. For anything. Ever.

But in the middle of this, for four short weeks, we do.

The Church presses the “pause” button.

In the middle of all the hurrying and impatience and insistence comes…Advent.

We find ourselves suddenly in a state of suspended animation. It’s the season of expectation. Of longing.

Of waiting.

A child is coming, a hope is dawning. In our liturgies and in our lives, we yearn for something we cannot quite name.

But it’s palpable, for a great many people.

If you ask a child what we are waiting for, they’ll tell you in one word: “Christmas.” It’s that simple.

For a child, of course, it can’t come fast enough. For the rest of us, we’d probably like more time—a few more weeks to plan, shop, wrap and ship. But the reality of Advent—the astonishing truth at its center—plunges us into something deeper. The question demands an answer.

What, exactly, are we waiting for? What are we preparing for?

Spoiler alert: It isn’t really Christmas. It isn’t the presents and the tree, the cards and the tinsel.

No.

It is the presence. The presence of the one who came into the world to reach humanity, one heart and soul at a time…

to proclaim good news to the poor…

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim freedom for the captives…

to comfort all who mourn,

and provide for those who grieve

Many people are grieving. Many are lonely and afraid.

Many are among the poor, and today, we have a pope who asks the world to look at the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus and think of the homeless.

Pope Francis spoke of the great difficulties that families without fixed dwelling face – not unlike the Holy Family, to whom the Lord Jesus was born in a barn, and that experienced forced flight from their native land into Egypt. “Family and home go together,” said Pope Francis. He went on to say, “I call on everyone: individuals, organs of society, authorities, to do everything possible to assure that every family has a place to live.”…

The Holy Father concluded by encouraging all the faithful to celebrate the Christmas feast contemplating Mary and Joseph: Mary, full of grace, the woman who had the courage to rely totally on the Word of God; and Joseph, the faithful and righteous man who preferred to believe in the Lord instead of listening to voices of doubt and of human pride. “With them,” he said, “we walk together towards Bethlehem.”

So, reset.

Heal a wound. Mend a quarrel. Comfort the lonely. Console the grieving. Pray for the poor, the outcast, the forgotten. Look beyond. And look within.

And do it all deliriously, wondrously, tenderly, with love.

In this Christmas week and the days thereafter, I will do what I can as well as I can, with love, and pray it is enough.

This is a time to learn what that means. In my radio network’s last pledge drive, one listener wrote “may God take the money and prayers that come your way…and make it enough”. That served as a very good contemplation, and a profoundly good wish. It comes to mind now, contemplating Christmas and gifts, presence and presents.

I take this occasion to wish you every good thing, every grace and blessing. I wish you enough.

What Child Is This?

That’s the name of a Christmas hymn. But like so many others this year, hymns I’ve heard all my life and I know by rote, it’s striking me as profound.

With the birth of this child, history was changed.

Despite the tension and violence that shook the Holy Land this year, Christians from around the world flocked to Manger Square in Bethlehem on Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.

Others traveled to Vatican City, where Pope Benedict XVI had lit a Christmas peace candle set on the windowsill of his private studio. Pilgrims, tourists and Romans gathered below in St. Peter’s Square for the inauguration Monday evening of a Nativity scene and cheered when the flame was lit…

In his homily, Benedict cited the Gospel account of Mary and Joseph finding no room at an inn and ending up in a stable which sheltered the baby Jesus. He urged people to reflect upon what they find time for in their busy, technology-driven lives.

“The great moral question of our attitude toward the homeless, toward refugees and migrants takes on a deeper dimension: Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him?” the pope said.

“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent,” Benedict lamented.

The pope worried that “we are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.” He added, “that means there is no room for others either — for children, for the poor, for the stranger.”

I wish for this Christmas Day around the world a renewed commitment to others, especially children, the poor and the ‘Other’.

And a re-commitment every day thereafter.

Joy to the world. And peace on earth.

Christianity celebrates

The news stories continue to trot out about individual atheists and other anti-Christians bringing lawsuits against any public symbol of the faith. “They keep chipping away, one manger scene or cross at a time, but can you imagine them shutting this down in the next decade or two?” worried my husband, as we enjoyed the magnificent Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. “No worries,” I said. “It has endured over 2000 years. It’s not going away.”

I kind of surprised myself with this casual assurance, given the threat to religious liberties across the world and all.

This week has been filled with beautiful moments that nothing else accounts for other than grace. When you are open to seeing beyond the passing exchanges of the day, those flashes of the richly spiritual behind the mundane temporal (hey, I’m used to looking for ‘the story behing the story’ in the news all the time)…you can catch glimpses of little miracles. Or at least elevated humanity.

Thanks to satellite radio set on splendid Christmas classics, and the past two days of public television broadcating glorious concerts that make your heart soar, coupled with intentional quiet time to hear and contemplate beauty….I have more peace than the usual work world allows, especially in the news media. Way more.

This Christmas, those who have lost a loved one and those who are far from family are on my heart in a special way. Of course, you don’t have to be a Christian to feel this deep compassion and goodwill toward those who suffer at this time of year. It seems heavier this year….

But if you are a Christian, take heart in the global celebration of this most holy occasion. It’s still going, all out.

At Vatican City on Friday night, Catholic worshippers packed pews inside St. Peter’s Basilica to hear Pope Benedict XVI deliver Midnight Mass. He prayed to God for peace.

“Grant us the grace of true brotherhood. Help us to become like you. Help us to recognize your face in others who need our assistance,” he said. “And help us to live together with you as brothers and sisters so as to become one family — your family.”

Amen to that. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, peace and goodwill. To each and to all.