Saturday, December 24, 2016

"The Thrill of Hope": Reflections on O Holy Night

Fun fact alert!  

I read in the book, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas , that O Holy Night was the very first song ever to be broadcast over the radio waves on Christmas Eve 1906, launching a completely new platform for music to be transmitted and enjoyed.  What an amazing experience it must have been to have heard this beautiful hymn on the air waves for the very first time.  Just another miracle of Christmas. Let us pray that all radio transmissions give glory to God the way the very first one did!

O Holy Night is my hands-down favorite Christmas hymn and much to my children's chagrin I can listen to it over and over and over again (especially if Josh Groban is crooning it). This song is rich in meaning and has provided much to meditate on and pray about. Let's look at a few of it's most powerful lines.....

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth." 

For many, Christmas can be a time of sorrow and loneliness - a time when the smiles and happiness of others can serve as a magnifying glass on one's own struggles.

The promise that Christ brings with his incarnation is to show us our own worth.  It is only in Christ, that we can truly understand our dignity and value as the sons and daughters of the most high. John 3:16 reminds us that "God so loved the world that he sent is only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." St. Augustine, in his Confessions reveals this startling insight into God the Father's paternal love: "You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care." 

Think about that for a second...God cares for us as if we were the only one - no fighting for his attention, no bickering with our siblings because we want more "Daddy" time.  What a great and comforting thought that is! When faced with the evidence of such a loving and merciful Father, how can we not help but feel our worth.

If this is an area of challenge for you, I encourage you this Christmas to ask God the Father to reveal his great love for you in a new and deeper way - in this experience of his love, you will come to know your own soul's worth.

"A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."

I'm tired. Most people I know are tired. The combination of watching the news and then going to the mall and joining the rat-race of stressed and exhausted shoppers trying to get their lists checked is overwhelming.  Most people's faces are indeed weary. Living in the world in 2016 is a daunting task. Life, I imagine, has always been this way.  No doubt the travelers at the time of Christ's birth were weary - weary of being oppressed by a foreign ruler, of having to participate in an intrusive census of having the values they cherished challenged. They like us, were uncertain of the future and anxious about their lives.

What promise this line from the song provides!  The hope that the incarnation of the Lord brings should give us a thrill!  In Jesus' birth, our weary world experiences the promise of salvation, redemption and the "freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21) This is not a theoretical, pie in the sky ideal.  Christ's incarnation really ushers in a new and glorious morn that is still available for us to grab hold of.  Weariness can be replaced by a deep and abiding joy in the possibilities that the Incarnation promises.

This Christmas, open your hearts to experience this "thrill of hope" in a new and powerful way.  Ask the Lord to reveal to you how his Incarnation has changed not only the world but you personally.  

"Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease." 

In Luke 4:18, Jesus takes up the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." The Lord Jesus is still in the business of breaking the chains that bind us - chains of sin, unforgiveness, bitterness and addiction. 

The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us a personal encounter with the God of mercy - the same Jesus who was born 2016 in a manger works through the words of the priest to break the power of sin in our lives. The Lord loves us and desires us to be free from all forms of slavery.  If you are struggling with the chains in your life, I highly recommend Neal Lozano's book Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance .

During this season of Christmas, spend some moments in silence asking the Lord to reveal any areas of oppression which exist in your life and the lives of those you love, and in confident and trusting prayer ask him to break those chains. 

What should our response to this amazing mystery of Christmas be?

The song itself provides the answer: 
"Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we, let all within us praise his holy name." 

Together let us raise our voices and our hearts to praise and thank the Lord this Christmas. 

Josh Groban's rendition of O Holy Night is one of my personal favorite versions of the song and here it is set to video accompanied by images from the movie The Nativity Story.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

"He Will Bring Us Goodness and Light": Reflections on Do You Hear What I Hear?

It's Christmas quiz time:

The topic of conversation at your family Christmas dinner is (pick all that apply):
  1. How yummy the lasagna is.
  2. The number of batches of Christmas cookies Aunt Betty baked this year.
  3. Whether the Mets will trade Noah Syndegaard or not. 
  4. A heated discussion of how much the kids have grown. 
  5. The mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.
If you guessed that the conversation at my Christmas dinner is numbers 1-4 you aced this quiz. 

I come from a practicing Catholic family, yet any discussion of the "true meaning of Christmas" is conspicuously absent from our Christmas gatherings.

What's up with that?  

Granted, Christmas dinner is hardly the time for a presentation of a theological treatise on the hypostatic union.  Nor is anyone really interested in listening to Uncle Jimmy practice his preaching career, roaring fire and brimstone while Aunt Betty nods approvingly and continues to munch on  a butter cookie.

How then, can we place Jesus and the mystery of Christmas at the center of our Christmas gatherings? 

The simple 1962 Christmas song, Do You Hear What I Hear provides a great model.  In the song, the announcement of the first Christmas is passed along like a game of telephone.  Each character experiences the mystery of Christ's birth in a different way and gently shares what they have seen and heard with the next. Through this sharing the news eventually reaches the highest place in the land, and the King himself boldly proclaims that Christ will "bring us goodness and light."

So what does that have to do with Aunt Betty and her cookies? 

In the song, the characters share their experience in the first person - "Do you see what I see?" "Do you know what I know?" Often, the first step to a personal encounter with Jesus is hearing someone else tell their story of what the Lord has done for them. Personal, humble, honest witness is the single most effective evangelization strategy there is.

