Yet O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.
From God shaping Adam from the ground through prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah to Jesus making a paste from mud to cure a blind man, the image of God as potter, working with the clay of the earth, reminds us that we have the humblest of beginnings but a divine spirit and destiny. Knowing that we are the work of God’s hands should reassure us when we question our physical attributes. It should also encourage us to take better care of our bodies, much as we would treat a precious ceramic vase or even a practical piece of kitchen pottery.
A great deal of time and patience goes into creating something from clay. The intuitive and creative skill of the potter works to shape the clay but much can happen in the drying and glazing process. And a piece is only finished after it’s gone through the high heat of the kiln that changes its very composition and molecular structure. For a human potter, waiting in between stages takes a great deal of patience. Beginners often worry about hidden imperfections and cracks that can destroy a piece during firing. Fortunately, our divine potter has all the skill and patience needed to guide us to completion.
We might think of patience as trust through time. And our perception of time changes as we grow older. Remember what this time of year felt like when you were a child? It seemed as though Christmas would never get here. Children live so much in the present moment that it’s hard to get them to understand the passage of time and the need to wait. As we get older, though, it seems as though time moves faster and faster. We look back on our teenage and young adult years and wonder when we found time to hang out with our friends, to play games (card, board, video—the medium changes but the pastime doesn’t). We might think it’s our work and family responsibilities, and that’s part of it, but even people who have retired say that they find it hard to find time for all that they want to do.
Only at the very end of our lives do we again find time hanging heavy around us. If infirmity and illness keep us from doing the things we love, the days may feel endless and the nights even more so. Instead of having to slow down, we need to remind ourselves that we’re in the perfect time and place for long and leisurely conversations with God.
Hanukkah and the beginning of Advent coincide this year. The tradition of not working while the lights of the menorah burn is a good example for us. Too often prayer becomes one more thing that we have to do in order to cross it off some spiritual list. Slow down and take time for a real prayer encounter with God. We might pray along with our Jewish brothers and sisters, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe, who has brought us to this holy season.” As they kindle the lights of the menorah, we light the first candle on our Advent wreaths.
Today is the day to get out your Advent wreath or buy or make a new one. It can be as simple as a green wreath with four candles set within it—three purple and one pink. I’ve used the traditional tapers, but I’ve also used votive candles in glass containers that burn longer without dripping. This is the main symbol of this season when we celebrate the light that comes into our darkness.
Beware that your hearts don’t become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.
Sometimes religious people can get carried away with separating Advent from the Christmas season, refusing invitations to pre-Christmas parties and banning all Christmas music and decorations until December 25. This can especially be an issue for people deeply involved in parish liturgies and activities. Advent begins to feel like a penitential season with no celebration allowed. But life rarely fits into the neat compartments of an IKEA shelving unit. We can strive to hold onto the quiet withdrawal of the ideal Advent, but when that means refusing the hospitality of another’s invitation, we might need to reconsider our commitments.
We take seriously the words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel when he warns against “carousing and drunkenness.” But he also warns against “the anxieties of daily life.” We know that especially in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was fond of a dinner party or a celebration with friends. And it’s from Luke that we hear the story of Mary and Martha. When Martha, busy about the many tasks of hospitality, asks Jesus to make her sister, sitting at his feet, help in the kitchen, he tells her, “Martha, Martha, you are busy and anxious about many things. Mary has chosen the better part.”
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the many tasks of this season of preparation. Cleaning, cooking, shopping, wrapping packages, cleaning some more, baking, doing dishes, going on one more shopping excursion. As so often happens during busy times, we find ourselves going to bed late, getting up early, grabbing fast food on the go, skipping a workout at the gym because we don’t have time, and generally not taking good care of ourselves. Then we go to parties where we eat too much rich, sweet food, and drink one too many alcoholic beverages and the downward spiral continues.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Sit quietly for five or ten minutes today. Pay attention to your breathing. Hear Jesus say, “You are busy and anxious about many things.” You know what those anxieties are. As you breathe in calm reassurance, breathe out those anxieties and turn them over to the Lord.
Ask your body and your spirit what they need at this time. It might be rest. Then again it might be more exercise. Our needs change throughout our lives and we don’t always pay attention to that. Take a walk. Take a nap. Do both. Cancel an engagement and stay home for the evening. Or resist the pull of the recliner and Netflix and go to dinner with a good friend. The main thing is to take time to ask yourself in any given moment if what you’re doing is really what you need or if another choice would be better. Then make the better choice, choose the better part.
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. —Genesis 2:7
I have an Apple watch and one of the built-in apps is called Breathe. It can be set up with notifications to remind you to take time for mindful breathing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve yelled at it, “I don’t have time to breathe right now!!” Even when what I mean is “I can’t stop what I’m doing and close my eyes and do one to three minutes of deep breathing.”
But sometimes it hits me that at times I do become so busy and stressed that I don’t take time to breathe. Irony of ironies, while I was lying in the ER last December, my watched pinged and said, “A minute of deep breathing can clear your mind and help you focus.” Yes, thank you, I’m on fourteen liters of oxygen at the moment! My mind should be clear as a bell!
