Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Presence

It's always a struggle at this time of year to keep one's priorities straight. We're bombarded with messagesdisguised as thoughtful, generous ideasthat essentially come down to the same thing: buy, buy, buy.
     The radio in your car, the TV, the ads running along your email inbox, the billboards you pass, even your cell phonebeneath the noise and colorful graphicsall whisper that same message.
    A really good boss needs to do this for her employees, a really good rep should do that for his clients; a really good neighbor should drop off homemade cookies; really good parents must shower their children with gifts to make Christmas "magical".
     You go to a store to get a present for someone, and on the way to the department you see something your spouse needson sale. You already bought your spouse a gift, but how can you pass up such a deal? And on something your spouse needs?
     Then you do some online shopping. Trying to keep up at work and with all the Christmas preparations, you're a little behind on this one. You find what you want, but discover that it's not guaranteed to arrive on time unless you pay double for expedited shipping.
     At the grocery store, you try to stick to your list—which is already a good bit longer and more exotic than usual. Then you see the apple cider. It's not on the list, but, gee, it sure would be nice. Everyone likes it so much, and you picture the family warming themselves and their hearts over hot mugs of the stuff, and by the time you check out, there are half-a-dozen impulse items in your cart.  
     You think you're almost done, then you remember stocking stuffers! It's hard enough to find nice but not-too-pricey things for everyone, but then you have to keep it fair between the kids. You see a perfect item for one person, but it's more expensive than what the others will get, so you start adding to everyone else's stockings to even it up.
     Meanwhile, you know that the season shouldn't be all about buying. You want to reach out to people too. So you stay up late working on Christmas cards. Then there are the decisions to make: should you include photos, or even have a special Christmas photo shoot? What about an annual Christmas letter? Whether you send hand-signed, old-fashioned cards or pre-printed postcards, either choice requires time and planning (and money). Do you have enough stamps? So-and-so moved, where's her new address? When will you have a chance to go to the post office? The whole thing can turn into a task as momentous as filing your taxes.
     Then there's the tree; the decorations, indoor and out; the parties; the traveling or preparing for guests. The last-minute trips—after fighting traffic, circling the parking lot, and waiting in line—turn into two-hour ordeals.
     Our consumer society ceaselessly tells us that the best way to enjoy life and even show love is through spending. The credit card commercials cleverly acknowledge that the best things in lifethose that produce wonderful memories and foster relationships—are "priceless." But subliminally the message is also clear: you need to whip out that credit card to buy the things or the trappings or the fun times to gain those priceless intangibles.
     And yet all this is taking a toll. We find ourselves—despite all our efforts and our best intentions to show our love through this hectic activitygrumpy or touchy. It's no surprise really. Our clothes are getting tight (which is depressing); we're stressed and low on sleep; we're worried about fitting it all in or forgetting something; and the anxiety about paying for all this is gathering like a gloom in the back of our minds.
     It is annual struggle for anyone living in society such as ours to keep the focus on Christ.  
     On a practical level, it helps to remember that the Christmas season doesn't end on December 25, but begins on Christmas Day. The Incarnation is too great an event to celebrate for only a day. Hence we have Advent, not for pre-Christmas parties, but to prepare our souls for the coming of Christ. And hence we have the weeks following Christmas to celebrate this incredible feast. And since Christmas is a Season, not just a day, we can spread out the parties and the cards and the giving, so we're not so frazzled. 
     On a spiritual level, any year, every year, we need to stop and spend time with Him, or we will get sucked up into the spending-splurging-scurrying whirlwind. Any year, every year, we need to step back to make sure we're not crowding Christ out and seek ways to simplify, see what we can do without, to make room for Him in our celebration. Even this year, with Christmas only two days away, it's not too late to recalibrate,  to get things back in balance.
    Any year, every year, if not this year, then next year, we can approach it this way.

