The Wonder of Christmas

188718454_origBy now we are so familiar with the Christmas story that at times we may take it for granted.  We hear the story, we sing the songs, we pray together, and we are filled with joy and excitement!  As well we should be!  The joy, the anticipation that we feel is all brought on by the most wondrous gift.  Sometimes we lose that wonder.

The wonder that our God humbled Himself and became man for our sake.

The wonder that He came to us as a tiny baby, born of the Virgin Mary in a stable.

The wonder that this tiny little babe would be the Savior for all of us.  Would wipe away sin and death.  Would lead us to eternal life.

We should be filled with wonder and awe of this miracle!  We have heard the story countless times.  Each time we hear it, each time we read it, each time we raise our voices in songs of praise for the Son of God born in Bethlehem, let us pray that our hearts become like that of a child.  Fully open to the wonder of this glorious day!

Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the kings, they had been told that something wonderful was going to happen.  The believed fully and without reservation.  And when the precious Baby Jesus was born, there was great rejoicing!

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” (Luke 2:13-14)

When the angel appeared to the shepherds in the field that night, they went straight to Bethlehem, filled with the wonder of what they had been told.  They went to the Christ Child and after seeing Him lying in the manger, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:20)

And when the kings saw the star in the sky, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:10-11)  They were filled with the wonder of it all.  They knew this was the Lord and didn’t think twice before bowing down in worship to the tiny Christ Child.

We may know the story well, but that should only give us more reason to rejoice!  For we know that this baby born so long ago has saved us from sin and death.  We know the immense mercy and love of God that was shown to us through Jesus Christ.  As we approach this wonderful day, I pray that along with the excitement, the joy, the hope, and the peace of Christmas, our hearts may be opened anew to the wonder of it all.  The wonder of Christmas.

Full of Grace

conception-1“Hail Mary, full of grace, The Lord is with thee.”  (Luke 1:28)

These words, the first lines of the “Hail Mary” prayer, were spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel when he came to her to share the glorious news that she was to be the mother of the Son of God.  This was not a casual greeting.  These words, short though they may be, held deep meaning within them, and Mary knew it.

“But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.”   (Luke 1:29)

What is it about these words?  Mary was not troubled simply by the presence of Gabriel, but by the words he spoke and the meaning they held.  They must have great importance.  If not, we could skip the greeting altogether and head right to Luke 1:30 and continue on from there,

30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end”.

But that is not where the story begins.  Luke includes the specific words spoken in greeting to the Virgin Mary for a reason.  Mary pondered over these words for a reason.  This greeting is more than just a few words strung together as a way to say hello.  They hold profound meaning.

Today, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the meaning of these words.

The Immaculate Conception does not refer to the birth or conception of Christ, but rather to the Immaculate Conception of Mary within the womb of her mother, St. Anne.  The Immaculate Conception refers to the fact that Mary was conceived immaculately, free from sin from the very beginning of her life.  She was miraculously preserved free of original sin and thus was in a state of grace from her very conception.  Where does this teaching come from?

The official dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not proclaimed until 1854 but the belief in Mary as being immaculately conceived goes back to the earliest church teachings and beliefs. This belief was not invented in 1854, but rather simply defined.  The belief itself stems from looking at the very verses mentioned above.

“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

That peculiar greeting holds within it the deep meaning of the Immaculate Conception.  Mary is not told that if she agrees to give birth to the Son of God, then she will have the Lord within her and will thus be filled with His grace.  She is not told that the Son she will bear will die for all sins and His sanctifying grace will then fill her.  The angel Gabriel announces that Mary is already full of grace!

The grace of God filled Mary’s soul from the very moment of her creation so that she would be worthy of carrying the Son of God within her womb.  But Mary was still a created being.  She was fully human.  At any moment during her life, she could have chosen to give in to the temptations around her.  She could have chosen disobedience and sin, but she did not.  She remained filled with the grace of God and free from sin throughout her life.  In her perfect obedience to the will of the Lord we see exactly why it is that Mary proclaims “All generations will call me blessed”  (Luke 1:48).

On this feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we praise God for His miraculous grace that allowed Our Lady to be preserved from sin and thus worthy of carrying Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Through her example and love for the Lord, we grow closer to Him.  With Mary ever by our side, we grow in grace and are constantly drawn closer to Our Savior.

