We Need a Savior

After a lovely “Midnight Mass” (at 10PM–don’t get me started) at St. Joe’s I had a hard time concentrating. A friend is dealing with a horrible tragedy in her life that occurred just before the holiday—so please pray for her. After opening some presents and getting a restful night I awoke to the following story in the New York Times:

A series of apparently coordinated bombings struck three churches during Christmas services across Nigeria on Sunday, killing more than a dozen people and solidifying a recent escalation in violence by a radical Muslim sect that seeks to impose Islamic law.

At least five bombings were reported, including three at churches. The worst appeared to be at a packed Catholic church just outside the capital, Abuja, where at least 16 people were killed during mass.

The militant Islamist sect Boko Haram claimed responsibility for several of the bombings and was suspected in others.

It’s times like this that it is easy to lose faith, even on a very faithful day–when many, even reluctantly head out for church services. Perhaps evil, which is all too real, wants us to lose faith? Perhaps we need to hold onto that faith that requires us to believe in things not seen–to believe that God is making all things new again. Can we believe that God can redeem evil and bring peace and hold the victims of this tragedy close today?

You see, folks, even on a Christmas day like today, bad things can happen–and often do happen. It’s up to us to stay faithful when others tell us that it’s not worth it.

People need a savior today. And when they find him they find him suffering with them. Those unkempt shepherds, who were hardly dressed for worship and probably wouldn’t have been allowed in the temple, find God in a feeding trough for animals. Homeless for a time, to a teenager who despite her fear, trusted God anyway. The angels came to these men and brought them good news of great joy. Men, who nobody else would have thought to bother with as they kept watch over their flock.

Perhaps that is our call too? We too, need to keep watch over all those who others wouldn’t bother with today. Aren’t there people today that we have forgotten about? Aren’t there people in our lives who at least deserve a phone call or a visit? Does God come to us in his vulnerability so that we might recognize that same vulnerability in others in the world?

God, as a little baby, changed so many simply by coming into the world. My colleague Br. Dan Horan, OFM stated today that the incarnation is necessary for the resurrection to happen. Indeed. And yet, this baby, born to us, in a manner most vulnerable, calls us even deeper. Beyond the manger are those who are also destitute. Beyond the manger, are the Kings who care for the poor baby and give him gifts so that he might be safe. Beyond the manger is St Joseph, who sacrificed to marry an unwed mother instead of divorcing her quietly or taken his right to stone her. Beyond the manger is the terrified teenager who said yes to God, not knowing what would befall her child one day as he faced a cross.

Beyond the manger still today, is tragedy, bombings and death.

We want a savior and when we look for one we find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, unable to even walk or talk. We’ll one day find that same savior hanging from a cross, helpless, dying.

Our savior is the suffering servant. Who cries for the poor and those who are going through personal tragedies today. Our savior calls to us from the manger to pay attention and to climb out of our cribs and suffer with others and to believe that no matter what—this baby matters. This baby redeems the world. And still does.

God doesn’t save us from tragedy, God redeems us from it and makes all things new.

If we believe that…than we’ve got the Christmas spirit. I pray you keep it forever.

Should Catholics Let Their Children Believe in Santa?

So I’ve seen a couple of thoughts from some random colleagues on this the past few days and I’ll sprinkle my thoughts in with theirs.

The first comment goes to Sarah Hart, of Christian music fame:

My early Christmas present: My 6th grade daughter said “mom, some kids at school don’t believe in Santa…but I DO. You know why? Cause Santa Claus is a saint…and how can you not believe in a saint?”

Indeed, St. Nicholas is directly translated, word for word (to keep the liturgy folks happy) as Santa Claus.

Matthew Warner picks up on this theme over at Fallible Blogma:

First, the story of Santa Claus is a Christian story. Hello! When told properly, it points to and emphasizes Jesus Christ. So, it’s actually one of the (fun) ways to “get back to the reason for the season.” And kids like fun.

Second, therefore, Santa Claus is not the problem. The commercialization of Christmas has victimized him as much as any of us. In fact, I’m pretty sure the real Santa Claus isn’t taking all of this too lightly, either.

Which brings me to my next point, Santa Claus is a real person. So it’s not a lie to say that Santa Claus is real. He has died, yes. But he’s not really dead. He’s alive in heaven, which means he’s more fully alive than any of us.

…Santa means Saint. A Saint is someone who has lived a life of heroic virtue. A life worth mimicking. A life worth observing. A life worth learning from. A life that points to Christ.

Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in the Church. And his spirit of giving and serving the poor is worth remembering by re-enacting (and imagining) his life and then learning from it. More importantly, the reason he served the poor and gave of himself so much is because he served Christ at the center of his life.

Excellent points. One colleague of mine has said that having a Santa Claus in church-related activities or schools sends a “mixed message.” I say he’s mistaken. Santa is as Catholic as Catholic can be. I dress as St. Nicholas for our religious ed program every year wearing an actual mitre and crosier and a red cope and a white beard. Nobody’s confused and moreover, even if I wore a jollier version of this costume why wouldn’t we take the time to tell children that story of St. Nicholas?