There’s something a little bit crazy about using our technology to remind us of the simplest functions. I joke that my phone and my watch remind me to breathe, stand, and drink water. But it’s a sign of how often we forget to do these things. And the many mindfulness apps available for our smartphones and computers can be a great help in changing our habits and routines.
My watch isn’t wrong. A few minutes of deep breathing is an easy and refreshing way to take a break, clear my mind, check my body for stress-related aches, and get a renewed start on the tasks of the day. Long before we relied on technology, spiritual teachers in all the great religious traditions developed exercises that incorporate breathing into a prayer practice. It clears our spirits and opens a path for God’s loving voice to break through.
Commit yourself to just five minutes to sit silently with God, feeling the breath of the Spirit with each breath you take. You might want to say a prayer with each breath: “Come, Lord Jesus,” “Emmanuel, God with us,” or “Creator of the stars of night” are good reminders of this season of Advent. The traditional Jesus prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”—is a good way to focus your breathing. In the coming days, we will suggest Scripture passages as well.
One of the great blessings of technology is the easy availability of a wide variety of daily prayers. Through email, smartphone apps, and websites, we can find new ways to access the great spiritual riches of our tradition. Spend some time today looking for something that will enhance your prayer time during this Advent season. And if you’re not into technology, there’s no shortage of traditional paper resources.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
Every culture has special holiday foods and this becomes a big part of our experience of the festive season. We immerse ourselves in a sensual celebration of Advent and Christmas. Instead of being overwhelmed by this, let yourself take time to notice and truly appreciate the sights and sounds, aromas and tastes of the season.
For me, music is the first sign of the season. I like to start with the Windham Hill Winter Solstice collections and George Winston’s December. They don’t scream “CHRISTMAS!” but they instantly evoke the sounds of the season, partly because I’ve made them part of my yearly observance. An instrumental rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” or the “Carol of the Bells” begins to seep quietly into my consciousness.
Collections by the St. Louis Jesuits, Marty Haugen, and David Haas bring the Scriptures of the season to life and allow a quiet reflection on the liturgical side of the season. “Advent Lessons and Carols” from the Anglican tradition is another of my staples. For many people, the season isn’t complete without Handel’s “Messiah.” And many people prefer the familiar Christmas carols to put them in the spirit. Often our musical choices take us back to what spoke to us of Christmas in our childhood years or in other formative times.
I also wait for the first taste of eggnog and then the aroma of Christmas cookies baking in the oven. My sister makes special candy for Christmas and I love it when a box of goodies arrives in the mail. I can taste the love that goes into it. There’s no reason these things can’t happen at other times of the year. But connecting them with Advent and Christmas somehow makes them seem special. Like eating seasonally with the local harvest, we appreciate things more when we don’t have them all the time.
When I was a child, one of the first things that happened was the appearance of the box of Christmas books to replace the books I read (or was read to) the rest of the year. Old favorites and a few new ones were very much part of my Christmas tradition and I now have my own collection of Advent and Christmas reading.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
As you practice your breathing today, reflect on these words from Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
Make an Advent/Christmas playlist. Music is a big part of most of our experiences of Christmas. The right music can be a perfect background for a quiet appreciation of Advent. Everyone has different taste in music; use what works for you.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall! —Matthew 7:24–27
Jesus uses the metaphor of building a house on a solid foundation to describe those who hear and act on the word of God. His story sounds a bit silly on the surface. Who would build a house on shifting sand? We would never make this mistake in our actual homes, and yet we do it so often in our spiritual and emotional lives. It’s easy to be pulled and pushed about by the next new thing and we don’t always take time to anchor it to our core beliefs. We buy into the latest self-help craze and forget that our help comes from God. Sudden tragedy or disaster can threaten to knock us off our foundation or knock that foundation out from under us. No people or institutions are as solid and dependable as God.
Advent reminds us that the One who has come into the world and is always coming into our lives in new ways is the source of our salvation. We don’t need novelty and “magic bullet” solutions to our concerns. We simply need to return again and again to the rock-solid foundation of our lives: God and God alone. The mystery of the Incarnation is that by entering into our time and into our world, Jesus can show us the way to the gift that is beyond all time.
It can be hard to remember this when the storms of life hit unexpectedly. Using the season of Advent as a time to cultivate a deeper prayer life will help us with our spiritual emergency preparedness kit. We will have deeply rooted routines that can kick in when powers we depend on fail—as they all will at one time or another.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Reflect on these words from the prophet Isaiah as you sit quietly with your breathing today: Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:4)
It’s easy to take on too much at this time of year and forget why we’re doing what we’re doing. We find ourselves overwhelmed, drowning in anxiety and debt. Take a look at your to-do list. It has a way of getting out of control this time of year. Learn to say no to some things so you can be fully present to those things to which you say yes.
On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off.
