Catholic Extension is honored to publish this series of reflections from renowned author, theologian, and storyteller Jack Shea.
He is a consultant to dioceses, parishes, and faith-based organizations and an author of Seeing Haloes: Christmas Poems to Open the Heart, Liturgical Press.
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Finding the Child
“And this will be a sign for you. You will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” (Lk. 2:13)
These mysterious instructions are given by an Angel of the Lord to the shepherds.
The profound implication is: it is a revelation about Jesus, but it is also revelation they share in. If the shepherds find the child, they will find themselves. It is a sign “for you.”
What could this mean and why is it important?
We have many ways of identifying ourselves. If we are asked who we are, most likely we will bring forward one or more of the available selves that we embrace in our daily life. We identify with our gender, or our sexual orientations, or our age, or with a physical or mental suffering or characteristic, or with a social role or work position, or with membership in a race, a nationality, or a family, or with some traits or collection of traits of our personality, etc.
But there is more going on than these usual ways we describe ourselves. In the symbolic language of Advent/Christmas, we are a “child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.”
As a “child,” we realize we are always indebted to a larger reality that continuously is creating us. We may be physically, psychologically, and socially adults, but on the spiritual level we remain in a position of receiving our existence from the ultimate Mystery of God. “Child” is the image for acknowledging our dependency on this greater Source.
As “wrapped in swaddling clothes,” we realize we are loved by the Source who created and sustains our existence. This image comes from an ancient way of caring for newborns. When a child was born, it was cared for and comforted by being wrapped in swaddling clothes. In the center of ourselves, we are receiving love from the reality that brought us into being.
As “laid in manger,” we give the love we have received to others. The manger is a feeding trough. It is where food is made available. We feed others with what we have received.
The feast of Christmas is a mirror to our deeper selves. We all share in the spiritual reality revealed in Jesus; and if we take a moment and look inside, we will see the dynamics of this spiritual reality energizing our lives. The sign is for us.
We are a “child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.”
The presence of the Catholic Church is a guiding light in many places darkened by poverty and conflict. Catholic Extension uplifts faith communities and supports individuals who bring the light of Christ to the most forgotten areas of our country and spread the joy of His birth.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
People of Goodwill
“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among people of goodwill.” (Lk. 2:14)
This is the song the angels sing at the birth of Christ. They give glory to God in the highest because, paradoxically, God has not stayed in the highest. God “has visited and redeemed [his] people.” (Lk. 1:68)
Those who grasp this revelation, either implicitly or explicitly, know how to celebrate Advent and Christmas. They become people of goodwill bringing peace into the broken and estranged ways of the earth.
Catholic Social Teaching is addressed not only to Catholics but to all people of good will. These people are driven, either implicitly or explicitly, by the principles of human dignity and common good. The Advent and Christmas season is their time of year, a time when people of goodwill “do their thing” abounds.
People of goodwill reach out to make things better. They find themselves in situations that are not what they should be. It may be a situation of needless division among people who are supposed to be working together, a situation where hardness of heart has replaced compassion, a situation where overlooking the poor has become a habit, a situation where the mediocre is accepted as the norm, a situation where not speaking the full truth is rationalized as self-protection, and all other situations where they sense a “rightness” is missing.
In these situations, people of goodwill begin a process of repair. Goodwill is more than an internal desire, a wish that things were not so bad. Goodwill is the art of entering into situations and discerning the path of greater peace. It sees a way forward that brings reconciliation and a fuller sense of life. Then it gently yet adamantly walks toward that desired future.
People of good also give thanks whenever they see the good emerging. They do not have to be the main actors. Just the opposite. The glory of God is present in situations, and it will be mediated by many factors. But, whenever the good is emerging, it needs to be named and praised. People of goodwill are long on gratitude. Thanking is something they learn to do in many ways. As the spiritual saying has it, “There are a thousand ways to bow and kiss the earth.”
People of goodwill better situations themselves and thank all those who better situations. We may know many of these people of goodwill. More than that. In the depth of ourselves, Advent and Christmas tell us we are those people of good will.
The presence of the Catholic Church is a guiding light in many places darkened by poverty and conflict. Catholic Extension uplifts faith communities and supports individuals who bring the light of Christ to the most forgotten areas of our country and facilitate the goodwill of God’s people.
Third Sunday of Advent
A significant feature of Advent and Christmas is attending to the poor. There are toy drives for poor children, Christmas baskets for those without, Christmas Eve and Christmas day meals in social service settings with prominent political and Church figures serving, solicitation for donations from every helping agency, etc. The more prosperous reaching out to help the lesser and least is at the heart of the Christmas season.
Among Christians, the rationale for this is often cited as “the poor Christ.” Jesus was born in impoverished conditions, in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Therefore, to celebrate his birth all the poor are welcomed and included.
But in our time an episode from the infancy narrative of St. Matthew that is closely aligned with poverty and vulnerability seems particularly relevant.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and flee into Egypt … for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” (Mt. 2: 13)
However the birth of Jesus is portrayed, the events after his birth are clear. The Holy Family are refugees.
Migrants enter the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.
This bare statement that Joseph, Mary, and the child are fleeing murderous intent connects them to our present planetary situation where millions of people are fleeing terror and violence. Every evening on television news we see the suffering of families on the run in excruciating detail. The word migration is too neutral. The more appropriate name is escape. Herod, in multiple modern guises, is still insidiously at work.
