Thursday, December 31, 2015

Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas: Responding to Greater Life

“What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” – Jn 1:4

New Year’s resolutions are problematic. Too often, they are more life draining rather than life giving. They have led me to more dead ends than to vistas of hope or avenues of growth. When I have failed to keep these resolutions, I fall prey to the tyranny of the should’s and beat myself up. When I have been good at keeping them, I easily become self-sufficient and prideful, which gives birth to other vices. I am not alone in this.

These promises of self-improvement seldom work because often they are more self-directed and Me-focused. They are about what I want to do, what I’d like to see happen, powered by a more ego-driven dynamic. They do not stem from a greater, higher, or transcendent power.

Yet, the Christmas miracle of the “Word became flesh and makes his dwelling among us” reveals another dynamic. There is a river of grace that runs deep through each of our lives. When we choose to flow with this stream of greater Force, God, Spirit, or Source, more life comes about. Greater life emerges, gradually, slowly, yet decisively. It’s simple and yet elusive. It’s not about me, what I think is best. It’s about responding to greater life. Life that comes in the smallness of a poor, Jewish baby two millennium ago. Life that is already within me, in my present circumstances, both positive and negative, waiting to burst open.

How might I let this shift guide me? Pausing to notice what has been consistently life giving in the past year may help. Asking God, “How are you inviting me to greater life?” and really listening without an agenda may help. Adopting a prayerful reflection process (like this one) may help.

Whether we adopt a New Year’s resolution or not, each of us has the opportunity at this threshold of another year to ask prayerfully: I am open to greater life? What is my response?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas: Remaining Each Day

“Whoever does the will of God remains forever in Him.” – 1 Jn 2:17

It is so easy for me to make excuses for not praying enough, or not being “holy” enough. Priests and nuns have more time for prayer, single people have fewer distractions, older people are more settled in life and have fewer worries. There are a million reasons why holiness can wait for tomorrow, or prayer can be sacrificed for another good.

The first reading today explicitly calls children, young adults, and older people to holiness: salvation is for everyone who strives to do the will of God, no matter our circumstances, intelligence, or age. Salvation is not offered as a reward or prize for the ones who work the hardest, but as an ongoing, deepening relationship. Many of us set resolutions for the new year, or some kind of goals to better ourselves or families. What if my “resolution” this year is simply to strive for what leads me into better relationship with those around me?

In the Gospel today Jesus is seen as the Messiah by Simeon and Anna, but then returns to live a simple childhood in Nazareth with his parents. Even though Jesus was flawless at birth, he still grew into this holiness by following the will of the Father day by day leading up to his public ministry and death.

Am I being invited to live in the present moment (with God) each day? Is there some small act or offering I can make each morning that might help remind me of this resolution?    

Jen Coito

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas: Moving in Peace

“Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” – Lk. 2:29-32

I’m inspired by Simeon’s response to seeing the baby Jesus in today’s Gospel. He remained steadfast in his hope, embraced the gift of the Christ child once He arrived, and moved from a place of peace from there. How does that work nowadays though, with going back to work, school, and so forth? Yes with joys and excitements but also struggles and unresolved concerns, personal hopes from Advent still waiting to be fulfilled? What if I want to stay away from those questions for at least a bit longer?

A quote I came across recently from E’yen Gardner provides some encouragement: "Being still does not mean don't move. It means move in peace." I am at peace not because my life is all together, or because there are no challenges, or because I am not afraid. In fact, none of these are true right now, and I would be surprised if they ever were (even though I admit at times it would feel nice).

No, I am at peace because I know that I am heading towards my brightest light, that is, a fuller unfolding of Jesus within and through me; because I know He, Mary, the angels, family, friends, and so many more are by my side, guiding, protecting, praying for, and more than anything else simply being with me; because I know that I am being led, moment by moment, more completely into discovering and living out my own path; because God is sending down His love in an overwhelming downpour in so many ways that cannot and will not be stopped. This is the peace promised to all of us, so that we can echo Simeon’s words in our own way each day.