The prophet Isaiah is the voice and spirit of the Advent season. In the eighth century before Christ was born, his words encouraged a people dejected and torn from their homes by soldiers of a foreign power. The people of Israel were carried off to Assyria, exiled from their homeland, driven out of the Promised Land. While God’s prophets, including Isaiah, had warned them time and time again that this would happen, until they were living the reality of the exile, they didn’t see the need to change their ways. But once the worst had happened, he changed his tone and his words brought comfort and hope to an afflicted people. He continued to call them to change their lives and turn again to their God, but he did it with gentleness and encouragement, with reminders of how very much God loved them, even in the midst of their suffering.
At different times in our lives, we find ourselves beaten down by circumstances—some beyond our control and some the consequence of bad choices on our part. We’re embarrassed by the number of times people have warned us that we were going the wrong way. We feel consumed by regret and remorse. At times such as these, we need to hear the word of God through the prophet Isaiah, reminding us that God is merciful, that God loves us just as we are, that in spite of our weakness and sin, God is always ready to welcome us home, to bring us back to level ground. If you’ve reached one of these valleys during this holiday season, don’t beat yourself up for the way you’re feeling.
Remember that our resolutions to do better, our commitment to repentance and turning our lives around, all happen with God’s help.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
There’s a saying that prophets afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. For today’s prayer, let yourself hear deeply these familiar words from the prophet Isaiah: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1) As the word of God becomes part of our breathing, we are more likely to recall these words when we need them.
Do we let ourselves be tyrannized by unreasonable expectations? What’s truly essential for your celebration of this season? What are you doing because you’ve always done it or because you think someone else expects it? If you enjoy something, by all means keep doing it. If it’s a burden, consider letting go of it.
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
Other people much wiser (and perhaps more organized) than me start making Christmas gifts during the summer and have lovely handmade gifts for their loved ones on December 25. For these people, a handmade Christmas is a lovely, peaceful experience, one that I admire but can’t seem to emulate. My nephew’s wife used to laugh at me because sometime in mid-November I would come up with an awesome idea for making all my Christmas gifts that year. Once it was going to be sets of notepaper and greeting cards for the family with images from our summer cottage. Another time it was going to be knitted gifts for everyone. Of course, I never allowed enough time and the great ideas faded away, replaced by a desperate trip to the store in late December to find appropriate gifts.
If you’re a crafty person, it’s hard to resist the urge to have a homemade Christmas. Magazines and Pinterest boards are filled with fun and creative ideas. Parents get sucked into making elaborate seasonal treats for their children’s school parties. When these ideas make us stressful and anxious, or we find ourselves running to multiple stores looking for the right shape pretzels, it’s time to take a step back and ask if it’s really worth the effort. What started out as a way to make the season less commercial suddenly becomes anything but simple. The answer isn’t “do it” or “don’t do it.” It is, rather, pay attention to what’s right for you and your family this year. And don’t let yourself be swayed by external expectations, whether it’s people you know or those tempting ideas in social media. Trust that you know what’s best for your circumstances. Hear the words of Isaiah: “This is the way. Walk in it when you would turn to the right or left.”
I’m still planning to make an elaborate knitted wreath for my door. Every year I get out the yarn and the pattern but I’ve made peace with only finishing a few knitted ivy leaves and mistletoe berries. I enjoy the process and I know it will get done someday—or it won’t. My celebration of Christmas doesn’t depend on it.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
This quote from Isaiah could help you hold onto the healthy choices and plans you’re making for the season. If you haven’t made those plans yet, there’s still time. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21)
If you want to get away from the big box stores but know that a DIY Christmas isn’t going to happen, look into some middle ground alternatives. Shop at local small businesses. Support the many craft fairs held in your area to raise money for various groups and charities. Buy from independent artisans on sites such as Etsy. You’ll find unique and interesting gifts for your families and friends and you have the added bonus of doing good in the process.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
My friends and family all know that I am an obsessive knitter. No matter where I am, if I have a few minutes to wait, I take out my knitting. It fills what might be empty moments with color, texture, and pattern. It keeps my hands busy so my mind is free to wander or focus as needed. There’s a meme going around among knitters that shows a nineteenth-century painting of a young girl knitting with the caption, “The original fidget-spinner.”
The first time I ever had to be admitted to the hospital for a bronchoscopy, my primary care doctor did the preadmission tests and told me to go home and collect what I needed (I think his actual words were “whatever chargers you need”) and then check in at the hospital. I made sure I had my laptop to keep up with work and several knitting projects. I joked that if I’d known they would make me wear a hospital gown the whole time, I would have had room for another project instead of a change of clothes. If I had to be in the hospital, I might as well make good use of the time.
Last year, though, I was completely unprepared. When you go to the ER in a rescue squad, you don’t have the luxury of planning. I grabbed my phone and one simple scarf project. No iPad, no laptop, no work projects. The whole focus of my life for almost a week was breathing and breathing out. That’s about as simple as it gets! As I began to feel better, I asked the hospital’s volunteer coordinator for some yarn to make something for their prayer shawl ministry. But even that was secondary to my main occupation of breathing in and breathing out, first with oxygen and then gradually on my own.
