“I Wasn’t Home for Christmas”: Reconciling Family and the Kingdom

The suggestion that we should hate our families seems repellent, like smelling food you intuitively know has passed. Even in my most wrathful moments of adolescence, in the midst of injustice at the hands of the oppressive regime of Mom and Dad, I would never, truly, hate my parents. I came closer with my twin brothers, but since I exercised power as the oldest, I showed mercy and still rarely would engage hatred.

But can Jesus be clearer? “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” I’ve never been able to find a way around this passage. And hating my own life…forget it!

I have taught the gospels to adolescent girls for four years. This is one of those passages that I cunningly sidestep; I’m afraid it will turn the girls off Jesus. I would wimp out and opt for the let’s-not-take-Jesus-too-literally getaway car:

Student: “So, does Jesus really want us to hate our parents?”

Me: “Well, maybe not hate…

But it says hate. The Greek verb is μισέω, (miseo), to hate or detest, from the noun μῖσος, (misos) which means hatred. It’s hard to make a case for a softer translation. Some biblical concordances suggest that in application it can mean to love less, relative to something else. It’s still a challenge, though: “Love me more than your family or turn around and go home.” Read More

For God is With Us

There is a beautiful nativity scene in my church back home that depicts a town journeying up the hill–market men, shepherds, old and young, rich and poor–all climbing to the stable where Mary and Joseph gaze longingly upon their infant in the manger. The cattle and sheep lie still as they look upon the place where Jesus lies.

About halfway up the hill there is man, no doubt trying to hurry to reach the stable, eyes fixed on the crest of the hill. But the camel he leads has his head turned directly upwards. Eyes fixed, not on the stable, but on the star. Staring at the shiny object, totally unaware of what is going on around him.

Sometimes I feel like that camel.

All throughout Advent I tried to prepare for Christmas. I read daily reflections, tried an Advent Examen, and went to Lessons and Carols at churches.  I loved it. I loved the feeling of anticipation that saturated Advent, the readings of Isaiah, the Advent wreath, everything!

And then when Christmas came it was all too easy to see that things were not perfect. There is an ideal Christmas. It’s all over the commercials and movies and in the fabric of our society. It’s the perfect dinner with family gathered and everyone laughing and exchanging gifts and singing carols.

I have yet to see a Christmas that fulfills this ideal.

When Christmas came I wanted to keep staring at the beautiful star that is lighting the way, instead of paying attention to all the imperfections going on around me. I wanted to be that camel, standing there, just looking at the star, oblivious to the lived reality and focusing instead on the ideal.

And like the wise men, I am still looking at the star, following it, trying to come to terms with the manger where it leads.

A dirty, smelly manger where animals eat.  Itchy straw and swaddling clothes where Jesus sleeps. Busy malls and family bickering that fill Christmas-time. These are the broken places where Jesus came. It seems vulgar that our Lord came here, like this.

I wanted Christmas to be as beautiful and shiny as the star that continues to blaze. The star that I don’t want to tear my eyes from, because then I would see the reality of the brokenness of this world.

But if I keep looking at the star, I’m going to miss the manger.

As glorious as the star is, blazing night and day, finding rest over Bethlehem, it pales in comparison with who came. As beautiful as the star is, the manger is indeed more beautiful.

Just like the wise men, I want to gaze upon the glory of the manger. To lay my gold and myrrh, my joys and praises next to the manger. To offer what I can to make the manger as captivating as the one whom it holds.

But this year I also want to embrace those broken things. To lay down the family fights and unmet expectations, all the pain and disappointment that comes with living in this world. Because Jesus came to be with us there, too.

The brokenness is indeed glorious, for God is with us.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

The power of Christmas by Michael Gerson: “But Christian influence is not expressed in the grasping struggle for legal rights or political standing. It is found in demonstrating the radical values of the incarnation: Identifying with the vulnerable and dependent. Living for others. Trusting that hope, in the end, is more powerful than cunning or coercion.”

Can Muslim lands learn to tolerate Christianity? by Michael Gerson: “Securing institutional respect for minority rights is particularly difficult in transitioning societies, as we’ve recently seen. But clinging to authoritarianism further hollows out civil society, making the results even more chaotic and dangerous when a dictator falls.”

Holocaust History, as Told by a Survivor by NY Times: “Survivors’ stories, like the ones Mr. Schwartz recently told at the Martinum Gymnasium in Emsdetten, are especially important for younger generations who feel increasingly detached from the crimes of their forebears, educators say. Firsthand accounts provide an emotional link to the atrocities that other forms of memorialization simply cannot duplicate.”

Paternity Leave: Why Dads Going Home With Baby is Awesome for All by Hillary Crosley: “Lengthy dual maternity and paternity leave is also helpful to women in the workplace because if both genders are coming home for baby, it reverses the idea that women are expendable and the only ones that can ‘afford’ maternity leave. Paternity leave also puts women on more equal footing at home and in the office because the maternity/paternity leave is no longer gendered, but rather just something that ‘parents’ do.”

Central African Republic needs international help by Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Omar Kabine Layama: “We believe the most effective way to stop the killing is for the swift authorization of a U.N. peacekeeping force, which would have the resources to adequately protect our civilians. The United Nations should urgently move to approve and dispatch such a force. U.S. support for this force will be vital.”