St. Nicholas also reminds us what we have to be concerned about. After all, the poor that he served, saving women, in particular, is something we should all emulate each day of the year. Let’s remember that St. Nicholas was a Bishop who would throw a gold bar through the window of a poor families home so they would have a dowry for their daughter and to put food on the table. If he didn’t do that that family may have sent the daughter off to be a prostitute. If the family had their window closed…he would literally climb to the roof and drop the gold bar down the…you guessed it…chimney.

So Santa Claus, isn’t just about being good so we can get gifts. Rather it’s about being good because that changes the world and gives people dignity and that doing that is more than gift.

And while the legend has grown to say that Santa sees you when your sleeping and knows when you’re awake. Our question needs to be who do we see when they’re sleeping on the street, or in a shelter? Who do we see awake but trapped in an addiction or can’t get enough money to afford drugs or therapy for their mental illness? Who is awake an lonely in a nursing home or hospital?

The spirit of Santa means being Jesus for others–and it always has been. It is what the original Santa Claus gave to us with his life–so much so that even non-religious people made him into a legend. And yet, that legend sprang from the truth that Jesus preached.

Is Santa real? Indeed he is. He needs to be. Because if the spirit of Santa Claus is dead, then we have no hope for a world that often is too self-centered, too consumeristic. Maybe we need a jolly old guy in a red suit that is larger than life in order to remind us that we need to have a jolly spirit of giving to the poor, of helping those in desperation.

Some say that we need the spirit of Christmas all year long. And indeed we do. In fact, that’s all we need. For Santa, brings us to not merely remember that we are waiting for a baby Jesus. Rather, Santa reminds us that Jesus grew up and showed us how we need to live.

Perhaps Santa is the greatest disciple of them all. After all, I don’t know of another saint that people can recognize as easily.

Seeing Christ in the Telemarketer

While I was in college one of my work-study jobs was to work at the phon-o-thon center where our job was to call alumni for donations. The result of every phone call was one of two reactions:

1) “OMG FORDHAM! I love Fordham! I remember hanging out until 4 AM on Edward’s Parade my senior year after hanging out at Clarke’s bar. Sure I can donate something.”

or

2) “I hate Fordham and the Jesuits and everything associated with them, you SOB and never EVER call me again, you bleep.”

The latter helped me develop a thick skin for those kinds of comments, realizing that the caller had experiences that had nothing to do with me. It was difficult to hear at times and my editor at Orbis, Mike Leach, reminded me of this experience in his recent column in the National Catholic Reporter.

Leach talks about trying to find the face of Christ in everyone he meets and that he often fails at it. But he cites several people who enter his life who he has to remind himself that they are Christ. Especially those who we find on the other end of the phone, invited or not.

This worked beautifully for most of my work life (one author said, “Every time Mike picks up the phone you feel like he’s been waiting his whole life just to talk to you” — that’s how you feel when you really know it’s the Christ on the line) until I semiretired and just about every time I picked up the phone it was a telemarketer who wouldn’t let go of my ear. That wore on my patience until a friend told me that my favorite spiritual teacher, Dr. Thomas Hora, had this telephone maxim: “Before you say hello, say I love you.” Now I don’t always say that to myself before I pick up the phone (or before someone I am calling picks up their phone) and I only sometimes remember that is the voice of Christ on the other end, but I am discovering that both of these practices are beneficial habits that put me in my proper place. Even with a telemarketer.

I hope I can be as gracious as Mike Leach is and has been to me.

Perhaps that’s not just a lesson for advent but for every day.

My Hometown Agrees with Me About Christmas Hate Crime

From the Gothamist:

Because no one is content with just leaving people the hell alone to celebrate what they believe in, police in Yonkers are investigating the vandalization of eight different nativity scenes. “It’s not about the statute, it’s about what it means for you. It hurts,” Victoria Beldran told CBS. Beldran’s nativity scene was damaged over the weekend, and vandals appear to have hit six homes and two churches. “We believe an attack on one religion is an attack on all and it violates our basic freedoms,” Police Commissioner Edmund Hartnett said.

See, hatred always breeds more hatred and violence. Can’t we just leave things alone?

New York Comes Home to Me at Christmas

My good friend, Paul Snatchko, posted this not long ago. This will be my first year that I will not be “home” (Yonkers) for Christmas and will not be in my beloved Gotham either. But now I feel like I have been there through the magic of this beautiful video.

A Year in New York from Andrew Clancy on Vimeo.

As a now rabid fan of hockey, I can really appreciate the Rangers scenes. There were also many shots of the 7 train that took me to and fro from Woodside to Manhattan passing by the Silvercup Studios sign and the glorious Manhattan skyline. There was even a shot of the local pizza joint that I’d stop by occasionally on the way home.

Until we meet again, Gotham…Merry Christmas. There’s no place on earth like you.

Celebrity Voices for Christmas: Jimpressions

OK Jim Meskimen has created a video of Twas the Night Before Christmas that is a must watch.

