Next to August, January might be my favorite month to be in New York. Sure, its cold; granted there may be blizzards, but a marvelous quiet also steals over the city. After all the hurly burly of Christmas and New Year’s what a treat to walk out onto a cold, clear Sunday morning. After a few steps, arctic energy kicks in and one establishes a vigorous harmony with winter. Manhattan though has no monopoly on this; the shore can so lift my spirit on such a day that I am sure June will come if only I walk a little faster.
In the days of true winter, hidden in plain sight, lies one of the calendar’s greatest opportunities for reflection and prayer. Official Church agencies have not yet found out about this time, so no hype announces it. Here is the time to be productively unbothered. After the thunder of O Come, All Ye Faithful, and before the Lenten solemnity of Lord, who throughout These Forty Days, we need a prayer for that winter walk in the park, or for tea by the fire. This prayer will allow us to let an unfelt sorrow rise to the surface, or a long unmet longing, or an unacknowledged happiness.
As God’s providence would arrange, the season itself offers a suggestion. On January 1 the Gospel for the Solemnity of Mary employs the Gospel of the circumcision and naming of Jesus.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:21)
The tradition begins to regard that Name as powerful in itself. Consider St. Paul’s lyrical passage in his Letter to the Philippians, “At the Name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on the earth…” (Phil. 2) The Acts of the Apostles corroborates this witness. Peter, accompanied by James and John, says to a beggar at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, “I have neither silver or gold, but what I do have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” (Acts. 3, 1-6)
By the way, if you visit the creche at St. Vincent Ferrer look straight up and you will see this scene from Acts in the little window. It is not for nothing that are you standing in the “Holy Name Chapel.”
Somehow the name becomes a sacrament of the person, and to this day we give a quick bow of the head when the Liturgy mentions the Holy Name. The name connects to the one named. If you harbor doubts here think about being in love. What is the effect of the beloved’s name when seen attached to a gift or heard in a message? Consider also the power of our own name. When we make marriage vows, or religious vows, we use only the “first name.”
Jesus builds upon the power of the name to make his name a one word prayer. These two syllables carry so much: sorrow, longing, entrustment, and praise. One wonders how many people pack all of this onto the Holy Name because emotion or health will not allow them to form even a sentence. We will never know how many Christians mustered only this word in the last seconds of fleshly life, and who doubts that it did the work of volumes.
If the Holy Name accesses the Holy Savior, it also reaches inward to ourselves. We use the Name of Jesus viscerally and so our inflection of it may teach us about our own hearts if we will but listen to ourselves. Sometimes we use this name of the Most Beloved in ways we regret, but these moments also tell us the story of our stress and anger. Holy Name Societies have worked to end swearing, but the sacramental power of the Name suggests that this demands a more profound conversion than governing our tongue for politeness’ sake.
The prayer of the Holy Name invites us to an ongoing intimacy with the Savior. This is a companionship we can carry with us and within us even when winter’s quiet yields to the resurgence of activity in the “spring semester.” The prayer holds a promise that even our instinctive reactions can change under the renovating power of the Gospel.
The Liturgy has given the Holy Name uneven treatment. It has recently returned to the calendar as an optional celebration on January 3.
Christmas serves up a feast of preaching in which the words of clergy figure only as a side dish. Consider how eloquently the music of the season ponders the mystery of the Incarnation; Christmas carols join play to doctrinal sophistication, saucing instruction with delight. Think too of how adroitly the creche persuades with its wordless oratory.
Each of us also preaches Christ as we make our love tangible to people in the gifts we select, wrap, and deliver. In our decorated homes our loved ones find welcome and safety, and from our abundant tables they derive well-being that will carry them through winter. By card, call, and email we have put new life into old relationships. In all of this activity we echo the message of the
Without words the Christ child tells us we are as safe in the Father’s care as he is in Mary’s. As we extend ourselves this Christmas we show this promise to be reliable as a basis for living in the present.
If you are visiting our parish we hope that you find evidence in our celebrations that the Incarnation of the Lord continues to inspire and shape people in our time.
If you or worship with us regularly as a parishioner or as a friend, we hope you will always find Christ’s truth and Christ’s welcome in our churches and our common life. Thank you as well for making our Advent such a hope inducing season.
In what we hear and say, give and receive; in how we welcome and are welcomed, may we experience the most eloquent of seasons.