    But this year, we have two additional things to contemplate. 
    A few days ago, there was a lot of joking about the predicted end of the world. Unlike most people I imagine, my husband and I thought, however, how wonderful it would be if the world really were to end. We're eager to go home to the Lord, but not to leave in grief each other or our children who still need us. But for us all to go together? Sounds great! Or it did, until we remembered those loved ones who perhaps are not ready to meet Christ on Judgment Day.
     Secondly, every year there are, sadly, people who must bear the heightening of grief that comes with celebrating Christmas without someone. That sorrow is more accessible to all of us this year, when we think of the many families suffering such a loss in Newtown, Conn. Such a tragedy! and for so many. No presents can make up for the presence missing this year.
     Yet these things can help us remember the point of Advent, the point of Christmas. It's not about the presents, the decorations, the goodies. It is about showing love, and we can show love through those things, but not merely with things. There are other, better, deeper ways. 
      The point is to be thankful that He came onceglory, hallelujah! Let's celebrate!   
      And since He's coming again—though we know not whenthe point is also to be ready, and help others to be ready, to meet Jesus, so we can celebrate His coming again, whenever it may happen. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Purple = Penitential

(Today I'm re-posting an Advent piece from last year... )

This title is not a statement of a personal dislike for the hue— actually most shades of purple are among my favorite colors. Nor am I making a clever remark about the disadvantages of being royal or ruling (purple traditionally being considered “regal”), such as, that it can be a royal pain.
      No, I'm actually trying, in the midst of Christmas music and escalating visions of red, green, and gold, to remember that it's Advent. And the liturgical color of Advent is purple (the same as Lent). A visual reminder of an almost forgotten fact: Advent is meant to be a penitential season.
      Before grappling with the question Why would Advent be penitential? it seems more pertinent to ponder Why do penance at all?
      Didn't Jesus on the cross take away for us all the punishment due to sin? In a sense, yes, and yet, Paul says, “In my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).
      How could anything be lacking in Christ’s sufferings for His Church? He’s God! He’s perfect, so His sacrifice had to have been perfect, and if perfect then complete. Right? Yes and no. If His sacrifice is “lacking” or “incomplete,” it’s not due to a failure on His part. Rather, it’s because He left room for us to be a part of it. After all, we are His Body. How can the Head suffer and not the Body?
      If after dinner, I only do the dishes, and wait (somewhat impatiently) for my children to bring them to me, as well as to put away the leftovers, clear and wash the table and counters, and sweep, it is not because I am incapable of doing those tasks. In fact, I could do them a lot better and faster by myself! But I purposely leave them undone, so my children can participate in the job. This is primarily for their sake. I want them to learn what it means to be a family, to be responsible, to be disciplined, and the different tasks involved in keeping a home clean. Similarly, God is perfectly capable of cleaning up the universe all by Himself, but He leaves some of the work to us.
      Because we need it and justice requires it.
      Wait a second, why does justice require it? Didn’t Jesus pay the price for us on the cross? He most certainly did. He paid the eternal penalty for our sins—something we could never have done, no matter how hard we tried. However, there is also a temporal penalty due, which we are obligated to pay.
      Look at it this way. If the ten-year-old son of a billionaire managed to get hold of some powerful explosives and blow up a mall one night, no one would expect the boy to pay for it, because, obviously, being ten, he couldn’t. If his father stepped in and paid the damages, the boy wouldn’t owe the debt anymore, right? His father wouldn’t expect him to pay him back. But wouldn’t it be wrong for the son to do nothing? Mowing the lawn and taking out the trash cheerfully every week for years and years wouldn’t make much of a dent in a debt like that, but it might make an impression on his father. Wouldn’t it be only right for the son to do whatever he could to show his gratitude to his dad? Wouldn’t it be the just and loving thing to do, and a sign of his true repentance? And the state would still require something from the boy himself—community service of some kind, as a way to make reparation for the damage he had caused.
      Similarly, our sins have not only eternal effects but temporal as well. Sin is not committed in a vacuum, but affects other people, even the most private and hidden sins (weakening our character, for instance, which affects how we treat others). 
     We likewise need to make reparation to our fellow man and to show God our true repentance and gratitude. There is a temporal debt that we owe, and if we do not “pay” it in this life, then we’ll need to do so after death, in Purgatory. This is where penance comes in, “community service” not for the state, but for the Kingdom.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Have Yourself a Grimy Little Christmas?