+  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen. +

Advent: Calm in the Chaos

nativity-447767_640Advent.  A time of waiting and preparation, both for the celebration of the birth of our Savior, and for His glorious return.  Sometimes we might feel as though there is too much going on in our lives to truly focus on the Advent season.  But the season of Advent can be celebrated in our hearts in times of quiet prayer and pondering as well as in the midst of hectic preparations.

In the time leading up to the birth of our Lord, Mary and Joseph had a lot going on. The angel Gabriel comes and delivers a most wonderful message to the Blessed Mother and she joyfully accepts the will of the Father, even without knowing exactly what may be involved.  Then an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to assure him that what Mary said was true.  He, too, accepts the will of the Father and takes Mary into his home.  Suddenly their lives were forever changed.  They had been two seemingly ordinary people preparing to be married.  And now they were married and expecting a child.  Not just any child, but the Son of God! The child they were preparing to welcome into the world would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

In what I can only imagine was a whirlwind of wonder and joy at the events that were transpiring I am sure that there were also some hectic moments.  Mary went to visit Elizabeth for several months.  They had the usual preparations for expecting a baby.  And rather than staying close to home while waiting for the Christ Child to be born, they had to go and journey to Bethlehem for the census.  Can you imagine being in Mary’s position?  Leaving family and friends and the comfort of the home you have likely been preparing for months for the arrival of a baby, to travel while quite pregnant would be stressful for most of us.  And what about Joseph?  He loved Mary dearly and I am sure he was concerned for his new bride with all the commotion going on.  I can imagine him frantically trying to find a place for them to rest before finding the stable.  I think it is fair to say that most of us would be overwhelmed by it all.

Was Mary overwhelmed?  Were Mary and Joseph stressed out and frantic as their plans kept changing?  Mary and Joseph were people just like you and me.  They had plenty on their plates!  And in their time of waiting, they couldn’t constantly sit back in quiet solitude and contemplate the events that were going to transpire.  They had to continue on in their preparations, deal with changing plans and forge ahead with their lives.  They couldn’t escape the whirlwind of life.

What they could do was make time for the Lord in the midst of it all.  They could trust in His Almighty plan for them, even when things seemed chaotic and confusing.  They could lean on His promises and ponder in their hearts the glorious mystery they had been called to live out.  They could proclaim His goodness even if it didn’t all make sense to them right away.

As we make our way through this Advent season we journey in our hearts alongside Mary and Joseph.  The world around us is hectic.  When everywhere we turn there is commotion and chaos, we can still find the peace of Advent within us.   While we wait for Christmas to come there are things to be done!  Gifts to wrap, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, family get-togethers to plan and attend.  Even if we manage to avoid the frenzied pace that can accompany the Christmas season, what then? After Christmas we will still be waiting for Christ’s glorious return.  Do we truly expect to avoid all stress, all chaos, all commotion for the rest of our lives?

That holy night in Bethlehem when Christ our King was born was truly glorious.  But the journey wasn’t over.  And it wasn’t always calm and peaceful.  Imagine the commotion and uncertainty as they fled to Egypt in the middle of the night to save the Baby Jesus.  And imagine the frantic search for the Child Jesus for three days before finding Him in the temple.  Even with the Son of God living there with them, I am sure that Mary and Joseph had their share of stressful and hectic moments.  We all do!

Try as we might, the Christmas season may not be quiet and peaceful at every moment for us.  We may not avoid all the chaos and commotion in this season or in the months and years to follow.  Even so, we can still find peace.  Emmanuel!  God is with us!  Even in the hectic moments, He is there.  And those moments will seem a little less hectic if we strive to remember that.   When we feel the frantic pressure of waiting in long lines to purchase gifts we can say a prayer of thanks for the loved ones in our lives.  When we find ourselves stuck in an endless traffic jam we can take advantage of the extra time and say a few prayers while we wait.  When life is swirling around us and we seem to find confusion every way we turn, we can trust that God is there beside us even when we can’t see the way ahead.

So this Advent season, if despite your efforts to remain calm and peaceful you find yourself stuck in the midst of the commotion, look to Mary and Joseph.  They show us how to follow the Lord and trust in His ways while still living out our daily lives, crazy though they may be.  Things may get hectic, plans may change, but God remains with us.  He is there in the calm.  He is there in the chaos.  God is with us!  Emmanuel!