We fill our lives and our calendars with more than we can do in twenty-four hours and we do that for days on end. Reluctant to cross anything off, we simply push tasks to the next day and the next. Often we accumulate possessions with the same disregard for space and clarity. Many of us struggle with letting go of the things in our lives, often because those things hold memories of our past and of beloved friends and family. Advent calls us to simplify our lives and our homes so we can focus on what really matters: being aware of the Spirit of God breathing within and around us.
As we begin the second week of Advent this year, we hear the call of John the Baptist to turn our lives around, to let go of those things that keep us too far away from God’s presence. He preached a fierce and compelling message to people who had lost their way. But he also brought the message home to them in ways that spoke to the uniqueness of their way of life.
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
We have a tendency to live “all-or-nothing” lives, especially when we’re trying to make changes and become better people. We swing from one extreme to the other and forget that temperance, too, is a virtue.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
Last week we heard Jeremiah compare God to a potter. We know from the gospels that Jesus worked with his foster father, who was a carpenter (or a stonemason). St. Francis advised his brothers to work with their hands as a way of staying connected to the humble, simple things of the earth. Many of our Christmas traditions pull us into this kind of tactile creativity. It might be baking or making decorations or writing cards to distant friends and family. In a world that too often relies on mass-produced, cheaply made commodities, handmade treasures still stand out.
The prophet Baruch reminds us that all of creation, including but not limited to human beings, has come from the creative hand of God. In using our hands creatively, we share in the creative impulse of God. We put more of ourselves into the work of our hands and that becomes an important part of the special gifts we give and the meals we prepare. These things we make don’t need to be either elaborate or impressive. If we worry too much about making an impression, we lose the simplicity and the beauty of the gesture. We allow our anxieties and our pride to rob us of the simple joy of making and giving. We lose that connection with the God who created us and breathes life into us each and every day.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
As you take time to breathe deeply in prayer today, look with appreciation at your hands and reflect on the many things they do—working, playing, loving, creating. Let the phrase “I am God’s work of art” run through your mind as you breathe. It comes from this passage in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8–10)
A minimalism movement has arisen in response to an increasingly complex technological society and the excesses of our consumption-driven culture. One manifestation of this is a renewed interest in pen-and-paper planning and journaling. People are taking time away from their phones and tablets and rediscovering the tactile experience of writing by hand. Working by hand can slow us down and give us a greater appreciation for the task we’re doing. You might want to write at least some of your Christmas cards by hand this year, even if it’s just a short note. Or you might want to write out your Christmas shopping list, carefully pairing each person with an appropriate gift.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
If you follow contemporary trends in design and interior decoration, you can’t miss the move toward minimalism. As people find their lives becoming cluttered and out of control, they’re drawn to an ideal of wide, clear spaces, polished wood, and large expanses of glass. I can appreciate the beauty of this, but it’s not something to which I’m drawn. I like a little homey clutter. I like letting my eye rest on objects that carry memories and emotions and connections to places and people I’ve loved. I try to follow the advice of nineteenth-century philosopher and proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement William Morris who said, “Have nothing in your life that you don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Beauty rescues us from a drab utilitarian existence. Simplicity doesn’t need to be stark and completely minimalist. Any time spent in nature, even in the depths of winter, shows us that our God is both prolific and even flamboyant in the colors and shapes and infinite variety of creation. Even the vast deserts and oceans are shifting displays of original beauty and blessing. As you’re cleaning and decorating this year, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Trust your instincts and rely on your own tastes and preferences. If you want a single stem of holly for your centerpiece, go for it and let it reflect a single-hearted focus on God’s grace. If you want every ornament you’ve inherited from parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents jostling for space on your tree, glory in the extravagance.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18–19)
Before you start decorating for the holiday, take a day or two to put away the decorations you’ve been enjoying for the autumn months (or perhaps the eleven months since last Christmas). Clear and clean the surfaces in your living space and enjoy the emptiness and openness for a time. Let the simplicity offer you some rest and peace as you prepare for the coming feast. You might want to include flowering bulbs (amaryllis and narcissus are popular choices) or a Christmas cactus as part of your decorations to bring to mind Isaiah’s hope-filled words about the desert blooming.
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Every few years a new organizing and clutter-clearing trend makes the news. The latest one I’ve encountered is Swedish death-cleaning (döstädning). The underlying principle makes sense: From around age fifty, you should begin organizing your things and decluttering so that your children aren’t stuck with the task after you’re gone. I can appreciate this. When my mom died, we needed multiple large dumpsters to clear out her house, partly because she absorbed the household goods from several aging and deceased relatives. While this might seem to be more of a project for Lent, it can be a fruitful Advent pursuit as well. When we get out the boxes of Christmas decorations, often we find things at the bottom of the box or the back of the closet that never get pulled out. Not too long ago I found the flour-and-salt-clay diorama of a winter scene that I made in third grade. The plastic deer had a broken back leg and the clay itself was cracked in several places. I took a picture of it and let it go.
