The Answer is Presence

Perhaps no apparent injustice compels the human heart to beg the Mystery for an answer as the death of a child does.  That suffering and death is a part of our lives, however enigmatic it remains, is at least swallowable, for we who have sinned much in our adult years.  But the suffering and death of a child tosses the human heart into an entirely different category of questioning and even indictment.

Yet I wonder how many, in the face of death, have the freedom to even get this far.

Recently, a young member of our parish, and one of my daughter’s friends passed away.  She was three-years-old.  As I sat with that cold reality for several days, I observed much about the ways people deal with death – and this is true of the culture as a whole.  Here are a few generic characteristics:

  1. Rational Acceptance – Here, “enlightened” man reduces man to mere matter, a series of biological functions that naturally grind to a halt.  The machine dies.  Everyone’s machine dies.  So what?!  As Epicurus says in Menoeceus, “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
  2. Denial – In the face of death, denial can take on the stoic/apathetic form – simply not allowing your emotions to get involved (i.e. “shutting down”), or, on the other hand, denial can lead one to avoid the reality/pain of death by filling that space with distractions.  One example of this would be a conversation I had with someone who simply would not engage the real question (“Why did this three-year-old have to die?”), the question of meaning and reality, and instead consistently reminded me to never ever take my eyes off of my own children so as to keep them safe.  This position evades the problem.
  3. Entrance into the Mystery of Death – Not many people want to do this.  Not many want to stare death in the face, bear the full brunt of its blow.  As T.S. Eliot said, “Human kind / cannot bear very much reality.”  This is why most of us are…
  4. …Satisfied with trying to impress upon the reality of death our own judgments and reasons for the injustice.  For those of you familiar with Job’s story, this is exactly what Job’s friends (aka. Satan’s little helpers) do – they pin Job’s sufferings (loss of children and physical ailment) into a category (namely that Job was sinful).  But Job was blameless. Personal sin was not the cause of the predicament (not unlike Christ). Preconception and the attempt to humanly compress reality into human reasons simply did not allow the friends to see Job’s righteousness and the real injustice of his suffering.  So too, we offer conjectures (that quickly become dogmatic for us) about why the child (or so-and-so) died.

This is all a big problem for us, because death presents that supreme injustice for man who cannot escape its cold clutch.  That grip that will end everything he was and could have been.  The Christian understands that death is an historical reality before it is biological.  “Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. ‘Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned’ is thus ‘the last enemy’ of man left to be conquered” (CCC 1008).  So what is the answer?

When the Lights Went Out that Night

With these general ways of thinking about death in mind, I’d like to ponder the sentiments of the apostles as they lie in bed on that first Good Friday.  What an unspoken and tragic moment.

The man who they had come to believe was God, who had just days prior entered triumphantly into Jerusalem and who had fed them, now lay in a dank tomb, decaying.  How could they stare this apparent complete abandonment in the face – the man they had pinned all of their hopes on, who they had given up everything to follow, seemed to do nothing in the face of his tormentors, or in the face of death, accept surrender to it.  Did the apostles simply accept it?  After all, He was just another man.  Did the apostles deny everything about Him?  Some did.  Did the apostles try to project their own reasons onto the situation?  Probably.  How many of them actually stared His death in the face, allowed the scandal of the cross to penetrate the heart?  How many of them were present to its depth?  Perhaps only the few who actually went all the way to the cross with Him.

“Holy Saturday is the day of the ‘death of God,’ the day which expressed the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer wakes, no longer speaks, so that on no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him” (Benedict XVI).

That night, as Good Friday transpired, and the shadowy Saturday came upon the horizon, Jesus himself offered the only adequate response to death.  Not a rationalism, or a stoicism, or even a “good” reason (humanly speaking). In the face of death, He simply offers himself.  He doesn’t offer a clever remark or a power trip, instead, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, offers himself.

Thus the truly satisfying position in front of death does not deny or cheapen or find a “good reason for it,” instead it is simply present to the mystery of death and the Presence that has filled it and made it new.  “Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness; in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment.  Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.  Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer.  Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it” (Benedict XVI).