Today the Liturgy begins to tell us the Christmas story. Familiar figures step off the Sacred Page like cherished ornaments emerging from their boxes to brighten Christmas Present with a glint of Christmas Past. Joseph and Mary have their perennial encounters with Angels, the same heavenly messengers upend the old age of Elizabeth and Zachariah, and they happily feel the prophetic kick of the little Baptist, saluting the little Messiah, womb to womb. Of course next Monday we will all give homage to the same Infant Lord, when he shows up promptly on the page and in the manger. In his wake will come the familiar retinue of shepherds, angels, and wise men.
Did you ever notice that Scripture gives most of these characters no words to say? But at the moment of the Annunciation Mary speaks for all of them in her famous “Let it be done to me.” Like her, the bright figures of Christmas consent to let life happen to them in God’s world, according to His plan, in His time. Further, their consent is not grudging or fearful. Being part of a design fulfills them completely. They understand themselves to be small people loved by their Lord into a place in His plan. From their acceptance of this comes the real serenity of Christmas.
Christmas has worn many beautiful costumes over the centuries. Each year we haul out the whole collection and delight in the music and poetry, the painting and sculpting that these stories have inspired. Beneath these pretty polychrome surfaces lie the compelling truth of poverty of spirit. The beauty of the Virgin and Child, and of those with whom they share the crèche, lies in their complete freedom from self-consciousness and self-absorption.
I think if we take a moment to reflect on the people who have genuinely attracted us, they possess just this quality. What a marvelous paradox that we delight in giving our attention to those who have no need to demand it. They do not crave attention because they are fully attentive. People who have real focus on God as their beginning and end, have lots of room for their neighbors because they need so little for themselves. Like Mary and Joseph, their stable is always open to the shepherds and magi who may be sent their way.
This perception of Christmas gets its authority from the lives of Jesus and Mary. From the beginning to the end of their earthly walk they do not show off or dominate, but always present themselves as happy servants of the Living Truth. They invite you and me to put down the burden of ourselves and live in their freedom.
All through this week at Mass this story unfolds for us. What a perfect time to discover in these iconic passages the self-forgetting that is self-finding, and that self-surrender which is self-fulfillment.
I write you on behalf of our Dominican Shrine of St. Jude, the Parish of
St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena, and the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry. Please join a program of communal prayer to prepare for Christmas 2017.
Preparing for Christmas with Jesus in the safe womb of the Virgin Mary
When we wish another grown up, “Merry Christmas,” what do we actually want for them?
We might hope they unwrap what they have always dreamed of, or that they would really take a break from work and savor the tastes and sips of the season, better yet, maybe this year they will find themselves under the mistletoe with that certain someone. But exchanging gifts, giving feasts, and falling in love are the works of people who feel safe. What we want for others, and ourselves, at Christmas is a safe place, a place safe enough to thrive in.
But the safest place for thriving is a child’s Christmas.
We inherit our desires for Christmas from our own childhood. Hopefully at this season our families surrounded our young selves with as much beauty, abundance, and attention as they could muster. Even if they couldn’t or didn’t, the absence of this well-being makes us want it for others all the more passionately. Think of the invisible carpet of safety under a child sitting on the floor captivated by a new toy, imagination and hands equally engaged. Think of the time and treasure devoted by parents and family to the creation of this one moment. Now we take this trouble over Christmas because we hope it sets the tone for all of childhood. We also do it for ourselves. We hope the child’s freedom from care will bring the security of Christmases past into our adult present.
Do you think the child at the heart of Christmas was safe? How do you read the story? The Scriptures show Jesus born of a family in forced transit, without the conventional comforts of childbirth. He is born to parents in an unconventional union and together the three go on to become refugees in Egypt. Yet this child is never unaccompanied. Mary and Joseph are both overtaken by events, but steadfast in their love and care. Further, the shepherds, the angels and the Wise Men, are signs of protective presence; they testify that God, who sent them all, is the safety of the child. The Child Jesus knows this and testifies to it when he is found in the Temple among the Doctors. He will make his security in the Father the firm witness of his whole fleshly career, all the way to his Crucifixion.
The Christmas Story is of God providing security in vulnerability. The Christ Child is laid in the Manger for himself and for every child, God taking note of each Soul from its first moment. The Child in the manger, and the child by the Christmas tree, both speak on behalf of God to the vulnerable child inside each of us.
If we get this message and work to make life safe for one child, we make it safe for a whole family, and if we work for the safety of all children we foster the life of our whole race.