Sometimes we simply don’t think about our possessions in this way. As long as we have room for them, we keep them stored away. But they no longer have any meaning for the person we’ve become and even if they might have an emotional attachment for us, they’re not going to mean anything so significant to anyone else. If you’re not ready to death-clean your whole house, this Advent start with the Christmas decorations. When you put them away in January, the boxes will be lighter and maybe your heart will be as well.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
We sometimes mistake the transitory for permanent and vice versa. As you pay attention to your breathing today, reflect on these words from Isaiah. You might be surprised by the emotions that arise as part of your prayer. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:8)
Emotions run high during the holidays and big gatherings don’t lend themselves to serious discussions. But if this idea of anticipatory cleaning appeals to you, decide to find a time in the new year to talk with your children and close friends. If you know someone has expressed an interest in a precious possession and you’re ready to let go of it, consider surprising them with it as a gift this Christmas. If you’re not quite ready to let it go, make a point of telling them that it will come to them some day in the future.
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Simplicity is not about being poor and deprived; rather it’s about being filled with joy because our needs and wants are no longer consuming us. Too often we grasp at things when we’re struggling with a feeling of emptiness within. We know that what’s missing can’t be replaced by things, but we fall into old habits and beliefs. As we grow older and more mature, as we repeat this cycle more times than we care to count, the message does begin to sink in. As we become more aware of what things truly give us pleasure and fulfillment, we can let the incidentals go. The older we get, the less we need. It’s somewhat ironic that we give older people in our lives completely useless trinkets because there’s nothing practical that they need or want. But they also don’t need or want trinkets. Gift-giving can lose its meaning when it becomes a meaningless list of items to check off as they’re purchased.
If you have older people in your life, think about ways you can give them the gift of loving time. Don’t simply give them a gift card to a restaurant; include an invitation to make it a family dinner time. Offer to take them to a special event after the hectic holiday season is over and the winter days and nights stretch bleakly into early spring. Ask them if there’s something they would like. If you’re an older person, make suggestions to your children and grandchildren about what you would like.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Whatever age you are, this prayer can help focus your thoughts and bring peace to your heart: Grant me daily the grace of gratitude, to be thankful for all my many gifts, and so be freed from artificial needs, that I might lead a joyful, simple life. (Fr. Ed Hays)
A gift to a favorite charity can be a special way to honor someone that doesn’t become a burden or even just a dust-catcher. Many organizations even have lovely gift cards that let the person know you’ve made a donation in their name. At a family gathering, take a few minutes and have each person suggest a favorite cause for future gift-giving occasions.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Tragedies have a way of showing us what really matters. Losing everything in a house fire or flood is devastating. The wildfires in the western United States have destroyed thousands of acres and raged indiscriminately through homes and businesses across the economic spectrum. Floods along the eastern seaboard and tornadoes in the Midwest are a seasonal reminder that nature doesn’t pay attention to what’s in its path. But almost across the board, the response of people who lose their material goods is simply thanksgiving for lives spared. Homes can be rebuilt, possessions can be replaced.
Even more minor accidents take us by surprise. I woke up before dawn one morning to the sound of crashing glass. My first thought was my curio cabinet, but it turned out to be a wall shelf in the kitchen that held my spice jars and a variety of coffee mugs. First, I was immensely grateful that none of the dogs got hurt by the falling shelf. And I was ridiculously pleased that the damage to my mug collection was relatively minor. I set about cleaning up the mess and got on with the day.
There was a time when I would have been far more upset at\ the breakage and loss. It reminded me of when my first dog was a puppy and chewed up a Steiff zebra that had been a Christmas present from my dad. I was sad about the loss, but knew that the bond I had with my dog Bosch was more important than a stuffed animal, no matter how precious. I learned an important lesson that day that has stayed with me ever since.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
The words of Isaiah continue to offer us comfort and stability in a life that can seem to have neither:
For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Do not fear,
I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13)
Accidents happen during this busy season. Baking treats and decorating the house can lead to spills and broken ornaments—even heirloom ones. Remember that the child or pet who was at fault is ultimately more important than the thing that got broke or the floor that needed to be cleaned.
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, who leads you in the way you should go. O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river, and your success like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.
In the book The Real Enjoyment of Living, Rabbi Hyman Schachtel coined the often-quoted phrase, “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” It’s a good reminder at this time of year when we never quite lose the childish tendency to want everything we see advertised, even if it’s just a momentary desire. People in the world of fiber often joke that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy yarn, which is almost the same thing. But we’re all wise enough to know this isn’t really true. Advent is a good time to reflect on the many gifts we already have, and even on the many material things that make our lives more pleasant and less difficult.
But we don’t have to be very far along in the spiritual life to understand that having more isn’t going to fill an emptiness in our souls. Contentment is a great gift that we don’t always appreciate. It’s not as rare as we might think. Instead of asking whether we’re happy, perhaps we can get into the habit of asking how content we are. Contentment has in it an element of peace that’s greatly needed in our lives and in our world today. And the more content we are with what we possess, the more likely we are to hold those things lightly and to give to those whose needs are greater and more genuine than our passing desires.