The peace that says I am more vulnerable, and so I am that much more courageous.
The peace that says I am weaker, and so I am that much more strong.
The peace that says I am more broken, and so I am that much more whole.
For it is my pieces that, offered up, are transformed into the one Piece.
And that… changes… everything.

How can I move in further peace today? How can I develop a sense of stillness in the midst of my day to day to make space for this?

Quyen Ngo

Monday, December 28, 2015

Feast of the Holy Innocents: Leading to the Cross

“He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.” – Mt.  2:16
As I enjoyed Christmas with my family in Indiana this year, familiar sights, sounds and smells of the holidays filled the air as food was being prepared, presents were being wrapped, and my screaming nephews were running around the house.  All the while, as is typical in my family, the TV was on in the background. It so happened a news program was on doing a retrospective of 2015 with all its good and bad news.

What struck me the most, perhaps because it was in stark contrast to this season of “peace and goodwill toward all”, were the striking images of death and violence that permeated the news this past year: innocent children slaughtered in their school rooms; innocent people beheaded on youtube; racial tensions leading to the murder of innocent citizens and policemen; young people killing themselves because of public shaming and bullying; terrorist attacks around the globe striking down innocent lives on purpose; and the refugee crisis symbolized by the lifeless body of innocent Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach.

All of this a sharp reminder that the crib leads to the cross! We live in a world where suffering is as real as it was when Jesus was born and people are still longing for something or someone to help make sense of their suffering and the real struggles and injustices they face. And what Herod and the infanticide story reveals is a God who’s love is so pure that he chooses to enter our world as it actually exists and not as the world we often wish it would be.

In our current socio-political climate, we simply can’t afford any more Christian sentimentality to mask the messiness of what it means to be human and rely on God’s providence. Sure, let’s keep “Christ in Christmas”, but maybe we also need to remember to keep “Herod in Christmas” as well because I don’t believe emotional idealism is the reason God chose to become a weak, defenseless baby, in need of our constant care and attention. God did not enter the world of our nostalgic silent-night, snow-blanketed, peace-on-earth, sugar cookie, suspended-reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of mortal flesh and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own to give meaning and provide hope amidst the difficult and messy realities of our lives. And we do this with an openness, tenderness, and fearlessness, to continue loving despite the darkness that surrounds us, with Jesus at our side.

How is God inviting you to move from “the crib to the cross” in your own spiritual journey? What real images/events from your own life this past year feel like “innocence lost” and you would rather avoid, but are being invited to face instead, with fearlessness?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Holy Family: Holy… and Fully Human

“Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” - Lk. 2:48

Sometimes the word “holy” makes me a little uncomfortable. For whatever reason, my brain often brings me to a place where I think the word means “pious” or “doing what is right.” When I think of a “holy person,” images of hands folded properly in prayer float through my mind. Holy often seems to be something pure, pristine or relegated to the divine.

But “holy” is beginning to mean something totally different to me now. If the divine has become human, that means our humanity has become divinized. That would then mean that to be holy is to be fully human.

I get such a kick out of today’s gospel. It is easy to see that the writer has tried to sugar-coat the story with language that glosses over the mess of the situation. Good try Luke. But my prayer with this gospel keeps bringing me to a place of raw humanity, of raw family drama. Jesus really ticked off his parents. Really ticked them off.

It is impossible to relate to an image of the Holy Family as perfect. Sure, there were two members of that family whom we describe as “without sin,” but let us not forget that there is a difference between making a mistake and committing a sin. Jesus and Mary (and Joseph, of course) made mistakes in life. I will say it again: they made mistakes. And the drama of today’s gospel makes this very clear: someone messed up. The Holy Family was not perfect.

Let’s pray with that today. Maybe we can use our imagination in our prayer to enter into the family drama of the Holy Family. What would the full conversation be like when Mary and Joseph found Jesus? Enter into the pain and worry of Mary and Joseph. Enter into the pre-teen rebellion of Jesus. It is in those moments where we come to see how much more meaningful it is to have a God who has entered into our mess. Especially into our family mess. Let us all search for Jesus who might be hiding in our families today.