Even in death Christ can be encountered as a Presence that transforms death into life. This truth satisfies.  Trite expressions and denial do not.

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).

OL_Crucifixion

Seven (somewhat lame) excuses for not engaging in your parish’s Youth Ministry program + 1 Response

Author’s Note:  I used most all of these excuses when I was in high school, and now face them “on the other side.”  It is rather ironic.  At any rate, here are some observations on teen excuses based upon personal experience and interactions with high schoolers (and parents) over the last four years.

I’m not interested in “recruiting” teens for Youth Ministry, and I’m only concerned with numbers insofar as I hope and pray that every teen in our parish encounters Christ and experiences conversion.  That said, my Core Team and I extend numerous invitations to a myriad of teens over the course of a year.  Here are some of the most common reasons we get as to why a teen doesn’t check out our program (this ranges from 7-12th grade, and the list moves from lamest excuse/reason to gravest excuse/reason):

  1. Homework.  This fluffy excuse fails most of the time (barring exam season or time-consuming projects) for the simple reason that from the time school gets out on Friday afternoon until the Youth Night on Sunday – over 50 hours have passed!
  2. “I Won’t Know Anyone There”.  Now, this is a good reason.  Who wants to walk into any social setting without a friend close by?  I don’t.  This position is something of a catch-22, however.  I don’t know anyone, so I don’t go.  But, by never going, I never have a chance to know anyone there.  Given how often I hear these words from teens, I realize two things:  1.) The importance of one-to-one evangelization through friendship (the personal invite), and 2.) the need for us to constantly welcome new teens into our group, while helping them to know that they belong here.
  3. ExcusesNot Cool Enough.  This excuse is downright dirty…really, it’s purely pompous.  It goes something like this, “The people who go to Youth Group have no other friends;” or “Those kids are weird;” or “Have you seen them?  They lack all coolness.”  Okay, perhaps the last excuse is not verbatim, but it does capture the essence.  Here’s the rebuttal:  a) Since when did you become the measuring stick for “coolness?”  b) How can you place a judgment upon a rather large group of people, when you’ve never attended an event (or at least 3)?  c) What a prideful statement!
  4. Lack of Parental Push. I understand that parents need to let their high schoolers have the freedom to make choices.  (In fact, I absolutely believe that no teen should be forced to attend Youth Ministry against his/her will.)  However, Youth Group is the primary ministry the parish has to offer your teen, and no fourteen-year-old freshman should have the freedom to completely shirk that ministry without giving it a fair shot.  My hope is always that parents take the initiative (if need be) to get their teens to at least 3 Youth Ministry events (preferably 3 events in a row).  If the teen doesn’t like it after those 3 attempts, the parents should lay off.  Let’s always bear in mind that the parents are the chief educators of the faith and it is their duty to help their children on the path to holiness – and parents have a tremendous ally in a parish’s Youth Ministry program.  Don’t let it go to waste.
  5. Too Much Time at the High School.  The demands placed upon teens nowadays may be one thing (though I’m really not convinced that teens are busier now than they were 10 or 20 years ago), but the straight-up insulation of the teens within the high schools is another.  This is especially true of the Catholic high schools.  And, because the kids attend religion class, the need for Catholic formation is seemingly satisfied.  The problem is really simple – for most of us, high school doesn’t last forever.  Part of the catechetical task of any Catholic school is the fostering of community.  Nonparochial schools (i.e. schools not attached to a parish – like most Catholic high schools) “have a special challenge in this area,” says Monsignor Francis Kelly, who was on the editorial committeefor the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  “There can be good success in building community in the school setting, but there is little carry-over into the student’s parish life.  It may even be a subtle means of alienating the student from the parish” (Kelly 76).  Getting back to the problem of high school not lasting forever, Kelly says, “The young people we teach will be living out their Catholic life as adults in a parish setting and in a parish community” (76).  We nee increased cooperation and understanding between ministers on high school campuses, and ministers at the local parishes.  The present situation is rather black-hole-ish.
  6. The Catholic Faith is Low on the Priority List.  The Catholic Church today faces many challenges:  the secularization of the culture (which has crept into many areas of the Church over the last 40 years), nearly two generations of poorly catechized adults, and a society that values production and power over most everything else.  As a result, the Catholic faith, for many families falls low on the list of daily priorities.  Maybe a prayer here or there (like before meals, if the family is eating together), maybe Mass on Sunday (a bigger and bigger maybe for many), etc.  Teens are no different – they follow right in the footsteps.  If the faith is low on the priority list for the family, it is low on the list for the teen.  I’m well aware that for many teens in our program, Youth Ministry may fall as low as 7, 8, or 9 on the list of priorities in a given week…probably landing right after that thing called “Sunday obligation.”  In response to this position, we can simply say, “One cannot love both God and mammon.”
  7. “I Graduated from Catholicism when I got Confirmed”.  Not sure this has ever been spoken to me, but I can read right through some people.  This is actually the most devastating of all the excuses for a number of reasons.  First, it is absolutely messed up.  When the fire of the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles at Pentecost they did not begin living complacent lives of complete disregard for the faith – they preached the Gospel in every circumstance until they died for the faith!Next, I would point out that many of the teens who use this type of apathetic excuse are just that – hard-hearted and weighed down by sin.  For them, turning to the Light of Christ as He is experienced by those in Youth Ministry is not at all appealing.  Finally, the saddest reason (which is really the reason for the first two points here – plus most of the other ones on this list):  These teens have never been evangelized, and that is not entirely their fault.  (It’s only their fault if they were hard-hearted for all those years of religious education).  What do I mean by “never been evangelized?”  I mean they never heard the Gospel – “God’s initiative, not human effort, has broken through the vicious cycle of human sin and misery and has brought redemption…The Good News is the inbreaking of God’s love and power (the Kingdom) by means of which ‘salvation’ has finally come with its benefits of forgiveness, healing, and transformation” (Kelly 69).