The Blessing of the Blessed Mother

devotionla-songs-of-mother-maryThanksgiving is just a few days away and it seems only natural that our thoughts turn to the many blessings we have to be thankful for. My mind goes to the usual things, my loving husband, my wonderful family, our goofy dog, our home, our health, our food, our freedom, and of course the love of our Savior. This year I have another to add to my list.

Mary.

I am currently going through Fr. Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory retreat in preparation for consecration to Jesus through Mary on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  When I first began the retreat, I will admit I was a little nervous.  I love Mary but wanted to make sure that this consecration would lead me ultimately not to her alone, but to Christ.  While parts of the readings have taken some prayer and contemplation to better grasp, they have opened my eyes and my heart to Mary’s presence in my life in a new way.

Looking back at my childhood it seems that there was no escaping the love of Mother Mary.  We were taught the Hail Mary and the Rosary, we had beautiful holy cards and statues of the Blessed Mother as reminders of her perfect example, we watched animated children’s videos of Mary appearing in Fatima and in Lourdes.  Even the parish I grew up in, Immaculate Conception was named in honor of Mary.  The importance of Mary in our faith was never lost on me as I grew up.  It was so instilled in me that I took it for granted and failed to realize what an enormous blessing it is to be able to walk this journey of faith with Mary by our side. When I think back again to that list of things I am thankful for, I can see Mary working within each one.

When I met my husband it was not long before I knew he was the one I was meant to be with.  But before I could make that decision, I remember praying deeply for guidance.  I prayed for God to show me if this was truly the man He had meant for me.  And I prayed for Mother Mary to guide me to be the wife God had called me to be.  On our wedding day, amidst the flurry of activities and emotions, I remember going over to the statue of the Blessed Mother during Mass to offer flowers up to Our Lady and take a moment to pray for her guidance in our marriage.  Yes Mary was certainly present in bringing my husband and I together and she has been there guiding us in our love for each other and for the Lord ever since.

As I mentioned before, devotion to Mary was instilled in my sisters and I from an early age.  Our parents and grandparents showed us just how important she is in our lives.  And I strongly believe that the faith we learned as children formed the foundation not only for the faith that we share today, but for the deep relationships I share with my family even now that we are grown and scattered across the country.

My goofy little puggle.  You might be wondering how in the world Mary’s presence in my life relates to my dog.  I believe that I am called to care for a family.  I have spent countless hours in prayer for that to happen.  But God’s ways are not my own and He has a perfect plan for us to one day have a child.  In the meantime, my motherly energy goes toward my pup.  And in the morning, when I say my Rosary and my little dog curls up next to me quiet as can be as if she knows this is prayer time, I know that Mary is there bringing me to God and helping me to be patient and enjoy the time with my little puggle while I wait for the blessing of a baby.

Our home, health, food, freedom…Mary is there in all of it.  Through times of job searching, apartment searching, doctor’s appointments, Mary is there.  Even if we do not always see it, she is there nudging us closer to God as we face each decision in life.  There showing us the deep love of the Father as we see the blessings He has poured out for us.

Mary’s yes to being the mother of Our Lord showed us the way in which we are all called to respond to the Lord.  She accepted the will of the Lord without knowing exactly how it would all play out.  She placed her trust fully in God as she raised the child Jesus.  She was with Him as a baby, as a child, as a man.  She was there for His miracles, for His joys, for His suffering.  She stood by His side through it all, even at the foot of the cross.  The love she has for Jesus is deep and pure.  And it is that love that she wants to share with us.  To show us how to love the Lord more perfectly.

Mary’s presence in our lives is a wondrous mystery that is truly something to be thankful for.  To have the mother of our Lord guiding us every step of the way so that we may become more of the people God has called us to be is such a blessing.  As we take a special moment to thank the Lord for all that we have, let us remember to thank Him for the blessing of His Blessed Mother Mary who leads us to a deeper love for Christ our Lord.

Christmas Music Already?

ball-2037__180Every year it seems Christmas creeps earlier and earlier.  And for the past several years, I would bemoan the early enticement of sales and decorated trees.  I refused to listen to the music until Santa rolled through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  For me, that was the official start of the holiday season, followed shortly thereafter by the start of Advent at which point we would really get into the Christmas spirit.

But this year, when almost a full week ago now I heard a local radio station had already switched to playing continuous Christmas music, I didn’t change the channel.  In fact, I didn’t even reach for the dial.  I just let it play.