Tony Cortese

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Feast of St. Stephen: Flow

"Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit." - Ps. 31:6

Surrender to God's will...Listen to your heart's deepest desires...Pray about it... These are some of the well-intentioned advices I often hear when discerning life choices, particularly the weighty ones with life-changing repercussions. And although I abstractly understand these phrases, it is sometimes foggy to see what that looks like in practice when I am mired in the thick of figuring out what is best. Often times, I would overanalyze each possibility and overthink to the point of paralysis. And if I were to finally come to a decision, I second-guess myself if I had chosen correctly.

In today's Gospel (Matthew 10:17-22), Jesus encourages his disciples to not worry how to speak to the authorities, because it is then that "the Spirit of the Father" will speak through them. How apt is His encouragement in our times of discernment. We are told not to fret, not to be afraid, but rather to just be and let the Spirit guide us. Honestly, that also sounds a little abstract. However, the psychologist MihalyCsikszentmihalyi may have given us a hint what that looks like in real world application. He developed the concept of flow, which basically says that optimal experience occurs when we are fully immersed in the activity before us to the point of self-forgetfulness. The result is joy and even rapture. In other words, if I live in such a way where I flow and follow what is life giving, the discernment will handle itself. There would not be something to discern because I would be simply flowing where the Spirit of the Father leads.

St. Stephen is a wonderful model for living within God's flow. He "worked great wonders and signs among the people" and spoke with wisdom to those persecuting him. He lived without fear and worry even up to his last breath, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."

Lord, may the intercession of St. Stephen give us the grace to live rapturously within your Spirit and follow you fearlessly wherever you may lead us.

Michael Jamnongjit

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Nativity of the Lord: Abundant Joy

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing…” Is. 9:1-2

Just before Christmas we experience the “darkest night” of the year – December 21 has the least daylight of any day in the year and the longest night. Every day that follows gets increasingly brighter. The readings for the Mass During the Night capture the essence of movement from darkness into light, out of slavery and desolation into joy and hope.

Many of us come to Christmas Day with the same brokenness in our families, the same weakness in ourselves in need of healing, the same areas of unfreedom in prayer. In past years I would show up at Christmas Mass and feel like a sham: How can I celebrate the light when I still feel like I am in the darkness?

While on silent retreat a few years ago, a dear Jesuit friend offered me what has become a very helpful image. After I had shared what I was struggling with during confession, he said “Can you imagine yourself taking this and offering it at the altar during Mass? Visualize yourself carrying it and laying it as the gifts are brought forward.”

This simple exercise has become a regular habit for me. Each week when I go to Mass, I imagine even the most painful parts of who I am and the things I struggle with the most being offered as gifts. Can I imagine that my entire being (with all its failings and shortcomings) is as sacred as the bread and wine being offered? The words of the great Persian mystic Hafiz describe what making this offering feels like for me.

Each Soul Completes Me
Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky  

Beloved said,

"My name is not complete without yours."

I thought:
How could a human's worth ever be such?

And God knowing all our thoughts — and all our
thoughts are innocent steps on the path —
then addressed my

God revealed
a sublime truth to the world,
when He

"I am made whole by your life. Each soul,
each soul completes

What happens when I imagine offering my whole self today at Mass? Does imagining God saying to me: “I am made whole by your life” evoke any emotions or movements in me?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve: Be Joyful!

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.” Lk. 1:67

For those who pray the Divine Office, this is a well known sentiment. It's the beginning of the Canticle of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. I love this piece of scripture as it is an exhortation of pure joy. It is the encapsulation of so much joy: the joy of being a new father, the joy of the coming Messiah, and the great joy of a father already knowing that his son is destined for greatness in the eyes of God.

How often do we recognize moments to be joyful in our lives?

At this moment I'm in the depths of planning a wedding, which for many is a bit of an experience of desolation. Who cares what color napkins we use? Why do we have to have so many options for food? Band vs. DJ? It's all overwhelming, and especially frustrating to do from afar. And, yet, the joy of the life that is to come after the wedding day is what drives me. It gives me life, understanding, and most of all, patience. Joy, frankly, is a powerful thing.