As an adolescent, I was once invited to go horseback riding with a friend. We had a great time, riding along trails in the California desert.
      Afterward my friend and I were chatting happily in the car driving home —I thought—when her mom stopped in the parking lot of a ritzy country club. Apparently I didn’t get the memo about this part of the day. The club was equipped with fancy private showers, and my friend had brought along a fresh outfit, but I all had were my dirty, horsy clothes.
     That day came back to mind recently when I read these words of St. Catherine of Genoa:

To see God when full satisfaction had not yet been given to Him, even if the time of purgation lacked but the twinkling of an eye, would be unbearable to the soul. It would rather [suffer] a thousand Hells to rid itself of the little rust still clinging to it, than stand in the divine presence when it was not yet wholly cleansed.[1]

I found that rather too much of a hyperbole at first … until I remembered how mortified I’d felt that day at the country club.
     Now for those of you who don’t know, when you ride a horse on a warm day, not only will you sweat, but so will the horse. And the two of you will especially sweat where you come in contact.  And though horses are brushed daily, they aren’t bathed that often. So I had swaths of brown along my pants, which bore the distinct odor of horse.
     While I don’t remember anyone looking at me strangely or turning up their noses, I still felt about as welcome as a skunk. I couldn’t get comfortable anywhere we went in the club, and I certainly didn’t want to sit down.
     If I felt so contemptible and out of place amongst other human beings—well-to-do and fashionable (and clean!) as they might be, still strangers whom I never saw again—how would I feel appearing, grimy with my own sin, in the presence of God, whose opinion is the only one that counts, who is the true desire and only satisfaction of my heart, whose beauty and glory and power are beyond my imagination, and who is perfectly holy?
     Yes, God’s love is infinite, and He will love us no matter what. But it is we who desire the purgation. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”?  Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”
“It may hurt, you know.”
”Even so, sir.”[2]

     November, the month when we remember the souls in Purgatory, is just behind us. Perhaps I’m not the only one who forgot or was unaware of it (with the distraction of that historic election). But our remembrance of the holy, suffering souls should not be limited to a single month anyway. Some say that All Souls’ Day is not day of the year that the most souls are released from Purgatory, but Christmas.
      And today is the first day of Advent, which—despite the decorations everywhere and the Christmas carols blaring from store radios—is meant to be a penitential preparation. 
      Advent, which means "coming," is not just about His first coming at Christmas. He is coming again, and we need to be ready. Whether or not His Second Coming is in our lifetime, Christ will come to each of us at the end of our lives—which could be any day.
     So now is a splendid time to reflect on the souls in Purgatory and to offer up sacrifices and Masses for them. At the same time, those sacrifices can make reparation for our own sins and prepare us to meet our Savior.
     A beautiful tradition and helpful reminder is to set up the stable with the animals and the manger (no Holy Family yet) and set nearby a basket of straw. For every little sacrifice offered, one can place a straw in the manger (or stable) in preparation for the Infant Jesus.  
     Advent is a time to focus on what we should remember all year round: the Bridegroom is coming! … only we don’t know when.
     You've gotten the memo. Don’t get burned. Get that grime off now, so you’ll be ready and eager to greet the King whenever He arrives.

     [1] St. Catherine of Genoa, Fire of Love: Understanding Purgatory (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press), p. 75.
     [2] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1963; repr.: Orlando: Harcourt, 1992), pp. 108-9; emphasis in original.