The song's simple litany illustrates this beautifully - one person shares with another and leads them to an experience and then they go on and share their experience.  None of the examples began with "You should..." or "Why don't you...."  Instead, they begin with a gentle, inviting question - one that encourages the listener to want to know more.

This Christmas, let us all ask the Infant Jesus for his goodness and light to empower us to ask our friends and family this life-changing question: "Do you know what I know?" 

Johnny Mathis' version of this carol is still my favorite: 

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Monday, December 19, 2016

"I Have No Gift to Bring": Reflections on The Little Drummer Boy

Pssst.  I have a secret.  

I AM the little drummer boy. Well, not exactly... I mean,  I'm a girl and I don't play the drums, and while I am, ahem, somewhat vertically challenged, overall I don't think I'm all that little.

Details, details, details.

The fact remains that I AM the little drummer boy.  I have approached the King of Kings more times than I can count, 100% convinced that I have no gift to bring that is fit to give him. My weaknesses, my failings, my poverty and my littleness seem completely unfit to present to His Majesty. Worse than that, the gold, frankincense and myrrh that others around me have to offer possess a WOW factor that I can't even hope to imitate.

My guess is that there are a lot of us drummer boys out there. 

We drummer boys spend all our energies lamenting what we don't have and wishing for the gifts that others have.  In keeping our vision focused on our weaknesses and others strengths, we stand before Jesus, stuck in our own heads, convinced that we have nothing of value to offer him. In our blindness, we fail to see that the King himself has already given us the only gift he ever desires from us.

Fortunately, the tune itself provides the answer to our unworthiness. In the carol, it is our Lady who gives the "nod" of encouragement to the Little Drummer Boy to give the only gift that he could - his own self and the song of his heart. He was the one and only person who could uniquely offer the gift of his song.  No one else could do that for him, and no other gift, no matter how grand or beautiful, could ever match his simple song, precisely because it was his and his alone to give.

Mary's maternal nod is available for all of us - through her intercession and her help, she gently nudges us towards her Son.

The teachings of the Saints also provide the little drummer boy inside us with some wise counsel.

St. Francis de Sales, in a letter of spiritual direction, warns his directee, a lay woman, about wishing for the spiritual gifts that others have saying:
Don’t sow your desires in someone else’s garden; just cultivate your own as best as you can; don’t long to be other than what you are, but desire to be thoroughly what you are.
St. Catherine of Siena in her characteristic bluntness says "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

St. John Paul II in a powerful, packed passage writes:
The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly - and not just in accordance with immediate, partial and often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of being, he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ, He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must "appropriate" and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself.
Like the Little Drummer Boy, we too must approach the Lord and offer him a gift of our whole selves, with all our weaknesses and imperfections.  It is in this unique, irreplaceable, total gift of our life, presented to Jesus without reservation that we will experience the "smile" the Newborn King offers.

Josh Groban's version of The Little Drummer Boy is my favorite:

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: Spiritual Reflections on Christmas Carols

As a child, Christmas engaged all five of my senses.  The fresh Christmas tree engulfed our Brooklyn row-house living room each year with its unmistakable scent of pine. I loved the feel of the tinsel sticking to my arms as I raced past the tree on my way to the kitchen which was filled with tins of cookies that my Mom baked from scratch each December. I can still remember laying on our couch watching the lights twinkle on the tree, munching on butter cookies and listening to the sounds of Andy Williams and Johnny Mathias croon Christmas carols from my parents' Christmas album collection.

Those memories fill my heart today with the same mixture of emotions I felt as a young child - a sense of wonder and joy along with a deeper tug of longing.  When I was younger, I could not fully understand why the trappings of Christmas which so captivated my senses, left me feeling a little bit empty on the inside. I watched others around me approach the Christmas season with such excitement - happily buzzing about decorating, shopping, wrapping and unwrapping with evident cheer.  Even the carols we listened to sang of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year".  For me, however, there was a wistfulness about Christmas - one that left me feeling vaguely unsettled and even a little sad in the midst of all the festivities.

Over the years I have come to conclude that my longing was real and not something fundamentally wrong with me. While my family was decidedly Catholic and I was taught that Jesus was the reason for the season, as a child I never quite saw the connection between the festive sense - pleasing celebrations of Christmas and the quiet, hidden reality of the Incarnation in all its humble glory. As an adult, I have come to a deeper awareness of that mystery and it is that mystery and that alone that fills my heart today at Christmas with an unspeakable joy, a sense of peace and a deep awe and wonder, over the Christmas season.

Don't misunderstand me.  I enjoy a delicious Christmas cookie chased down with a cup of eggnog as much as the next gal. The Italian feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve is still my favorite meal of the year. In fact, I appreciate those cultural and family traditions so much more now that they take their proper place in my heart and in my life. The true focal point of Christmas, the mystery of the Incarnation, now occupies the throne of the Christmas season and contemplating it washes away any sense of wistfulness or longing that tugged at my heart in years past.

Christmas carols have been a central part of the celebration of Christmas my entire life. It is in the lyrics to many of those carols that I have come to discover some powerful truths about the impact of the Nativity of the Lord on our own daily lives. This week, I'll be sharing my reflections on many well-known Christmas carols.  I hope you'll join me on that journey!

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