Notice Isaiah speaks of prosperity and success being like a river or the waves of the sea: infinite but constantly in motion. We are to hold our treasures lightly, knowing that they come from God.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Today you might want to add a variation to our familiar breathing prayer. Take a short (or long) walk and let these words of Psalm 25 be the refrain that guides your steps:
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long. (Psalm 25:4–5)
I have a deep respect for young parents I know who teach their children the invaluable lesson of giving to others. A few weeks before Christmas, they take the time to sort through old toys and give those that they’ve outgrown to thrift stores and other charitable giving organizations. Together as a family they select items for the parish giving tree. These children will grow into caring and giving adults because of these gentle lessons learned early and well. Make a special effort this year to give generously to those in need. It can be a side benefit of clearing away your own unneeded clutter or it can be an antidote to frenetic Christmas shopping.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. —Philippians 4:4–5
Most of us want to be seen as strong and capable. We don’t want to be helpless and needy. We fear vulnerability. Paul’s advice to the Philippians is startling: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” He’s telling us that knowing God is near makes it safe to let our guard down. We don’t trust others and often we don’t even trust ourselves. If we’ve made bad choices in the past, we may not trust ourselves to make good choices. If we’ve been hurt, we instinctively protect ourselves from further harm. If our trust has been betrayed, we’re reluctant to trust again. It’s easy, even natural, to fall into these patterns of behavior.
The Scriptures tell us again and again not to be afraid. God’s peace, Paul tells us, will guard our hearts and minds. Rejoicing in the Lord teaches us to see not only the times we have been hurt but also the many times we have been loved and sheltered and cherished. This season’s gentle challenge is to dwell on the good things in our lives, the precious memories, the reminders of God’s gracious love and mercy. It can be tempting to recall only the bad things in our past and to live in fear. But the Incarnation proclaims a return to the essential goodness in creation and in humanity. Being grateful for all that is good in our lives gives us a secure place to stand and a reliable shelter when the storms of life rage around us.
We need to remember, as a dear friend once told me, “Sometimes when the storm rages, God calms the storm. But sometimes God can only calm the child because the storm must continue to rage.” Let yourself be calmed today.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Breathe in peace, breathe out anxiety. Breath in trust, breathe out worry. Ask God for what you need. Thank God for what you need! Let these words run through your mind: “The peace of God surpasses all understanding.”
Our sensory memories play a big part in our moods. Take time to be grateful for the many ways you perceive the world around you—sight, sound, smell, and touch—and the people and places these perceptions evoke. Hang on to those that are most calming and find ways to keep them close.
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. —James 5:7–8
Patience can be in short supply at this time of year, when everyone is too busy. Technology has speeded up our lives to the point that we notice when our internet connection is sluggish or the person in front of us in the grocery checkout has too many coupons. We don’t even know why we’re in such a hurry. We’ve begun to value speed for its own sake. And yet the things that really matter in life still take time and patience.
We can’t speed up the growth of plants or animals or babies. We can’t speed up the time time it takes for healing, whether it’s our bodies or our spirits. And all of these things are well worth the wait. Instead of hurrying, we need to find ways to nurture ourselves and one another during the waiting time. The refrain of Advent is “The Lord is near.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe this. We don’t get the answers we want when we pray, or at least we don’t get them immediately. This season can help us wrestle with the waiting time. While we wait for the perfection of the world in the second coming of Christ, we have the mystery of the Incarnation to guide us in making our world a little more ready. We can appreciate the small signs along the way to that perfect time and place.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
People of earlier generations were far more aware of the slow growth of nature. We can learn a valuable lesson in patience from observing the small signs of growth. Take a walk today and notice not the bare branches of the trees but the terminal buds that signal next spring’s leaves.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11)
Take time to notice. A friend mentioned a species of lily that has no leaves. I mentioned that it was unfamiliar to me. Until I was pulling into my driveway later that day and saw a bed of the very same lilies in my neighbor’s garden. A couple days later, I saw the same flowers in two other yards on my street. All it takes is a little attention.
“A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” —Matthew 21:28–32
Most people know the parable of the prodigal son from Luke’s Gospel. Matthew uses another story of two brothers to make a similar point. It doesn’t have the elaborate details of Luke’s story, but sometimes that keeps us from being distracted from the central message. I often find myself identifying with the actions of the younger son, to the point that I sometimes now tell people I’m working with that my tendency is to say no to something and then later come around to a yes response.
I seem to need that time and space to consider what’s being asked of me. And I believe that over time I will learn to temper that first response so that I can be more willing to reach out and say yes more quickly. Because there’s one more group of people that Jesus doesn’t mention in his parable: those who say yes and follow through on their commitment. We all know these people in our lives, and we’re grateful for their presence because they keep things moving and they’re actively working to build up the kingdom.
These are the people Pope Francis refers to as “the saints next door.” Gratitude teaches us how to come more quickly to a yes answer. It helps us live more easily in the present moment. Blessed Solanus Casey is quoted as saying, “We must be faithful to the present moment or we will frustrate the plan of God for our lives.” This is good advice to those of who tend to live either in the past or the future. We need to notice what God is doing in and through us right here, right now.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Trust that you’re going in the right direction and say yes to God’s plan. Reflect on these words of St. Paul: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:6–7).
