Music and the Gospel: “When We’re Together,” Idina Menzel & Kristen Bell

Christmas is a time of gift-giving, merry-making, family, and friends. It’s also a time frazzled nerves, fatigue, and stress. In all the rushing back and forth, it can be difficult to remember that Christmas is ultimately a time when we recognize all what we already have and the people in our life. We don’t have to rush around, trying to find the perfect gift and spending a ton of money just to show our appreciation. Instead, we can give our time and attention to the people around us. In the end, that is the most important present we can give to someone. The song “When We’re Together” is about family and friendship, and how just simply being with our loved ones makes every day a holiday.

Key Lines: Sure, it’s nice to open a gift that’s tied up with a perfect bow / But the great present of all was given to me long ago / It’s something I would never trade, it’s the family that we’ve made / ‘Cause when we’re together, I have everything on my list /
And when we’re together, I have all I wished / All around the Christmas tree, there’ll be dreams coming true / But when we’re together, then my favorite gift is you

Questions: What family Christmas traditions do you and your family have? What new tradition would you like to begin? What free or inexpensive Christmas traditions does your family participate in?  What are you most thankful for this holiday season?

Music and the Gospel: “That’s Christmas To Me,” Pentatonix

Family traditions and rituals give us strength, teach us the meanings behind the things we celebrate, and connect us with our extended family and others around us. The song “That’s Christmas to Me” is not just a list of the things we value about the feast day but a reminder of the traditions we love and the closeness those traditions create between ourselves and those around us.

Key lines: The fireplace is burning bright, shining along me / I see the presents underneath the good old Christmas tree / …I see the children play outside, like angels in the snow / While mom and daddy share a kiss under the mistletoe / And we’ll cherish all these simple things wherever we may be / Oh, why? ‘Cause that’s Christmas to me

Questions: What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions? What have you learned from the tradition about what Christmas celebrates? When have you experienced the traditions of a different culture? What new traditions would you like to create with your family and friends?

Music and the Gospel: “That’s Christmas To Me,” Pentatonix; 4th Sunday of Advent

With the holidays come family, friends, food, and presents. Also with the holidays can come stress, materialism, and fatigue. It can be really difficult to step back and remember what’s really important: being grateful for what we have. We don’t have to be stressed out and tired, trying to find the perfect gift and spending money we may not have just to show our appreciation for our loved ones. We can instead spend something more precious: our time. We can give something more precious than any present: our unconditional love and support.

Key Lyrics: I’ve got this Christmas song in my heart / I’ve got the candles glowing in the dark and then for years to come we’ll always know one thing / That’s the love that Christmas can bring / Oh, why? ‘Cause that’s Christmas to me

Questions: How does your family celebrate Christmas? Does your family have any free or inexpensive Christmas traditions? If so, what are they? If not, how can you go about starting a new tradition? What are you most thankful for this holiday season?

Why Traditions?

via Flickr user Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

via Flickr user Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Rituals form around actions, symbols, and stories that are so sacred and so important people want to repeat them and take strength and meaning from them. However, many Christians may grow up taking part in rituals whose full meaning they don’t understand. They may participate with their families in rituals without knowing the stories that give rituals meaning.

The tradition of La Posada comes out of Hispanic culture, which understands God walking with them and strengthening them in their struggles. La Posada takes place before Christmas. Two people dress up as Mary and Joseph. Then many people walk with Mary and Joseph from house to house, looking for a place to stay. They get turned away from several houses until at a preplanned house, a family takes them in and serves refreshments to all the people who come with them.

La Posada celebrates God’s presence in a poor young pregnant girl. Among people who try to immigrate over U.S. borders to find a better life, who want to migrate out of poverty, this tradition celebrates God coming to dwell among those for whom the world doesn’t want to make room.

The Eucharist is a tradition that begins with Jesus at his last supper with his friends. He tells them to bless, break, and share bread to remember his love for them. Jesus tells his friends to bless and share a cup of wine to remember his love poured out for them.

Through the centuries Christians have gathered to do as Jesus asked. In every Eucharist Christians become what they celebrate. They receive the Body of Christ and become the Body of Christ. The sacramental traditions of the Catholic Church continue to remember and celebrate Jesus’ healing, forgiving actions among us.

New traditions arise. The pope usually kisses the ground when he arrives in a new country. Families join walks for breast cancer on Mother’s Day or other walks for good causes. It’s the stories behind the traditions that give them meaning.

What special Christmas traditions does your family have? What Advent or Christmas traditions do you experience that you don’t understand? Research their origins by talking with a grandparent or reading in a Catholic encyclopedia or searching online. What customs or traditions have you experienced among people of other religions? What is a tradition you would like to start in your family, such as alternative gifts or an Advent wreath and prayer time?