Beginning on December 17 and concluding on Christmas Day, we will pray in common for the safety of children, so that childhood may have the power God designed for it. We want to pray that every child may know the safety of the womb, the cradle, the playpen, the classroom, and the playground. We want to beseech God for the well being of children in broken homes, addicted homes, and refugee camps. We will pray that God’s
providence may reach little ones who live in poverty and who live with disease.
The Novena Prayers will be said at each Mass celebrated in the two churches of our Parish. But at three services the preaching will also address our longing that childhood be safe, and the longing for safety by the child in each of us. The preached services will be at 6 AM (the Misa de Gallo) at St. Vincent Ferrer, 5:15 pm at St. Catherine of Siena (December 17 at 5 pm and December 23 -24 at 4 pm), and 6 pm at St. Vincent Ferrer.
At each church there will be a place of prayer for this Novena, complete with holy cards and slips for making petitions.
Christmas Novena Services will be at the Midnight Missa Cantata in the Dominican Rite at St. Catherine of Siena, and at the 8 am Mass at Dawn at St. Vincent Ferrer.
May the blessing of the Christ Child touch the child in you this Christmas.
For all the Friars
At the outset of Advent, the Liturgy places this collect (the Opening Prayer of the Mass) on our lips:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess
the heavenly kingdom.
I say this prayer every year, but this time “run forth” strikes me powerfully and not in a positive way, because I do not feel like running forth. The days are dark, it has been a packed Parish Fall, and a tumultuous secular year. My introverted self pines for my cozy room, a cocoon of the familiar where I may hibernate until things change, climactically, and otherwise. My mood is right on time; nature says its time for a “long Winter’s nap.” But the prayer comes in the Gospel’s time, summoning me to exert myself before I feel like it. Why so much concern to wake me up?
“Run forth” expresses the longing in the heart of Jesus, implanted by the Holy Spirit in the Church,
articulated clearly in her prayers, and apparently heard by almost no one. The ancient manual of church life called the Didache puts this desire into words as blunt as an alarm clock; “May grace come and this world pass away.” Inbuilt to the religion of Jesus is the desire for a new age.
Instinctively we prefer our own age and so we read talk of the Second Coming through a lens of fear; “I better behave or I will be in trouble.” But the Gospel actually proposes to change our instinct so that we may read the Advent of Christ through a lens of promise.
What he promises is a life beyond all the dead ends we see in the life of our own age. If we were to count up the personal, relational, cultural, climactic, and political ways in which we do not see a way forward, we might feel quite hemmed in. Here faith intervenes to say that what seems like a solid wall now will yield before the plan of God. Honesty demands that we name the dead ends and all the pain they cause us, and faith asks us at the same time to acknowledge a reality beyond them. This is the promise of Jesus in all its living reality. I always think the Berlin Wall offers the best image for Advent, inevitability toppled.
Once we understand this, then, His future Advent becomes a real object of desire, and even now we see His
teaching in a new light. We begin to recognize the Sermon on the Mount not as the way to keep our nose clean but as a disclosure of how people will in fact behave in the world that is coming. Indeed, Christ has left us the
sacramental life as a pledge of what lies beyond the walls of this mortal life. Sacraments are a way of seeing and seeing beyond, and so they teach us how to hope. Vigilance born of hope, not fear, means that we live now so as to be ready to belong to that time. We are bold enough to want more than getting in to Heaven, we seek to be at home in it.
Perhaps this talk sounds funny coming from the Church, for we expend so much energy in conserving our theological, artistic, and liturgical heritage. Sometimes religion does become a servant of nostalgia for the seeming coherence of former ages. Occasionally our outlook is so curatorial as to give the impression that we might dread the Second Coming simply because it will mess up the ritual. But in fact all that we have received from the past comes to us as a platform for hope. What God has enabled us to achieve offers a pledge of what He will exceed; just as our current sacramental perception of Him promises to yield before the unobstructed encounter with
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Indeed, Advent revolutionizes Christmas in just this way. So often we celebrate Christmas as an exercise in nostalgia for things past, the Church’s and our own. These are days when memory comes to console or to open wounds. But the complete experience of Christ leaves us with an active nostalgia for what has not yet happened. Every year at this time we unpack so much familiar stuff from the boxes in our attics and the crannies of our minds. Indeed, the rituals and the objects, the sounds and the tastes of Christmas offer an anchor amidst change. But Christ is more reliable, and the world He brings will be happier.
I run forth because I have a destination that gives focus to my mind and velocity to my steps.
May the magic of the season help us to remember where we haven’t yet been.