If you don’t already have a gratitude journal, now might be the time to begin one. It doesn’t need to be fancy. A plain spiral notebook will do, or even a sheet of paper. Many people do this before bed in the evening but you will settle on the time that works best for you. Writing these things down keeps them from being forgotten. If you’re having a bad day, you can revisit your lists.
Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I the Lord have created it. —Isaiah 45:8
We’ve been trained from the time we were small children to say thank you for gifts, for compliments, for anything someone does for us. It’s an excellent habit and goes a long way toward fostering an atmosphere of civility and goodwill. As we grow and mature, we learn to cultivate a deeper sense of gratitude beyond automatic words and gestures. It also breaks through the false humility that sometimes causes us to turn away compliments and deny our gifts. We discover the graciousness inherent in God’s providence and we respond with a gratefulness that flows from us to all those around us. Gratefulness teaches us that the things we have are meant to be shared; the gifts particular to us are meant to enrich the world.
The more we recognize our abundance, the more we want everyone to have that experience of grace and giftedness. And the more we share ourselves and our gifts with others, the more those gifts grow and develop. This deep gratefulness is learned not so much from being told to be grateful as from watching those around us respond to the gifts in their own lives. When my mom, who was always generous to a fault, was struggling in the final days of her life, I found myself reminding her of all the ways she had reached out to her family through the years. I was stunned that she didn’t recognize those gifts that were so apparent to those around her. As we recognize and appreciate our own gifts, we teach others to do the same. It’s good to have people in our lives who can remind us of this when we forget.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Reflect on this quote from Br. David Steindl-Rast: “The smallest surprise, received gratefully, yields a harvest of delight.” Let your memory surface times in your life when you experienced this kind of delight. Think about how you might surprise someone else.
Be grateful for the gifts you bring to the lives of your loved ones. We often neglect this when we’re taking a gratitude inventory.
For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you. —Isaiah 54:10
I’m sure for people living in Isaiah’s time, the permanence of hills and mountains was something taken for granted. And so the prophet could suggest that God’s steadfast love was even more solid and immovable than that. The reassurance is no less needed in these days when we know that both technology and nature can and do destroy mountains. The words of the prophet still ring true: God’s love and compassion are with us in good times and bad. We might think it’s easier to recognize God’s presence when life is good and happiness fills our spirits.
We enjoy gathering with friends to celebrate the good times, the successes in our lives and theirs. But we know from experience that it’s in the most difficult times in our lives that we are truly grateful for those who can simply be present to us in our fear, our anxiety, our sadness, and our grief. And it’s in those times, too, that God’s enfolding love surrounds us and keeps us going.
The holidays often bring with them a mix of emotions. We enjoy being with family and friends but few of us can say that we don’t notice a tinge of sadness when we realize how many people we’ve lost over the years. This loss creeps up on us at the most unexpected times. It might be due to a variety of circumstances, not only death but also the transitory nature of modern life. Some of those people are only casual acquaintances but some have a deep impact on us and we feel the loss of their presence. As we remember them, it helps to thank God for bringing them into our lives.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Being happy doesn’t make us grateful. Being grateful makes us happy. As you focus on your breathing, reflect on the happy and sad times in your life. Let your mind and heart absorb the truth of this statement.
Be grateful for the simple presence of loved ones in your life. It’s easy to be grateful for what people do for us or give to us, but their importance goes beyond this. Be grateful, too, for loved ones you have lost to death. Know that they are still very much present to you, even if it’s in a very different way. Our grief is a measure of the depth of our love. If your grief is new and still raw, trust that it will become more gentle over time.
Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt”, but “As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” Then they shall live in their own land. —Jeremiah 23:7–8
Exodus and exile are among the most common themes in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Chosen People are driven from their homes and their land and God shelters them and leads them back home. While the Exodus is the founding experience for God’s people, Jeremiah reminds his listeners that God will perform as great a rescue in their own lives. And from that day to this, this movement plays out in nations and in our own personal lives.
Yesterday we reflected on personal experiences of exile. Today we widen our perspective and give thought to those who are experiencing the kind of exile from their homelands that the people of Israel and the Holy Family in Egypt experienced. Our spiritual journey is never only about our own personal salvation.
The prophets remind us that we are called to live our lives in such a way that the nations will find their way to God through us. This perspective often challenges the status quo. In both the Old and New Testaments, exile happened because the leaders of the people and those who benefited from a privileged existence forgot that they too had been lost and broken at one time and depended on God for their newfound good fortune. Our Scriptures remind us again and again that God will always side with the poor, the powerless, the broken. If we can’t recognize this, if we think that being powerful is the way to find God, we are likely to be surprised. Any power and privilege we have is to be placed at the service of others.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1–3)
The Scriptures, especially Luke’s Gospel, place the birth of Jesus squarely in the middle of a very political setting. It’s a reminder that our faith can’t be something that sets us above and apart from the messiness of our world. As we become more grateful for the good things we have in our own lives, we want to share with those who have less. Find a group in your local community that is working to help refugees and immigrants and make an effort to contribute to their cause in some way.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. —Isaiah 56:6–8
Being grateful is a first small step toward not feeling guilty about the good things we have. As we realize that our lives are a gift, sometimes simply a gift of where and when we were born, we can let go of the defensiveness that leads us to believe we’ve earned and deserve what we have. But being grateful doesn’t means simply being content with who we are and what we have. Nor is it a precursor to complacency. Being grateful makes us more aware of the people around us, those who have helped us but also those who need our help.