I realize this list contains a few sweeping generalizations, and risks being too facile, but the points remain true.  While the list is not comprehensive, and does not attempt to answer all of the predicaments,

it does provide a handle on some of these issues – again, I have been on both sides of these arguments.  And, now, as a Youth Minister in the Catholic Church, I will provide this simple response:

As a disciple of Christ, I must always return to my call, which is found in seminal form in the Gospel of Mark:  “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach” (Mk. 3:14).  As a follower of Christ, and a member of the Church founded upon the faith and testimony of the Apostles, participating (to whatever meager degree) in their call as my own is not a bad deal.  So, in response to the 7 predicaments listed above, I must remain close to Christ (in prayer and the sacraments).  This is the absolutely necessary fundamental position – each and every day.  It is only by remaining close to Christ and being transformed by Him, that one has the strength to go on.  It is only by entrusting those in his care to Christ that one has the courage to go forth and evangelize (and today’s mission territory for the New Evangelization is very much the parish – including the youth – itself).

In the final analysis, only hope in Christ and His grace and victory is truly strong enough to conquer excuses (however lame) – not the sheer willpower of His followers. Duccio_Calling

A Response: The Pope is Our Sign of Unity

Recently Julie Byrne, Hartman Chair of Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, commanded the front-and-center headline panel on CNN’s website with her article “There’s more to the Catholic Church than the pope.

Byrne argues that in spite of all of the media attention that hovers around Rome (especially since Benedict XVI’s announcement) the Pope isn’t all that important for Catholicism, because his “influence…makes up an infinitesimal fraction of the opinions and activities of Catholics.”  Consequently, “the most important thing about Catholicism is the 1 billion who claim it as their faith.”