I’m certain that Zechariah had no idea how his son’s greatness would unfold. He could not foresee his son wearing shoddy clothing, eating locusts and honey, and living in the desert. He most certainly did not anticipate his son’s beheading at the hands of King Herod’s son. However, even if he had, I believe the joy of what was to come would have been still greater that the suffering necessary to get there.

We all have opportunities for joy in our lives, but we often forget that joy is not synonymous with happiness. The anxiety and frustration that comes with planning a wedding should not cloud the joy at the center of what is being celebrated. At the same time, we should also remember that joy is sometimes accompanied by suffering. The Christmas that we celebrate tomorrow is soon followed by Lent and the remembrance of Christ’s suffering and death.

In this holiday season, am I getting bogged down by the minutiae of life?
Have I taken time to experience the joy of my life, however small it may be?
In times of darkness and desolation, what joy can I hold on to that reminds me of God’s presence in my life?

Matt Keppel

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Fourth Wednesday of Advent: Called by Name

“He will be called John.”  Lk. 1:60

I love today’s Gospel reading about the naming of John the Baptist! The customs of the time included the expectation that newborn sons should be named after their fathers or grandfathers. However, in Luke 1:13 (prior to today’s reading), the angel tells Zechariah that his new baby should be named John.  At the time of the baby’s birth, Zechariah was unable to speak for himself.  I greatly admire how Elizabeth stood up to her neighbors and relatives and insisted that the child be named John.  She rejected the crowd who was pressuring her to adhere to traditional customs.  Elizabeth followed God’s will and named her child John.  She was obedient to what God had asked of her.

In the Scriptures, when God is involved in naming a child, that child is significant to His plans.  God asked that Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son be named John. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus to reach into the lives and hearts of each of us. God’s plan for John was fulfilled! 

Through our baptisms, God calls each of us by name.  Like John, we are each significant to God’s plan.  Like Elizabeth, sometimes we are going to have to stand up to what we know is right, even if we receive pressure from outside sources.  Like Zechariah, we might have to rely on others to help us follow God. God has called each of us by name!  He has a plan for each and every one of His children! 

In these last, often hectic, days before Christmas, can you find some time to spend alone with God? 

No matter how many times you have heard the Christmas readings, listen anew this year!  What might God be trying to tell you?

Sr. Jennifer Marie Zimmerman, SND

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fourth Tuesday of Advent: Making Space to Unlock Greater Grace

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant.” – Lk. 1:46-48

The Magnificat is one of my favorite passages in the Gospels, mainly because I hope that each day I can proclaim my own version to God more and more. This time around, I find myself drawn to a different aspect of the scene though - that of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth.

After Mary received the invitation and news from the Angel Gabriel for her own and Elizabeth’s miraculous conceptions, I am struck by her next course of action: she hurried to meet Elizabeth. She did not sit around at home meditating further on what just happened, nor did she go knock on her neighbor’s door. No, she travelled quite a distance, as fast as she could, to greet and spend time with her cousin.

I never thought to wonder why before, as I do now. Reflecting on a recent visit with a good friend provided some insight. The visit left me with a deep sense of home, and I saw that it was more than just a comfortable physical space; it was the sense of being met and embraced where I was, as I was. To truly get to the Magnificat-ish moment, though, I also had to allow myself to be more fully seen (which has actually not been easy) - with all my struggles and joys - in that welcoming, safe space. Then we were both able to provide consolation to and celebrate one another with deep gratitude for the other’s presence.

It is perhaps that being as human as graced, Mary would desire to be met and acknowledged where she was as well. Her cousin would understand her situation. Would she still have proclaimed her Magnificat in the absence of the meeting? I’m not quite sure. At least not out loud. She allowed herself to be fully seen before Elizabeth, and in doing so Elizabeth could only rejoice all the more, which then led to Mary’s proclamation we know so well today. In sharing grace then, it only multiplied all the more. Could this dynamic be the birth of Jesus in our hearts that God so longingly waits for, from us?

