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!

Strengthened By Our Roots

imagesIt’s now a few weeks after Christmas, and many households have taken down their Christmas decorations, including their Christmas trees. Ours is still standing in our family room, filled with ornaments from three generations of family. The eclectic ornament collection also includes those that my wife and I bought to commemorate family trips and travel, and our children’s hobbies and life events. We have so much history in the ornaments we have inherited, collected, or been given over the years, that we have had to resort to a second smaller tree in another room in the house just to accommodate all of the hand-made, counted-cross stitch ornaments my sister-in-law created every year for the last 25 years for each of my children. In thinking about our Christmas tree, each family’s tree, I am sure, tells a story about that family and potentially, its history. The tree for us has become a nostalgic reminder of our family journey over the last almost 30 years we have been married, and the stories of our parents, grandparents, and relatives that are woven into the tree, as well.

Unfortunately during the holiday season, we attended three funerals of family members. In one of the funeral Mass programs was a quote that said,

A limb has fallen from the family tree,
that says grieve not for me.
Remember the best times, the laughter, the song,
The good life I lived while I was strong.

The image of the family tree in that context reminded me of the words of Saint John in his Gospel, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (5:15) The branches of the tree are as strong as the roots that provide nourishment and support; and when a part of the tree separates from the roots, it cannot survive. “But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” (Matthew 13:21)

Coming home from each of the funerals only to look at the Christmas tree standing in the family room highlighted for me the importance of traditions and the family narrative. With all of the events and images of the holiday season in my mind, I begin the New Year with a renewed resolution to be grateful for the strong roots that have grown through our family experiences and that have been balanced with happy and sad occasions, successes and disappointments, and achievements and failures. My family’s evolution is much like what I have experienced personally within the Archmere community – a sense of tradition, rootedness, and support that encourages one to grow and explore with confidence and acceptance.

Each day, our students at Archmere are creating their own historical narrative, and we are at a point of an ending and a beginning, with first semester final examinations and the start of a second semester. The semester break signals, in some ways, a fresh start for students, a time for retiring one class schedule for a new one, or a one-semester course or two for new electives. The first semester is now history – the students’ histories – documented by transcripts, grades, and the work they have completed, as well as remembered by the friendships and experiences they have had. I hope that as the New Year unfolds, each student makes the most of his or her time at Archmere, experiencing the successes, the failures, and the learning that occurs each day, with the support of family, friends, and teachers.

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!