She goes on to point out that at Vatican II (WARNING:  We have to talk about Vatican II) the bishops called for the increased role of the lay faithful in the Church, yet “popes kept expanding their authority.”  And that, “Benedict XVI endorsed that council but read tradition to support papal sovereignty. If popular opinion overwhelmingly associates Catholicism with the papacy, that’s partly because effective Vatican theologizing made it so.”

Let’s sum this up so far:

  • There is more to the Church than the Pope, because his influence is quite minimal.
  • Therefore, majority rules, and the most important thing about the Church is everyone other than the Pope.
  • While Vatican II called for an increased role of the lay faithful, the Popes have continued to expand their power with smooth theology.

For Byrne, it appears that central to Catholicism is a power struggle.  Does majority rule, or the Pope rule?

It seems to me that in order to refute Byrne’s claims, one has to address Vatican II and what it really said about the Pope.

Let’s make an initial note that really the most important thing about the Church is Christ – encountering Him and proclaiming Him to the nations (see Ad Gentes 1).  So Byrne is right, in a sense.  It’s really not all about the Pope.

The Church is fundamentally about Christ, her founder and head.

But…Christ did establish a Church and he did place Peter in charge. So…

We must address the papacy.

Byrne implies that Vatican II really said something different about papal sovereignty than the tradition, and that papal theologizing has been the cause of an increase in papal power.  In fact, Vatican II does nothing of the sort.  People often get hung up on Vatican II as if it were a clear departure from what had come before – something entirely other.  As if the Church evolved into a different species.  Ratzinger calls this a “hermeneutic of rupture,” spawning out of a rather secularized “spirit of Vatican II.”  While Vatican II did mark a “bringing up-to-date” of the Church so that it could better spread the Word of God with the modern world, proponents of the “spirit of Vatican II,” as is clearly driving the end of Byrne’s article, has been all to quick to open wide the doors to the world with no principles of discernment.  Thus the Church is now being effectively damaged and divided from the inside.

Instead of a “hermeneutic of rupture,” we are better off looking at Vatican II as it is, namely, a development of the tradition that actually says nothing wildly different about the papacy and the Church that what was said in the previous 20 centuries. (Ratzinger calls his the “hermeneutic of continuity.”)

What is a Pope?  

This is really the question, right?

“The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock of his Church.’ He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock” (CCC 880).  The Pope is the one with the keys, the sign of authority, to the kingdom – the kingdom of Christ, the Church.

Vatican II is quite clear about exercise of Papal authority:

“The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power” (Lumen Gentium 22).

Josef-Ratzinger-Pope-Benedict-XVI.-Born-1927.-Mass.-Vatican.-Incense.-1ab.

 

While Vatican II certainly did stress the necessary role of the lay faithful in the mission of the Church, the Council Fathers took nothing away from the papacy that had to be craftily recreated by the popes that followed the Council.

 

Continuing on, LG notes that the Pope holds an indispensable position as the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (LG 23).  The full import of this line from LG comes into striking relief in light of Byrne’s comments about the “movement” of “vernacular religion,” which lacks unity and wallows in the secularized muck of modernity.

In the universal Church (thus taking into account the customs and cultures of its members) there must be a “perpetual and visible source and foundation” of unity that is as strong as the totality and universality of the Church.  This is the Pope.  Thus, for as great as Vatican II was in recalling St. Paul’s bodily analogies of the Church – “As all the members of the human body, though they are many, form one body, so also are the faithful in Christ.  Also, in the building up of Christ’s Body various members and functions have their part to play” (LG 7) – the body is dead without its head.

Here’s a silly analogy:

Consider the football team in which the coach is the GM and the head coach.  He literally creates the whole team and gets all the parts of the organism in place.  But on the field, during the game, who holds the offense (this is an offensive analogy…okay?!) together?  The quarterback.  The quarterback always turns to the coach for direction, then brings the words of the coach to the members of the offense.  He is the driving force, the organizing force, the unifying force.

Could you imagine a football team without a quarterback?  Not really.

Could you imagine a football team that doesn’t listen to the quarterback and disregards the coach?  Yep.