Who might I be invited to meet and embrace where they are on their journey today? Where might I be invited to allow myself to be more fully seen? How can I make greater room for this dynamic in my life?

Quyen Ngo

Monday, December 21, 2015

Fourth Monday of Advent: Gift-Wrapped Moments

Today’s Gospel is wrapped in delight as Elizabeth is overcome with happiness for Mary.  Elizabeth, “filled with the holy Spirit,” cries out, “For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” (Lk 1:41, 44)  Elizabeth is ecstatic about witnessing such an abundance of blessings from God.  This story is a reminder of happy moments in our lives that are gift-wrapped and tucked into everyday interactions.  These moments often reveal themselves to us when we least expect them.  Realizing these moments is one way God reminds us of His love.

The week before Christmas vacation is a unique type of frenzy for the elementary school teacher.  It is filled with Christmas Program rehearsals, class parties, and children who nearly forget the daily classroom routine.  Even though this was not my first year teaching, I was caught off guard by the amount of energy that this week drained out of me.  I felt too tired to visit my fiancé.  I could barely string more than two sentences together if I remembered to call him before going to bed each night.

We were finally able to see a movie together on my first day of Christmas vacation.  I tried very hard not to fall asleep, feeling I needed more rest to recover from the week.  We stopped by a local coffee shop afterwards.  The owner took our order, and we started a conversation with him about the history of his shop.  He shared his experiences about opening two businesses on his own.  Then we asked him if it was worth all the hard work.   The owner said he made good money, but then he paused. He pointed to both of us and said, “See the smiles on your faces?  The laughs you share?  That is more important.”   We all smiled.  This moment between my fiancé and me was something money couldn’t buy.  It was wrapped in God’s love.  This moment reminded me of the gift God gave me in the form of a loving companion.

Recall a moment that brought a smile to your heart.  Where were you?  Was anyone else with you?  What was God revealing to you in that moment?  Be aware of how God may reveal Himself to you today.  Open your heart.  Allow it to leap for joy when you least expect it.

Nathalie Medina

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Advent: A Call towards Generative Love

“For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” – Lk. 1:39-45

The story of the Visitation invites us to move beyond our own personal agendas and engage in authentic ministry. Mary had her own preoccupations, concerns, and worries after receiving news from Gabriel. How will this affect her relationship with Joseph? How will she trust God and be free from what others may possibly think? What if she fails? What if she was crazy and this message is not really from God? In spite of her fears, doubts, and questions, Mary trusted her prayer experience and responded with charity and human solidarity by visiting and being with her cousin, Elizabeth, who struggled with infertility for years and was now six months pregnant. Mary came to serve; yet she was consoled by Elizabeth, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Sometimes even the call of angels needs the reinforcement of a human touch. Growing up in the Mar Vista Gardens housing projects and familiar with the stories of violence, crime, suffering, and disparity in Fr. Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos of the Heart, I feared condemnation, judgment, and further exclusion. This uneasiness took deeper root when I attended Loyola Marymount University, which was only ten minutes away from my reality. On one hand, I felt grateful and chosen by God to receive a private Jesuit education. But the other palm held the questions: “Is it okay to be me? Will others have the opportunity to get to know me for who I am?” When reflecting upon my most meaningful relationships, they are often those that continued beyond the juncture at which they came closest to ending. By stretching myself to honesty and vulnerability, these companions offered enough compassion to make me feel safe within my broken need and helped transmute my fear and anxiety. They turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, enabling me to walk with greater peace, understanding, and support. When receiving this type of love and trust, I look forward to sharing these deeper parts of myself with these companions and anticipate hearing what is going on in the depths of their lives as well. The world becomes a gentler place and gratitude grows into an unceasing response for me.

God invites us to share our lives and offer one another the gift of undivided presence as we continue our Advent journey. He encourages us to be generous and generative like Mary and Elizabeth by listening carefully and reverently to each other. He draws us to a life of spiritual companionship of not only serving, but to also be served, cared for, loved, and consoled.

Where am I called to alleviate suffering in my current relationships?
How willing am I to be transformed if I chose to love with all of my intelligence?

Tam Lontok