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.

Gifts I wish to give

For my son’s birthday, I asked him if there’s something in particular he might like that he otherwise wouldn’t buy or ask for, and I can usually prod him into mentioning something for my consideration. This time, he said: “Ah….for my birthday….I want two things. But only two things.” Okay, I said, picking up a pen ready to write a note to self. “Are you ready?” he asked, and somehow in that moment, I absolutely knew what was coming next…..and I put the pen down and said “Yes.”

And that mother-son connection we have always had, proved instinctively right once again. He said exactly what I thought he would. “Peace in the world, and goodwill toward men.”

That’s all, he said, just peace and goodwill among people. And he meant it, though I smiled and said “Well, I’m working on it in my own way. But I’ll see what I can do…”

I’ve thought of and ‘written’ this post a number of times over recent weeks, especially as the new year dawned and people were wistfully making resolutions and bloggers were writing ‘year in reviews’ and ‘year ahead projections’ and all. But never quite got to it. So now is the time.

Dear Son,

In everything I do, every single day, I aim to be a bridge builder, a peacemaker, a unifier. We each have only a certain amount of influence on the world but are responsible for that and the best stewardship of that in the time we are given. I have been blessed with being given a voice in the media, print and broadcast, at this particular time in history when social communications is global, immediate and unprecedented in its reach. There may be people in the Himalayan mountains hearing or reading my words, as well as those I know are listening and reading them in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, and even the man in the far reaches of Iceland who sent a postcard to say he picked up the signal on a certain night to hear my voice saying “Peace in the world starts with peace in your own heart. I wish you peace, friends, and I’ll talk to you soon.” I used to close my radio show with that sincere sentiment every day, and it was remarkable to learn how far it traveled.

So I’m reminded of that again now as you ask for the gift of peace on earth, and goodwill among people. I really am doing what I can. But we can all do better.

When I wrote this in my head around New Year’s weekend, the shooting in Tucson hadn’t happened yet and the country hadn’t yet erupted in a heated debate about civility, which is the oxymoron it sounds like. I was at a point of wanting to thank every person who came by this blog, or listened on radio, for their consideration of the news presented here and their interest in being informed and engaged. You know, Son, how hard I work to gather information as fully and accurately as I can and present it fairly and charitably and in the great tradition of intellectual reason.

Long before the recent media frenzy over ‘civil discourse’, I was writing about its decline and the need for its restoration and our responsibility in maintaining it. When people ask me which news media I favor, they may want to hear certain ‘niche’ markets that meet their ideological or political beliefs. But I always urge them to be broadly informed and prepared to make a defense for what they believe by hearing and understanding arguments with which they disagree. By now, many people know my motto is ‘Clarity with charity.’

People will nonetheless be angry or hostile or mean-spirited, but turn around and accuse others of those faults simply because they don’t agree. ‘Never render evil for evil.’ I believe in advancing the presumption of goodwill, assuming that people hold the views they do because they truly believe that’s what’s best for the common good, whether its grounded in reason, prevailing sentiment, personal emotions…or ungrounded at all. In our day, it’s easy to be misled by the currency of cultural values, which aren’t grounded in transcendent values. Even elite media get swept up in this drift.

People across the world are seeking and working for peace by following their belief in the Almighty, the transcendent values of human dignity and its divine origin. They exist, whether we believe in them or not. Life is short, eternity is forever. John of the Cross held that ‘at the end of life, we will be judged on love.’  Which has been translated to ‘we will be judged on our intentions.’ Mine are to love, be grateful, give thanks, offer whatever service I can give, be accountable and always uphold the dignity of every person, no matter what.

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King is “The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”

I can’t gift-wrap a response to your request, but only promise I will pursue it with renewed vigor. If it takes one heart and soul at a time, then so be it. We are in this together, and I’m full in. So help me, God.

With eternal love,

Your Mother