Well, you can see where this analogy is going:  Christ is the coach, and the Pope is his representative on the field who holds the offense (Church – bishops, priests, religious, and lay faithful) together.  And, we can even see from this analogy the sad state of affairs that results when the body of the offense disregards its commander-and-chief.  One can even question if there is an offense at all.

In similar fashion, Byrne’s theological ponderings disintegrate by the end of the article, and completely betray her position.  Instead of seeing the “more to the Church,” one sees no Church at all.  This is symptomatic of “vernacular religion” that seeks its own interests (relativism) and prefers posh and pop and majority rules over Truth.  Of course this self-seeking religion would split from that which would challenge, and result in an amorphous and vapid “flow” in search of itself.  Far from talking about the “more to the Church,” Byrne illustrates an exit strategy from it.

…and there has always been an exit strategy, and there have always been false positions that lead the faithful away.  This sad fact, however, takes nothing away from the work that God, for whom “nothing is impossible,” has done for His Church and with His Church throughout the ages and continues to do in our own.  Pope Benedict, our Holy Father, expressed his faith with regard to this very topic yesterday, saying, “I always knew that the Lord is in the boat, and I always knew that the boat of the Church is not mine, not ours, but it is His. And He will not let her sink, it is He who leads it, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because so He has willed it. This was and is a certainty, that nothing can obscure. And that is why today my heart is filled with gratitude to God because He has never left me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love.”

Christ established his Church on Peter, the “Rock,” and it still remains true today that through Peter’s testimony and in following him, one encounters Christ.

 

 

 

My Journey with the Pope

I had just finished another mediocre cafeteria meal when I stopped by a television in the student center.  On the screen was a smokestack and a few wisps of white smoke.  I vaguely recalled that this was some sort of signal (however meager compared to the bat signal) that a new pope had been elected.

I waited there, and others slowly joined me.

And when most of them walked away despondent, I knew something substantial had just happened.

This was nearly 8 years ago.  I was fresh off my re-version to the faith, a kid who paid little attention to religion class during years of Catholic school (and honestly, nobody did), who didn’t really understand why anyone would want to go to see an old man moved about Toronto in an odd motorized vehicle, and who made fun of anyone who outwardly displayed any sort of religious sentiment.

Then, that freshman year of college, I encountered Christ, or better said, finally allowed Christ, the Truth, in to my life.

That Spring, I was also fresh off of realizing that the Church wasn’t this fluffy little thing on a felt banner – go figure.  In fact, it is comprised of human beings who could be quite divisive, and often were.  There was this stuff called conservative Catholicism and other stuff known as liberal or even “liberation theology.”  It was all quite new to me.  What I did know is that my fundamentals of religious studies class was anti-Catholic, and that I sensed that notion all around.

And I hated it.

So I loved this new Pope who was called the Vatican Watchdog, and who cracked down on heretics with the full weight of the Church’s doctrine.  I especially loved this new Pope because he made my religious studies teacher squirm and the campus ministry department freak out – as “he wasn’t into liberation theology.”

At that time, I didn’t realize the danger (and error) of the polarized p

olitical tension within the Church (liberal vs. conservative).  I also didn’t really know this Ratzinger guy, just what the media was saying about him.  And, I didn’t understand the fullness and beauty of Vatican II – I just despised its “spirit.”

I was all about a crusade…a personal attempt to identify and crush the liberal agenda in the Church.  And, I had a new Pope who would lead the way.

This way of thinking about the Church could only last so long, because human ambition runs dry when lacking communion with Christ and the will of God.

This is exactly what the Pope taught me.

As I spent more and more time reading his stuff, I discovered a man with a profound intellect, and insatiable desire for the truth, and a deep love for the Church and her teachings (i.e. age old orthodoxy as opposed to vapid and fleeting ideology).  In short, I discovered a man who was far more in love with Christ than he was a ruthless watchdog who gave heretics the boot.  In fact, it was his love of Christ whom he encountered in the Church that gave him the strength and courage to be able to confront the modern mentality, the dictatorship of relativism, and the secular ideology within the Church, in order to bring the fullness Gospel to the modern world so desperately in need.

