Sunday, December 15, 2013

Conditions for True Joy

“Man should take joy as seriously as he takes himself.” 
            So wrote German priest Fr. Alfred Delp, in his reflections for Gaudete Sunday, 1944. This Jesuit had a particular affinity for Advent, the season of waiting and preparing for God's coming to us.
            Living in Nazi Germany, he knew all too well how one could question, “Is there any point bothering about joy? On that third Sunday of Advent, whose theme is joy, he encouraged belief in the possibility of true joy:
            “[Man] should believe in himself, believe in his heart and in his Lord God, even through darkness and distress—that he is created for joy.... We are created for a life that knows itself to be blessed, sent, and touched at its deepest center by God Himself.
“The conditions for true joy have nothing to do with the conditions of our exterior life, but consist of man’s interior frame of mind and competence, which make it possible now and again for him to sense, even in adverse external circumstances, what life is basically about.”
       Delp knew something about “adverse circumstances.” An outspoken critic of the Nazis, he had been arrested and tortured; he wrote these words from a Berlin prison, wearing handcuffs day and night and awaiting his execution.
       No wonder then, that he would ask: “How should we live so that we are capable—or can become capableof true joy?”
       Still a pastor, Fr. Delp did not ask merely for himself. He wrote reflections from his cell, which were smuggled out and shared with his flock. The answer he gives in part is this:
         “Joy in human life has to do with God. Creatures can bring us joy in various forms and can provide an occasion for joy and rejoicing, but the actual success of this depends upon whether we are still capable of joy and familiar with it. And conditional upon our personal relationship to the Lord God. Only in God is man fully capable of life.
            “Holiness and happiness intrinsically belong together.”


From Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings; 1941-1944, a collection of Fr. Delp's Advent reflections published by Ignatius Press.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Resisting a Commercial Christmas

Every year, my husband and I strive to escape from the all-consuming consumerism that has come to characterize this season. 
      I know there are plenty of other parents out there who struggle to keep Christ at the center of the celebration of Christmas. One wonders where the custom of giving gifts even originated. It is apparently a more recent phenomenon that arose in the West.
      It makes sense, on the one hand, considering that Jesus said, Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me. Since we can't give Him material gifts on his birthday (something we typically do nowadays with our friends and family), we give them instead to our loved ones, in whom Christ resides.
     But He also resides in the poor, who need material gifts far more than most of us do.  And the Church tells us we are to make a "preferential option for the poor". What exactly that looks like in each person's life will differ, but it doesn't mean forgetting the poor or putting them in last place.
     Don't we all admire those rare folks we hear about who opt not to exchange gifts with each other, but instead use that money to give to the poor? Some also spend Christmas serving at a soup kitchen.
     A variety of reasons, however, might make that not work for other families. There's also certainly a place for showing our loved ones love on that day too. 
     While there's nothing wrong with giving material gifts to our loved ones, still many of us really don't need any more stuff. Our homes are already so stuffed we're running out of places to put it all. 
     Moreover, Mother Teresa of Calcutta noticed that we of the West are spiritually poor. Just about everybody could use some help in his or her spiritual life.
      Here then are ten counter-consumer-culture gift ideas. Some are gifts that help the spirit. Others, by costing less, reserve some funds for the less fortunate while challenging the must-get-the-lastest-gizmo mindset. Some fit both categories.
  1. As I said last week, one can support a monastery or convent by purchasing their goodssuch as Mystic Monk Coffee, Trappist Abbey Bakery desserts, or handmade rosaries & sacrifice beads from the Franciscan Sisters. Also check out what your local religious goods store has available.
  2. How about a book from a publisher like Ignatius Press, PaulineSophia, or Catholic Answers? Some of them also carry music, movies, religious artwork, and children's books. You can support wonderful apostolates while giving a terrific gift.
  3. A subscription to Magnificat or Word among Us can really aid a loved one's Mass and prayer times. Or a subscription to Catholic Answers magazine, Catholic Digest, or other magazine can help with living the faith on a daily basis.
  4. Ornament made from old Christmas cards
  5. Homemade gifts seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur, but I'm not sure why. My kids had fun last year making decorative, fun, and/or useful gifts that were all the more meaningful coming from their hands. Our tradition growing up was for the kids to make "bourbon balls" as gifts for our extended family.
  6. Create your own couponsanything from giving a massage, to a home improvement project, to making dinner, to a lunch date, to whatever you can think of.
  7. Spiritual gifts are another beautiful option: pray a holy hour for someone and send them a card (many adoration chapels have pre-printed cards available). Have a Mass said for someone at your parish or by your favorite religious order.  Alone or with others, gather a spiritual "bouquet" of prayers for someone and list them on a card.
  8. Create a personal gift. Compose a poem or a song or a heartfelt letter telling of your love for someone or how much they mean to you. Delight grandparents with recordings of their grandchildren singing Christmas carols or videos of the toddler's latest achievements. Grandparents, in turn, could record themselves retelling favorite family tales, or parents, reading a favorite story. Or dig out those photos and put together an album or scrapbook of wonderful memories (no need to go overboard buying scrap-booking paraphernalia).
  9. With the great variety of fonts and decorative papers available these days, one can print and frame lovely renderings of Scripture passages, such as 1 Corinthians 13 ("Love is patient...") or Colossians ("Bear with one another...").
  10. We tend to think a gift must be new, but our ancestors knew the value of giving something of their ownan heirloom or item with sentimental value.
  11. Give the gift of yourselves: Open your home and your heart and invite someone who might otherwise be alone on Christmas. Bake a cake for baby Jesus and don't forget to sing "Happy Birthday."
     Whatever we do, let's make sure to spend some time with the Birthday Boy. And while we're at it, let's ask Him what's on His wish list this year and strive to give Him something He'd like for His birthday.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Keeping Advent Well

As our family, alone in our neighborhood (probably alone in our city, maybe even our state—it is awfully hard to find purple lights, after all), puts up our Advent decorations today, I think of my friend Joan. She, who is a thousand times more organized than I, once told me that she aimed to get all her Christmas shopping done before Advent. That way she could focus on the spiritual aspects of the season, getting her heart ready for the coming of Jesus. 
     Every year, I think that would be such a great thing to do. And every year I remember it just before or just as Advent begins. *Sigh.* 
      Well, it's not too late to make some liturgical new year's resolutions. Here are some ideas:
  1. Put out a bowl of straw next to the creche as a reminder to make little sacrifices for Jesus, putting a straw in his manger for each one. Aim to make it very cushy for him by Christmas.
  2. Commit to some extra prayer this season, a few times a week if not daily. Pay Jesus a brief visit at a church during every shopping expedition, for instance. Pray Advent prayers every evening, especially the O antiphons.
  3. Simplify as much as possible. Buy everyone something yummy made by some monks or cloistered nuns, for example. That will make shopping much easier, while also supporting a very worthy cause, a part of our larger, Church family.
  4. Think about what you can give Jesus this year for his birthday. He probably wants something super personal--like that little corner of the heart that self is clinging to--rather than something material.
  5. Don't forget the poor. Whatever we do for them, we do for Him.
  6. Think outside the box. Consider if there is some self-indulgent tradition that you or your family could replace with a new, more outward-oriented tradition.
  7. Hold Christmas parties during the Christmas season rather than during Advent.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!