Why the change?  Maybe seeing the Christmas displays in all the stores builds the excitement.  Maybe it’s the six inches of snow that has covered the ground and the subzero temperatures forcing us to break out the winter clothing, extra blankets, and delicious hot cocoa (not to mention snow shovels) earlier than usual.   Maybe it really is that Christmas music that did me in.

I think the biggest reason is that my heart is ready for Christmas.  More than  that, it needs Christmas.  Truly, we all need Christmas.  Sure the early start to the season is brought on largely by the materialistic side of Christmas.  But whatever the underlying motive, is there ever such a thing as too much Christmas spirit?  That spirit of joy, excitement, and hope!  The spirit of giving, of sharing, of love.  Is it ever possible to get excited about the celebration of the birth of our Lord too early?

I don’t think so.

Even as we begin the celebration of Advent in a few weeks, I believe that our time of waiting does not have to be a somber one.  It should be filled with excitement!  With hope and joy and love.   We are not waiting in darkness, but in the light!  We know what it is we are waiting to celebrate.  We know that God came to us that night in Bethlehem in the most precious and wondrous way as the baby Jesus.  And we know that He will come again.

I don’t have Christmas decorations up yet.  I haven’t started watching my favorite Christmas movies or baking cookies.  But I have enjoyed looking at Christmas decorations, shopping for loved ones, and, yes, listening to Christmas music (and even singing along!)  There’s something about Christmas music that instantly cheers you up.  The lyrics tell stories of love, of family, of the Lord.  Even the goofy songs make you smile when you hear them.  Hearing my favorite Christmas songs again reminds me of the immense joy that fills the Christmas season.  And why should that joy be confined to only one month?

Despite the fact that Christmas is still over a month away, I will confess that I am in the Christmas spirit.  Shouldn’t we all be?  The Christmas spirit is one that we should be carrying in our hearts year round.  Even if we wait to outwardly celebrate the Christmas season, that spirit of love, happiness, and hope should be with us no matter what the season.   So even though it is early, I think we all need a little Christmas.  And I am going to let that joyous Christmas music continue to play.

To Be a Superhero

superhero-296963__180My neighborhood holds trick-or treat on a weekend afternoon and so we had children coming around this past weekend dressed as all sorts of characters in search of free candy.  There were a few truly unique costumes, a few of the teenager-in-a-hoody-and-mask variety, and several little princesses.  But the majority of the costumes were superheroes.  Girls and boys alike showed up as Captain America, Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Ironman.  It’s not surprising given our culture’s fascination with superheroes.  Superheros dominate the movie box offices, they fill the toy shelves in stores, they are on T-shirts, backpacks, lunchboxes, socks, shoes, pencils, notebooks…you name it.

My husband is a big fan of the superhero movie genre.  In all honesty I had hardly a clue about any of them until I met him.  Now I see just about every superhero movie that comes out.  At first it was just to be polite and accompany my husband.  But now I truly enjoy many of them.  Some are a bit too dark for my taste, but the overall idea of these movies appeals to me more and more.

What is it that draws the masses to see these movies?  What is it about these stories, these characters, that crosses the lines of race, religion, politics, and economics to appeal to virtually everyone?

When it comes down to it, we all need a hero.  The world is full of chaos, uncertainty, fear.  We love to see the nerdy boy from high school discover his superpowers and embark on a journey to save the world.  We love to see the most dire of situations be instantly turned around by the rag-tag group of misfits who have come together to use their powers for the greater good. They come together to fight injustice and to fight for  freedom.  They fight to protect the most innocent and vulnerable.  They fight for life.

While these superheroes are amazing to watch in the movies, at some point we have to come back down to reality. The movie is finished and real life beckons.  Of course, there are heroes in real life too.

Firefighters who rescue people from burning buildings are heroes.  Soldiers who risk their lives to protect nations and freedom are heroes.  Doctors and nurses who travel to Africa to care for those suffering from Ebola are heroes.

But now, despite our fascination with the life-saving superheroes, it seems a hero here in the real world is defined as something all together different.  Now it seems the title “hero” is bestowed not upon those who vow to protect and preserve life, but rather the opposite.

In June of 2013 Wendy Davis performed a filibuster for 11 hours to prevent a vote on a measure that would halt abortions after 20 weeks, require abortion clinics to meet the same surgical standards as hospitals, and require doctors performing abortions to have admitting rights at a hospital.  She was hailed as a champion for women’s rights.  A “hero”.