I saw the Pope as less of a commander-and-chief, and more a true father in the faith.

He led me with his gestures, his ecumenical presence, his courage, and his patience.  He led me because he encountered Christ and he testified to that Fact before the world.  And, he leads me now in one of the most profound acts of humility I have ever witnessed:

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours.”

Though filled with a certain sadness upon hearing this news yesterday, I was more than awestruck at the courage this man has in recognizing his capacity and in following God’s will.  In our utilitarian culture, how often do we see this type of humility?

This single action, this final gesture, recapitulates this entire journey that I have had with the Pope:  he is a man of tremendous courage, and remarkable humility.  His concern is not about taking out a political enemy, but bowing before and abiding in the Truth that encounters us and sets us free.  His concern is not with lofty ideology or staunch moralism, but “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

This image hangs in my office.  Reminds me of the beauty (and pain - due to selfishness) of being kissed by love and truth.

This image hangs in my office. Reminds me of the beauty (and pain – due to selfishness) of being kissed by love and truth.

Oops! I Forgot to Protest at the March for Life (or) The Essence of the Pro-Life Movement

Each year, the same thing happens – I find myself marching down Constitution Ave. with hundreds of thousands of other protestors.

We all certainly want the same thing – an end to legalized abortion in the US.

Yet I have found myself moving away from a purely politicized position and am instead gravitating toward the authentic conception of what means to be pro-life in my daily course of action – which does not typically involve any sort of direct work with abortion ministries.  And, at least the past two years, I know that I am not the only one taking up the deeper understanding of the need for a pro-life conversion, which is nothing other than a conversion to Christ – a metamorphosis into his life and way of loving.  Only in reaching to this level of personal conversion, will culture change.  Why?  Because only on this level is the full extent of man’s depravity addressed. Gaudium et Spes reminds us of a similar point:

Indeed, as a weak and sinful being, he often does what he would not, and fails to do what he would.Hence he suffers from internal divisions, and from these flow so many and such great discords in society (10).

Thus the celebration of the Mass has become a central point of my journey to DC each year.  It doesn’t matter which Mass, or who it is with, what simply matters is entering deeply into the mystery of His sacrifice, of His life and expression of self-emptying love, in order to first be converted myself, that I may become a light to the nation in charity and truth.hands

Now you know my primary motivation for going to DC each year, so the next piece won’t scandalize you.

Let’s go back to the beginning: each year I find myself marching down Constitution Ave.  Each year the same thing happens.  I don’t carry a sign (unless it is forced upon me), I don’t spend a lot of time chanting (unless it is clever), and I don’t get angry.

See, the March for Life as I have experienced it is more of a celebration of life than a protest against those who ascribe to the pro-choice agenda.  And, as such, the March takes on a very natural feel, and a very human one as well.

Sitting with a priest in Union Station after the March had concluded, he leaned back and, looking around at all of the groups of young people, said, “This event is so natural.”  There is nothing abstract or artificial about it.  The March brings together live human beings as a testimony to the gift of life itself – it is all natural, really.  It is not esoteric, or technical, or conjuring up something contrary to itself (Cf. “Reason Rally”).

As such, the March for me has become a true celebration of my whole life.  In DC each year, I inevitably run into dozens of friends from my past who are now scattered about the US – and each chance encounter is always a surprise.  Thus, I spend most of the March looking for, being surprised by, and speaking with friends.

Is this scandalous?  Do I ever feel like I just blew off the March?

No way.  Instead, I made a public expression of the joy that is friendship and the life that comes from human relationships.  In this way, the March for Life is supremely a natural and even beautiful expression of life that transcends the image of the “angry mob” or a group that is “attacking women’s rights.”  We are a people who have recognized this life as a gift, not created by ourselves, or even dictated by ourselves (for the most part), but instead we see ourselves and our friends as part of a mysterious web called life that is nothing other than a supreme expression of Providence.