Music and the Gospel: “Below My Feet,” Mumford & Sons; Second Sunday of Advent

As we move into the second week of Advent and light a second purple candle on our Advent wreaths, it can be so easy to slip into the chaos of the Christmas season. This song offers a chance to set aside some time to contemplate the world around us. We can reflect on how we might use our hands and eyes to serve with and learn from those around us, for that is preparing the way of the Lord.

Key Lines: “Let me learn from where I have been / Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn”

Questions: How do you prepare spiritually for the coming of Christmas? In what ways are you utilizing your eyes and hands to learn about your faith tradition?


The Meaning of Christmas (Or How Not to Hate What You Receive)

What is the worst Christmas gift that you have ever been given?GIFT from  iMakeGuernsey

On the first Christmas I celebrated with my then-boyfriend now-husband’s family, they gave me a navy blue and white striped sweater from an expensive brand name label that I wore only when I knew I would be eating dinner with them. The nautical nature of the sweater reminded me of the way my mother had decorated our house in the 80s, and I hated wearing things with labels meant to show people how much you spent on your clothes. The second Christmas I celebrated with their family they gave me literally the same sweater, only this time with light pink and dark pink stripes to replace the nautical theme of the year before. At least this sweater could be worn on Valentine’s Day to look festive.

The year after that the family announced that they would begin a new Christmas tradition: buying presents for yourself. We were all instructed to purchase what we wanted for ourselves, to wrap these presents up, and then we went through a whole silly charade about how surprised we were to receive these awesome presents on Christmas Day. Admittedly, I was into this new tradition (minus the fake surprise) for the first few years. Having been disappointed by the twin striped sweaters in the past, it was much better to pick out a matching hat, scarf, and mitten combo that I really needed and really liked. Also, it was a relief not to go through the agony of trying to find gifts for this family that clearly did not know me that well, nor I them.

After a few years of this self-centered tradition, I started to realize how antithetical to the Christmas season it is to buy your own gifts. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the gift God gave to humanity of God’s only Son, a gift that is beyond measure, as it is the gift of God’s very presence among us. We celebrate that fact that God so much wants all of us to be part of God’s family that God gave God’s only Son for our salvation. Christmas should be about celebrating our place in God’s whole human family, as well as in the small human family of our birth.

Certainly, my husband’s family, and me as a part of it, took awhile to catch on to this meaning of Christmas. But this year, we just might be on to something. There are going to be no gifts in the form of boxes wrapped under the tree. The gift we are choosing to give each other is time spent together–cooking a meal, playing games, making puzzles, and just generally enjoying each other, something we do not get to do often enough because of everyone’s busy schedules.

Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate ConceptionAnd this year I have also come to a new appreciation of those striped sweaters that I finally donated to the Good Will last year. Unfortunately, this awareness has been raised by a good friend of mine who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. She has been receiving a lot of gifts this year, some of which bring her to tears because they speak to the bond she has with so many people, who know her so well that they know just what odd item will brighten her day. But she has also received the equivalent of the expensive sweaters my in-laws purchased for me years ago, things that cost quite a bit of money but that are really of no use to her. When I asked her if it frustrated her to get gifts like this, her response was that even if gifts seem stupid and unhelpful, they are people’s awkward way of saying that they care, and that we should cut the gift-givers some slack since it is the thought that counts.

So in addition to celebrating Christmas by spending quality with my family this year, my resolution is also to try to be appreciative of whatever anyone gives me, to approach gift opening with a stance of gratefulness that mirrors the gratefulness I have that God chose to be born of a peasant woman and made flesh among us. Merry Christmas!

What is the meaning of Christmas to you?

How do your family’s Christmas traditions reflect this meaning?

Photos courtesy of IMakeGuernsey and Roger Smith via Creative Commons License

Biblical Revelation

“The Second Vatican Council urged priests and lay people to study the Bible.” –back cover of this week’s Spirit

When I taught high school religion, it was always a struggle to get my students to read the Bible. When I assigned Bible reading for homework, they would sigh and tell me how boring the Bible is, and how hard it is to understand. Reading the Bible can be boring, and it can be frustrating. The Second Vatican Council didn’t urge people to read the Bible, they urged us to study it. More often then not, when I taught my students how to study the Bible, it opened up a more fascinating and accessible world of stories.

