Rock and Sand

When I was young listening to or reading the story of the Nativity, I imagined it taking place in a dusty small town surrounded by sandy desert with mountainous terrain created by jutting rock. Now with Google Earth and other internet sources, I don’t have to imagine, because we can see for ourselves without traveling there how Bethlehem and its surroundings may have looked in the days leading up to the birth of Christ.

We know that Jesus masterfully used imagery that the people could understand in explaining his Good News to them. On December 7, during the first week of Advent, we heard Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus telling his disciples that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven. He uses the example of the person who built his house on rock and it withstood the wind and floods, but the person who built his house on sand saw it collapse and ruined when the strong winds and floods came. The reading from Isaiah on that same day includes the passage, “Open up the gates to let in a nation that is just, one that keeps faith. A nation of firm purpose you keep in peace; in peace, for its trust in you.” (Is 26:2,3)

How do we build a house on rock instead of sand? Some call it grit, others, perseverance, and still others, determination. Whatever term used, the elements that describe it are similar: the ability to learn from failure, to be resilient, to be optimistic in the face of challenge, to continue to practice, to try, and to learn something from each attempt rather than keep falling into the same traps time and time again. At Archmere, we believe that this is an important ingredient to students’ success in anything that they do.

Advent is a time for us to pause and take stock of ourselves and our actions, to be sure that we are building houses on rock that will sustain us when we have to manage through truly difficult times. Isaiah calls us to be people “that keeps faith,” with firm purpose to discern God’s will in our lives, and in so doing, to know peace. Isaiah is prophesying about the Promised Land to a Jewish nation that has been exiled from Egypt, chosen by God, and journeying in faith through the desert to an unknown destination. Isaiah’s words for us today are just as relevant as we are journeying through this life, often not knowing what choices or decisions we will have to make, and where they might lead us. All that we can do is “keep the faith.”

My wish is that our Christmas celebrations fortify our faith foundation in such a way that allows us to manage well the wind storms and floods in our lives. May you, your family, and friends know God’s peace.

Wishing you a Blessed and Merry Christmas!

May Your Homes Be Blessed This Christmas

imagesThe fourth week of Advent is beginning as I write this reflection. In grade school, I remember how excited I would be at this time of year with the school Christmas play, making “unique” Christmas gifts in art class for Mom and Dad (specifically a macaroni candle with an empty paper towel tube and an angel from a half gallon plastic container), and counting down the days to Christmas vacation. Our Italian household was filled with fish being prepared for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. You can imagine the odors wafting through the house, along with the steaming pots of boiling water on the stove for pounds of spaghetti on Christmas Eve. The heat from the kitchen (and the 20-30 family members gathered) always steamed up the glass in the windows and doors. What seemed like thousands of homemade Christmas cookies lined the countertops in plastic containers. In addition to food being stashed everywhere, so were out-of-town cousins who visited every year. Traditionally, I gave up my bedroom and slept on a cot in my parents’ bedroom for the holidays. I didn’t mind, but I am not sure about my parents, since I would engage in long conversations into the night from bed to bed, enjoying the evening glow in the room from the Christmas candles in the windows.

The reflection I read today for Advent, entitled “Our Vocation of Loving and Being Loved” by St. Mother Teresa reminded me of how I have been blessed with these wonderful childhood memories. One word comes to mind when I think about my childhood home – “love.” My parents were not very verbal in expressing their affection to my three brothers and me, but we knew that we were loved always because of all the things my parents (and grandparents, aunts and uncles – it’s Italian!) did for us every day. There was never a doubt in our minds that whatever our parents said or did or told us to do, it was for our benefit. That’s not to say we never had disagreements or were reprimanded, but there was always an explanation and life’s rules were pretty simple to follow according to my parents: be kind, be honest, and don’t ever bring disrespect to the family name – that would be disappointing. Because of family circumstances, both of my parents finished their formal education after 8th grade, but I believe that they were the two wisest people I have ever known.