In May of this year, 25 year old Emily Letts decided to have an abortion and  to film it.  She wanted to show that it’s not scary, that there should be no guilt, that it’s ok to have an abortion.  She was called a “hero”.

Now Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old battling terminal brain cancer has chosen to end her own life this weekend. This beautiful woman has decided that to spare both herself and her family from the inevitable suffering that would ultimately lead to death anyway, she is going to die on her own terms.  She has made popular in the media the so called right to die with dignity.  And for her decision, she has been called a “hero.”

Every time I read one of these stories, my heart aches.  Aches for those who fight for abortion in the name of women’s health and protecting our rights.  Aches for those who truly believe that there is nothing wrong with an abortion.  Aches for those who, when faced with immeasurable sufferings, feel the only option is to die.

My heart aches for what we have reduced life to.  Something that we have control over.  Or at least we think we do.  We have reduced life to something we can create in test tubes, monitor for signs of “imperfection” and dispose of when we find things that are too tough to deal with.  To something that comes secondary to our own desires and goals.  We have reduced life to something that, when it gets too tough to bear, can be stopped.

Life is more than that.  There is beauty in life, even in the darkest of moments. Beauty because each life is precious and created by our loving Father. To look for the beauty, to find it even when others cannot see it, that is what makes a hero.  To look past the pain and suffering and see a glimmer of joy.  I believe that there are heroes all around us.  Heroes who battle cancer to the very end. Who suffer, yes, but who also find the beauty within the pain.  Heroes who, scared and unprepared though they may be, decide to give birth to a beautiful little baby.  To give them life.  Heroes who, like the superheroes we so admire, fight for life.

Life is hard.  It is messy, it is pain-filled, it is confusing.  But it is also beautiful.  There are times we do not know what is going to happen next.  There are times when we do and we dread what the future has to hold.  In the midst of life’s trials, whatever they may be, I think we all have the chance to be a hero.  Maybe even a superhero.  baby-203048_640

 

Reality Check

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Do you ever find yourself getting your hopes up about something only to quickly suppress them with a “reality check?”  You think for a minute that what you have wanted is just about to come true!  Hopes are high and you are filled with joy and certainty that everything will work out perfectly.  And then the little thoughts creep in…

“well it’s not realistic to expect that to happen immediately…”

“Better not get my hopes up, realistically we couldn’t afford it anyway…”

“Just because I want it to happen, realistically there is a lot standing in the way and chances are pretty slim…”

We dash our own hopes with our perceived notions of reality.  We have an idea in our minds of how things “realistically” happen in this world.  And more often than not, that idea is filled with negativity.  Why is that?

We can tell ourselves it is because we are being realistic.  Because we are thinking logically.  Because we are analyzing the situation from various aspects.  Because we are simply preparing ourselves for what is most likely to happen. But what it really boils down to is this: a lack of trust.

Do we truly believe that our wildest hopes and dreams are too far-fetched for God?  Do we seriously think that for one second we know what “reality” is better than our Father? I’m not talking about tempting God with outlandish requests to see if He really will answer them.  I am talking about sincere hopes and prayers.

Like praying for a friend to be cured.

Praying for a new career opportunity to allow you to spend more time with family.

Or, in my case, even praying for a baby.

When we ask for these things, why do we feel the need to stack the odds against ourselves?  Do we feel as though our requests are too big, too difficult for God?

Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”  Mark 11:23

God knows what is in our hearts.  When deep in my heart I know my soul is pleading and praying for a baby, do I really think God is fooled by me listing all the reasons it won’t happen?  The only one I am fooling is myself.  Realistically the only thing I know for certain is that God has it under control.

Our God is loving, kind, merciful, forgiving.  Much more so than any of us ever could be.  When we pray and are open to His will in our lives, we need to have full faith that He hears our prayers. Not only that, but He answers them.  We may not know how or when, but He does.  And if the answer doesn’t come as quickly or in the exact way we wanted, we do not need to worry or feel discouraged.  Instead, we remain joyful and filled with the hope and love of Christ.  Because anything He has planned is far greater than what we could dream up for ourselves.

So while we wait for an answer to our prayers, forget about the logic.  Give yourself a reality check.  Not the kind our world tells us we need.  Not analyzing finances and listing all the reasons why it won’t happen.  But check yourself into the only true reality.  The reality that God loves you.  Remain constantly filled with hope and joy and the knowledge that God is answering your prayer!  And the answer is better than we ever could have expected.