2412096496_6b90c580ac_mWe believe that God reveals Godself to us, in part, through the Bible. But it cannot sit on a shelf. Revelation is an interaction between us, the biblical writers, and the Holy Spirit. I think we need to work a bit for that revelation. The people who chose to write down the Bible stories came from a very different time and place. They were writing in another language. Things like language translation, history and genre help bring the stories to life in our context today, a context the writers knew nothing about. Reading the Bible is really an interaction between two different worlds. The more we know about the world in which it was written, the more we can know what the stories might mean for our world today.

The Bible is powerful. Harm and good have happened in its name. I don’t think it should be taken lightly, or read flippantly. It is meant to be studied. When we study the Bible together in community, really open to learn more about God’s relationship to God’s people, there is revelation. It is good work.

Every Christmas we read the same passages from the Bible, opening ourselves to what it means for us, right now, that Jesus came to reveal God to us. This Advent, I am thankful for the Spirit community, a place where I come to study the Bible in hopes of knowing God a little more every day.


Photo courtesy of Roger Smith via Creative Commons License

The Promise of Paradox

If you read my blog two weeks ago entitled “Olympic Spirit“, you know how much I love the Olympics. Now that the Olympics are over, I have to admit that I am in mourning. I felt sad this past Monday night that I could not turn on the television to be inspired by the grace of the athletes and the perseverance of their spirits. Last Sunday, I teared up watching the gold medal winning U.S. women’s basketball team sing along to the national anthem. I know it is cheesy, but I sang along, too. While not normally the most enthusiastic patriot, in that moment, I felt very connected to the people in my country. I felt overwhelmed by the sacrifices that people have made to protect the freedom we enjoy and so often take for granted. I felt very thankful for the best of our heritage: that we have been a bastion for those with no place to go, that we have been a place of welcome and help for those who have no one. In comparison, Monday night, with the Olympics off the airwaves for another four years, I felt lonely and a little flat, no longer thriving on a connection to something bigger than myself.

Yet even in my sadness, I was able to get quite a bit done that post-Olympic Monday. I was back in ordinary time and resumed my regular evening routine of exercise, dinner, cleaning up the house, responding to e-mail, reading, praying, and bed. With no reason to stay up until the late coverage to see how the men’s water polo turned out, I went to bed at a respectably early 10:30 pm and woke up the next morning refreshed. I was surprised to discover that alongside my sorrow I also felt a bit of relief that life was returning to normal, that I was no longer beholden to the behemoth Olympic spirit that had kidnapped and captivated me for two weeks.

So do I enjoy Olympic time or regular time more? The answer is both. One cannot function without the other. If Olympic time was all the time, if you did not have to wait four years between games, the festivity of it all would not seem special. There would not be such a heightened sense of importance, and the same level of dedication would not be required by athletes. Conversely, if regular time was all the time, the monotony of everyday life would be too much. Olympic time and regular time are both important parts of my life; it is in the balance of them that I am most happy.

This idea of balancing competing times or ideas is called a paradox. In a paradox, we affirm that two things that seem incompatible are actually both true. To use my Olympics example, it may seem strange to say that both the excitement of the Olympics and the routine of everyday life make me happy. But really it is in the balancing of these two things that I can enjoy both of them to the fullest.

I think a similar thing happens in our church calendar with the balancing of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter seasons with Ordinary Time. Who doesn’t love the pageantry of Advent and Christmas? The lighting of the Advent wreath, the smell of incense, the display of the manager scene? It is hard not to feel excited as the choir sings Alleluia at Easter, after six weeks without hearing it. But this would lose its specialness if we celebrated it all year long. Similarly, the nice part about Ordinary Time is that we can fall into the rhythm of Mass as it stays consistent Sunday to Sunday. But this repetitiveness could get boring if it was never punctuated with feasts and seasons of celebration. Again, the goodness is in the balance, between Ordinary Time and seasons of celebration.

All too often we are encouraged to think in either/or ways. We may think,” I have to make this decision with my head OR my heart. I have to take care of my soul OR my body.” But either/or thinking focuses on the separations and on what makes things different from each other.

The beauty of paradoxical thinking is that it is the sort of thinking that holds things together, that sees the unity and connections in the world first rather than what divides and separates. We make our best decisions with our heads and hearts working together. We are the healthiest when we attend to our spiritual and bodily needs. One of the gifts of the church calendar is that it invites us into a pattern of living that proclaims the connections between things: between Ordinary time and the liturgical seasons of celebration, between the agony of the crucifixion and the glory of the resurrection. Each part of the church year really depends on the other parts to make sense.

Really this sort of paradoxical thinking is at the heart of our faith. It is the sort of thinking that allows us to believe that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine. It is the sort of thinking that allows us to believe that God is One and also Three. It is the kind of thinking that promotes unity and reconciliation, which our world so desperately needs.


Photo courtesy of -Tico- via Creative Commons License