The Catholic tradition has always been fiercely committed to welcoming the poor and vulnerable. This commitment is carried by the principle of solidarity. Solidarity is living in connection with the poor and disadvantaged and working to alleviate their conditions.
It is never obvious what solidarity with the refugees entails. It may mean taking up a certain stand in conversations, or advocating for positions through political forums, or donating to causes, or joining efforts to help out in certain situations. But once this Christmas solidarity is in place, it will find a way, sometimes small and sometimes large, to express itself.
In Lent of 2019, a large sculpture will be erected in St. Peter’s square in Rome. It is a boat with many people squeezed into it, a symbol of the refugee migration of the Mediterranean world. The title of the sculpture is “Angels Unaware.”
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” (Heb. 13:2)
The presence of the Catholic Church is a guiding light in many places darkened by poverty and conflict. Catholic Extension uplifts faith communities and supports individuals who bring the light of Christ to the most forgotten areas of our country and reaching out in solidarity to those in need, particularly refugees. Learn more
Second Sunday of Advent
Treasuring Christmas Memories
At a Christmas Eve gathering, a woman reached out her hand and cradled an ornament on the tree. A friend noticed she had tears in her eyes and asked, “You ok?”
“Nothing wrong,” she said. “Just remembering.”
The Advent/Christmas season is a time of memories. We do not plan them; they come unbidden. They are triggered by someone’s casual words that echo past Christmas conversations, or we return to a familiar Christmas space, or see a photo of a former Christmas gathering, or, as with the woman, hold a Christmas tree ornament that unexpectedly has evocative power.
Sometimes these memories are painful. They hurt rather than enrich, carrying us back into experiences that are best forgotten. We rightfully put them out of our mind and get on with other things.
But, more often than not, the memories are about the people whom we love and who have passed on, or about people with whom we celebrated in the past and have to be in touch with now, or about graced moments from past Christmas when the meaning of the feast came home to us. Now they arrive again and bring their sense of homecoming with them.
In the Catholic tradition, treasuring what has happened is high-octane theological activity. It assumes memories that move us into deeper consciousness bring us into a fullness of life. The past can return to re-grace us for it is not really past. It has been stored in the house of everlastingness. We are open to its treasures through hosting memories and, in mysterious ways, we find a remedy for our sense of aloneness. We are inhabiting the communion between the ultimate Mystery of God and all who lived, lives, and will live in the boundlessness of creation.
This may seem like a wild faith. But we dwell in a universe of great creative energies. More is always going on than we know. But, at times, we are given a glimpse. These glimpses may bring tears to our eyes. But the tears are not the usual crying scenario. They are not tears of sorrow; they are not even tears of joy. They are tears that come from inner fullness, from the overflow that happens when we walk the border of time and eternity. They are tears of treasure.
“Mary treasured all these things in her heart,” (Lk. 2:19)
The presence of the Catholic Church is a guiding light in many places darkened by poverty and conflict. Catholic Extension uplifts faith communities and supports individuals who bring the light of Christ to the most forgotten areas of our country, assuring them that they are not alone.
First Sunday of Advent
Defiant Christmas Trees
With December, Christmas trees begin to appear.
We suddenly notice they are in our churches, public buildings, malls and lawns. Pictures of Christmas tress accompany advertisements and appear regularly on our television screens. They seem to be everywhere. In fact, for many of us, the furniture is moved aside to make room for the tree to join us in our homes.
Christmas trees may be hard to avoid, but their message is easy to miss.
Spiritual traditions interpret December as the season the sun arrives late and leaves early. More scientifically, the earth is turning in such a way that we are in darkness more than at other times of the year. This greater darkness symbolizes the growing power of all that afflicts us – in body, mind, society, and spirit. Winter brings with it a sense of our vulnerability.
As an antidote, Christmas trees accompany the darkness of December. They are symbolic push backs to the absence of light. Their branches are not bare but full, leafy, and strung with lights. Their power glows, radiates, shines. They are not victims of the December darkness, and they refuse to allow it to dominate. Their brightness is defiant.
What is the message of this defiance?
We may want a perfect world - good enough health, good enough finances, good enough relationships, and a good enough, stable, non-violent society and world. But that is not what we always get. We find our health precarious; our careers, jobs, or vocations under stress; our finances dipping badly; our relationships in need of repair; our society and world either slightly or wildly insane. We are under duress.
Enter the Christmas tree. Its lights whisper: “Give all the things that afflict us their due, but do not give them our soul. There is something stronger in us than the surrounding darkness.”
That is why highly lighted Christmas trees are perfect as a Christmas tradition. The Catholic Church holds human dignity to be essential. It does not come and go with the fickleness of fortune. Despite hardships, dignity is the rock that remains, the rock on which the whole house is built. There is always a power of love that holds us, a deeper identity that survives all attacks. It is imperative to allow Christmas trees to remind us of this deeper truth when the December darkness is parading a shallower truth.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5)
The presence of the Catholic Church is a guiding light in many places darkened by poverty and conflict. Catholic Extension uplifts faith communities and supports individuals who bring the light of Christ to the most forgotten areas of our country.