So the words of Mother Teresa about love offered me a way to examine my own familial relationships in considering those created by my parents. She says,

You and I have been created for greater things. We have not been created to just pass through this life without aim. And that greater aim is to love and be loved. Once in a while we should ask ourselves several questions in order to guide our actions like: Do I know the poor? Do I know in the first place, the poor in my family, those who are closest to me – people who are poor, but not because they lack bread? . . .Perhaps they lack love, because I do not give it to them. We all have much to give, to share, and to contribute wherever we find ourselves to be living. Holiness starts in the home, by loving God and those around us for God’s sake.

I was raised in a multi-generational home filled with constant energy and activity saturated with love. My wife and I hope we have created a similar experience for our children, now that they are grown and, for the first Christmas this year, living on their own – a serious transition! But as life’s circumstances change, we adapt. Mother Teresa continues,

Wherever God has put you, that is your vocation. . . It doesn’t matter because I belong so totally to God that God can do just what God wants to do with me. It is not what we do but how much love we put into it.

So as I reflect on my childhood home, the home we have made for our children, and a new kind of home we make as our children have grown, my Christmas wish to all of our Archmere families is that your homes may be blessed this Christmas with the spirit of love, manifested in the birth of God’s Son, and our Savior, Jesus Christ!

The Preparations for Christmas

6fa6fd16fcc7ef723dd55f1d4fafa5fcChristmas approaches and the preparations for the holiday seem to consume what little free time people have in their already busy daily schedules. Fitting in Christmas shopping – online or in the stores – baking, decorating, attending parties, concerts, and other festive events can become exhausting, so that, by the time we get to Christmas Day, it can often feel anti-climactic. What’s left – a New Year’s celebration?

In our Catholic Church we celebrate the season of Advent – a somewhat counter-cultural celebration. I say, “somewhat” because it is intended to be a joyful time of “anticipation” and waiting for Christmas. So the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are meant to be a time to focus on the meaning of the Nativity story as it relates to God’s plan for salvation. This focus brings a very different energy to mind, one that requires additional effort beyond our regular daily responsibilities, but one that is expended inwardly through thought and prayer rather than outwardly in all of the prescribed Christmas activities that fill our calendars. That is not to say that we cannot be attuned to the message of Advent while honoring many of our Christmas traditions that we enjoy.

One activity I particularly enjoy is playing and singing Christmas carols. In my quick on-line research, I discovered that Christmas caroling in public did not become popular until the late 19th century. Before that time, local town leaders led official carol singers called “Waits.” The name was derived from the fact that they only sang on Christmas Eve, which was know as “watchnight” or “waitnight,” in anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the celebration on Christmas Day.

The excitement and anticipation of Christmas was certainly celebrated centuries ago; however, the activities that occurred during the period of preparation were considerably less frenetic and more reflective, much in the way the Advent season of the Church still calls us to be.

How do we accomplish both – keeping Advent and preparing for Christmas? I suppose like most things, it is about balance – knowing when to make time for reflection and prayer, knowing to make time to help collect gifts for children and food for families in need, knowing when to stop “surfing the net” or walking the malls for bargains, knowing how to celebrate with family and friends at Christmas gatherings, student concerts, and outings that include a visit with Santa Claus. I believe that all of these traditions – religious and secular – celebrate “hope” and the goodness of humanity in the face of so much violence and misunderstanding. Just reading the top 50 stories of the year produced by CNN saddens me to think what would happen if all of the energy that fuels conflict were diverted to empathetic listening and understanding. So are we being superficial in preparing for Christmas as usual when our world is filled with so much hurt and brokenness? I believe, that, if in preparing ourselves for Christmas, we include personal prayer and reflection with all the other traditions of the season, we become people of hope who can then share that hope with others in an effort to improve our world one person at a time. So I plan not to wait until Christmas Eve to sing a Christmas carol, but I do want to make time to reflect on the real meaning of the Christmas event. And that is my prayer for all of you this Christmas: may you and your family experience the real meaning of Christmas, providing you with the faith, hope, and love you need to make the world a better place one person at a time.

Merry Christmas!