Savings and Internal Lending Communities in Rwanda by Kerry Weber, America: “In the Rugango Parish in the Butare diocese of Rwanda, approximately 30 youth and young adults between the ages of 10 and 25 participate in a Savings and Internal Lending Community, a program introduced by Catholic Relief Services.”

Community Healing and Reconciliation in Rwanda by Kerry Weber, America: “Between 2008-2012, Catholic Relief Services worked with the people of the Rugango Parish and the diocese to create a Community Healing and Reconciliation Program, which fostered discussion and forgiveness among people of the community.”

Christmas Message: 2013

A few years ago I was writing a letter to a dear friend of mine. At the end of the letter, I wrote a simple cliche: “May God always be with you.”

As I wrote it, I immediately realized what a silly phrase it was. The truth is that no request is needed: God is always with us. 

Christmas is a confirmation of this reality. Christmas shows us that God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfills them. In the time before Jesus’ birth, the expectation of the Messiah was very strong in Israel.

The people expected a hero who would at last set the people free from every form of moral and political slavery. They expected someone who would “beat spears and swords into plowshares and pruning hooks” and end the scandal of war.

The child that was born in Bethlehem did indeed bring liberation, but not only for the people of that time and place. He was born to be the Savior of all people throughout the world and throughout history.

And it was not a political liberation that he brought, achieved through military campaign. Instead, Jesus destroyed death forever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the Cross.

And while he was born in poverty and obscurity, far from the cultural and political centers of earthly power, he was none other than the Son of God.

No one would ever have imagined that the Messiah could be born of a humble girl like Mary, the betrothed of a good and faithful man, Joseph. Nor would she herself have ever thought of it, and yet in her heart the expectation of the Savior was so great, her faith and hope were so firm, that he was able to find in her a worthy and holy mother.

My dear friend, Christmas is the proof that God never grows tired of loving you. God has come to be with you in Jesus, the one who pitched a tent among us and shared our lot.

Even in the midst of your greatest difficulties, your greatest heartbreaks and your greatest failures, God chooses to walk with you along the way of life.

His love for you is without conditions. To accept his love and to share it with others is the challenge of our lives. On this Christmas, consider sharing the message of God’s redeeming love with another person, especially with one of your enemies or with someone who is lonely, ashamed, or exhausted this holiday season. It need not be grandiose. Sincerity is the only requirement.

The message of Christmas is simple: you are loved. 

May God’s presence in your life and his free gift of love transform you. I promise to keep all of you, our readers, in prayer during this great holiday season, and I humbly ask you to keep me, all of our writers and editors, and Millennial in yours as well.

Merry Christmas!

Pope Francis: Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness

I hope all of our readers have a wonderful Christmas Eve (and Christmas Day). Here are some highlights from the pope’s homily for tonight’s Mass:

In our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us…

Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst…

On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us, he so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness.

The full text of the homily can be read here.

An Advent Reflection Inspired by Pope Francis

We don’t know much about St. Joseph and his role as a father to Jesus.  Most of his story can be left to the imagination—and I imagine that as he held his infant son, born under inauspicious circumstances in a stable surrounded by smelly, noisy animals, the whole world melted away for him.  I imagine that he gazed at this child in awe, marveling at the miracle (in more ways than one) of his birth, at the smallness of his little hands, at his peaceful, innocent slumber and his helpless, hungry wails.  I imagine he cuddled this tiny baby and felt more love than he knew existed.

And this spirit of awe and wonder and love perfectly captures what the Christmas season is all about.  In a recent interview with Vatican Insider, Pope Francis noted that “Christmas is joy, religious joy, God’s joy, an inner joy of light and peace.”  And let us not forget hope!

As the Pope said, “When God meets us he tells us two things. The first thing he says is: have hope. God always opens doors, he never closes them….The second thing he says is: don’t be afraid of tenderness.” Just as Jesus’ earthly father surely loved him and opened his heart to his son, our heavenly Father does the same for us—we need only be open to that love.  The Pope expounded on our understanding of a tender, loving God, explaining: “The Book of Deuteronomy says that God walks with us; he takes us by the hand like a father does with his child. This is a beautiful thing.”

It truly is a beautiful thing. When we are open to the tenderness and love of God, it draws us into being more tender and loving to those around us.  The pope asks us to be inspired and animated by the love that surrounds this joyous season: “Give food to those who are hungry! May the hope and tenderness of the Christmas of the Lord shake off our indifference.”  We must open our hearts to others, allowing God’s tenderness to shine through and illuminate the hearts of those who are hurting and suffering around us.

One way that indifference can prevent us from being open to those around us is through a blind faith in our economic system.  Later in the interview, Pope Francis specifically faults the theory of trickle-down economics to solve the problems of the poor in our world:

“The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the ‘trickle-down theories’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory.”

In this Christmas season, I pray that we can rest in the tenderness of our Lord, and, renewed, find the strength and energy to actively seek out with love the hungry in our communities, and work for justice for them.  This means changing not only our own behavior, but working to undo the structural injustice that stands in the way of the kingdom of God, which first broke into the world on that first Christmas.