Jack SheaCatholic 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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Third Sunday of Advent

Fleeing Herod 

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.

Christmas tree

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.

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