Thus the Sacraments, and similarly, the signs of friendship become a most powerful witness and ongoing means of converting hearts – and converting hearts is always a brutally (and beautifully) painful process – at least in my experience.

Why We Need the Self-Awareness of a Three-Year-Old

**Note:  This article first appeared on the Being Catholic blog on Dec. 22, 2012.

“This says it is from the North Pole.  Do we know anyone at the North Pole?”

Our daughter didn’t even have to answer the question with words.

Instead, I watched all of the energy in her body move to her face, thus producing a massive baby-toothed grin.  But her face could not contain her joy.  She threw her arms jerkily in the air and let out several excited shrieks, while engaging in a series of unrhythmic dances.

Her anticipation for the coming of Santa, which leads to her wake up early every morning and ask if it is Christmas, conjures up memories of my childhood past – the incredibly long day that was Christmas Eve, the “sleepless” night that gave way to Christmas morning, and the host of toys that appeared in our living room.

It’s as if I can look back at the first portion of my childhood and the whole thing is on Repeat.  Every year was the same thing – the same feelings, the same anticipation, and the same result – toys.  Why did it never get old?  Why doesn’t Santa get old for the child?

Though I probably didn’t cognitively arrive at this conclusion as a child, I can confidently say that Santa was ever- new to me each year, because I knew that I needed something new.  I needed new toys, because the ones from the previous year were either broken or out-of-fashion, or boring.

What about Christmas now?  Is it not, perhaps, boring?  Isn’t it monotonous?

After all, the Church proposes it every year.

Is the Pope just too lazy to come up with a more modern holiday?

This leads into my question this Advent:  How can Christmas become new and filled with anticipation like it was in my childhood?

 

The Church’s Response to My “Accusation” (i.e. The same accusation we toss at the Mass, forms of prayer, etc.)

The Church is wise.  She proposes – each year – exactly what will provoke us.

She knows that if we are seriously honest with ourselves and look deep into the whole of our lives, there is serious need.  There are parts of our lives that lack answers, or lack healing, or lack peace, or lack virtue.  And, our energetic pursuits, our best devices, our best resolutions, our self-help guides, pragmatism, and Pelagianism cannot find a suitable answer or solution.

The self-awareness of a child said, “I need new toys to be satisfied.”  The self-awareness of the childlike adult says, “I need to be converted; I need a Savior – in order to be made new and be satisfied.”

In short, we needed Santa to bring us new toys, and we need Jesus to bring us new life. 

This sort of self-awareness is perhaps the first step on the road to recovering the deep sense of anticipation and expectant waiting that Advent is all about.  And, just like the child knows his need and is open to being surprised on Christmas morning, we too must not only recognize our need, but open our minds and hearts to being surprised by God’s action.  This requires surrendering unfruitful ways of doing things, our desire for control, our cynicism, dullness, and even our attempts to box God into the image that we make of Him.

Christmas is all about my need, my anticipation and longing crashing into or being surprised by a God who surprised the world and changed everything in the process.

“See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the wilderness I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers” (Is. 43:19).

Letus approach Christmas this year with a childlike self-awareness, one that understands just how needy we really are, and that we don’t have all of the answers.  Indeed, most of the world thinks this whole Christmas thing (aka. The Incarnation) is folly and fails to perceive it.  And, in fact, the world always has failed to see it – ever since that first Christmas morn.

But, unlike the world blinded by its own pursuits, we, like children awaiting Christmas morning for the sake of toys, await the coming of our savior, Messiah, and Lord.  We await Christ, who makes all things new (see Rev. 21:5) – the only one who makes life new if we let Him.

It is in the awareness of our need, and the fearlessness of our need that we are made new.

This is why Christmas is not monotonous, and why when we receive news that is over 2000 years old, we should hardly be able to contain ourselves as well.  For these are the words spoken to each needy heart again this year:

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is the Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).

nativity