Being grateful reminds us that we don’t do anything entirely on our own. Many of the great Hebrew prophets wrote to a people experiencing exile. At different times in our lives we may be able to identify with that experience. We might be stuck at home when we want to be out. We might be stuck at a party when we’d rather be at home with just one or two dearly loved friends. We might be in a job that keeps us far away from our families for long periods of time.
When my mom was dying and trapped in a kind of emotional dementia, I discovered a whole new understanding of the line in the Salve Regina prayer that says, “And after this our exile…” I could see how much she was living in a kind of exile, away from the home and family she had known all her life and not yet in the eternal home with the God for whom she had longed all her life. A true home is a place of inclusion and love where all are welcome, not a fortress to defend against the enemy. Our coming home challenges us to recognize that everyone is a child of the one God.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Through Isaiah, God says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Let this be your prayer today.
Learn something new today about a person or group of people not like you in some way. Even acquiring a little knowledge about others brings us closer together. If you’re feeling timid today, you can stick to simple research. If you’re feeling brave or adventurous, make plans to meet with someone new. Remember the old saying that strangers are friends you haven’t yet met.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” —Luke 1:39–45
All the anticipation comes to a climax in this last week of Advent. From the early days of Advent when the focus is on the Second Coming at the end of time through the middle days when we reflect on the many ways God is present to us in our daily lives, we’ve arrived at the stories of the preparation for the coming of the Son of God as a baby in Bethlehem.
The infinite and the intimate are both part of the wonder of Emmanuel. Waiting might be one of the greatest challenges for modern people. It’s woven into so much of what we do, and as we’ve seen, it required both patience and trust. Waiting for birth and waiting for death (itself a rebirth into eternity) might be the most intense times of waiting we experience. Rushing either one does irreparable damage to the web of life.
Elizabeth exclaims to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” One wonder whether her blessing is for Mary or herself or more likely for both. Because each woman heard a promise that seemed almost impossible and yet she chose to trust in the wisdom and power of God to bring that promise to fulfillment. Their journey isn’t over at this point, but as they join in celebration of that promise, the road is made easier by the presence of a companion on the way. We need to recover and reignite the power of blessing in our lives.It’s a way of making holy both the ordinary and extraordinary moments in our lives. In blessing ourselves and one another we acknowledge the presence of God in our midst.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Meditation is nothing new for Catholics. We may have called it by different names through our long history, but the pattern of quiet reflection on the divine mystery and prayers to help our busy minds find focus is deeply rooted in our spiritual tradition. Take time today to pray the joyful mysteries of the rosary. Today’s Gospel is the second of those, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.
At night before you go to bed, make a conscious effort to ask God to bless those near and dear to you. I remember once seeing my grandma sprinkling holy water in the air in her bedroom and I knew instinctively that she was blessing each of us. You might also want to begin to say, “God bless you” when you say, “I love you.”
Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.…” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” —Luke 1:11–14, 18–20
Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed throughout their married lives for the Lord to bless them with children. To have those prayers answered when it seemed far too late for them to be fulfilled must have seemed at first like a cruel joke, a message that was too little and too late. We can understand Zechariah’s doubting the angel’s word. Even if Elizabeth bore a child at such an advanced age, he couldn’t imagine seeing that child grow up and fulfill the destiny promised by the angel.
In spite of the face that he had been a holy priest all his life, serving daily in the Temple, this promise seemed too far beyond his ability to believe. It may have been a relief for Zechariah and Elizabeth to withdraw from the busyness of Temple life for a time, he in his imposed silence, she in the wonder of the new life growing in her womb. In the face of great mystery, silence might be the only authentic response.
And too often the chatter of outsiders and the gossip of those who only half understand what’s going on can be wearing and stressful. We live in a world where the most intimate sides of people’s lives can be broadcast to the world, with or without their consent. We forget that everyone has a right to privacy and personal time away from prying eyes and babbling gossip. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but technology has vastly enlarged the concept of the village gossip.
The pain of infertility is something that many people struggle with, often privately and silently. We need to guard against making assumptions (even judgments) about couples with no children. Allow people to share the intimate details of their lives if and when they choose. There are many good and personal reasons for choosing to raise children, just as there here are many other ways to be fruitful and life-giving. Sometimes silence is indeed golden.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Read the story of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–25) and reflect on the many emotions the characters must have experienced. What memories from your own life does this story awaken?
Limit your exposure to the news during the week before Christmas. We don’t realize how overwhelming our 24/7 news broadcasts can be. Even the local broadcasts morning, noon, and night come into our homes with a constant repetition of bad news that often has no real meaning for our lives beyond a salacious appeal to our curiosity. Christmas is a time to rejoice in the good news of the many wondrous things that God has done and will continue to do.