Some of these were dead on and others are a big swing and a miss. I loved the Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Falk and the Robin Williams especially. The Jack Nicholson and the Bill Cosby needed work in my opinion but he’s still amazing.

An Old Man’s Advent Dream

Deacon Bill Ditewig, one of my heroes, wrote possibly the most beautiful advent reflection I’ve read to date.

Here’s a snip:

Right now we have many Catholics who don’t even like to reach out and take someone else’s hand at the greeting of peace before communion. Those folks are really not going to like my dream, since not only do I hope that they will shake someone else’s hand, but actually, beginning at Midnight Mass this Christmas, I’m hoping that they will open their arms and embrace tightly that dirty, smelly homeless man who’s been living in a cardboard box down the street from the church. In fact, it is precisely to those who have been excluded by everyone else that Christ is coming into the world.

My dream is really quite simple. Christ willingly emptied himself completely into human nature. We either believe that or we don’t. Human nature is the common denominator here. If Christ is to be found there, then we are to be found there. The “Church” isn’t a place for those who have successfully navigated life. It’s a haven for all those who admit their sinfulness, their brokenness, their need for others and for God.

Amen, brother. What can we all do to make this dream a reality this Christmas?

We Are Invited

Imagine an angel appearing to you in the midst of the busiest time of the year and saying to you that while you haven’t had sex with anyone, you’re going to be pregnant.

My initial thought is: that’s an incredibly raw deal.

But more seriously, if we thought that our advent was busy with the shopping and the parties and the end-of-the-year financials and all the other things that need to get done….

Imagine what life must have been like for Mary.

But perhaps that is the lesson of advent. We are supposed to long for God to be with us…and I reckon that most of the time we don’t, until God pulls the rug out from underneath our feet.

Just as God did to Mary.

Advent is really about unexpected joy in expected chaos. Noticing God in the every day rhythms of our hectic lives. Perhaps Mary is a lot like us. While keeping house she finds this message from God that she is to be with child.

While traditional readings of the Annunciation story often point towards a pious Mary who humbly accepts God’s invitation, I hear a more hesitant Mary, perhaps even an exasperated one.

Doubt: “How can this be? For I have not had relations with a man.”

Fear: “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Exasperation: “I am the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

That last piece almost as a ring of “whatever” to it. If we read that first part with a hint of sarcasm to it, Mary’s reply is much like our own. “Well, what else could happen to me today? Guess I’ll just have to roll with it.”

And roll with it she did. A young, unmarried woman, now pregnant in a culture that did not take kindly to women who had relations out of wedlock. The taunts may have been “Sure, sure…God made you pregnant.”
Even initially the man who she was betrothed to considered calling it quits.

The truth of today’s Gospel is that sometimes when God interacts with us and asks something of us, it may very well not be a pleasant situation. And yet, each time we “roll with it” and accept that God just might be able to see us through to the other side of a difficult time, we grow into the person that God knows we can be.

We can indeed stretch much farther than we expect.

Somehow we get the shopping done and find our families overjoyed at our thoughtfulness. Somehow we visit those relatives that might drive us bonkers only to find that they are touched by our presence. Somehow we give a bit more to others and find our hearts more open than usual.

Somehow, God knows that we are capable of much more than what we think will only bring us exasperation.

What is your burdensome invitation? What is God beckoning to you to handle this advent? What might God be asking you to carry in the coming year?

While it may sound daunting at first, God reminds us, as he reminded Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

And while it may seem like we are in over our heads, God is with us in our fear, our doubt and our exasperation. And more importantly, God reminds us that He knows our hearts can stretch much father than we think that they can.

All we have to do is believe that.

Away In a Manger, The Flying Spaghetti Monster

In Leesburg, VA, Christmas displays are causing discord.

Members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It’s a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, and the manger is surrounded by pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: “Touched by an Angelhair.”

With the new displays, a new tradition was born: a charged seasonal debate.

This year, the dispute struck a particularly raw chord. The skeleton Santa was ripped down — twice — by offended locals. Kenneth D. Reid, Loudoun County supervisor-elect for the Leesburg District, sent a news release opposing “outrageous anti-religious displays.” In a letter to a local newspaper, one resident called the displays a “mean-spirited attack by the faithless on the faithful.”

Let me ask a serious question here. What do the atheists in question trying to say with their display? Some would say that it’s about the separation of church and state. But the state isn’t saying that Christianity should be an established religion here.

A quick perusal of the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Nobody’s trying to turn Leesberg, VA into Iraq, which is a theocracy. Once again, desecrating a religious image that others respect does run the risk of being considered hate speech. Secondly, look at the line that says Congress cannot make a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. These folks who created the display are hoping to do exactly that–prohibit displays of religion and so they are mocking it with a display of their own. Mu guess is that their hope is that the end result will be that dueling displays will breed so much discord that the state eliminates all the displays entirely.

Isn’t this supposed to the time of the year when despite religious belief, we celebrate peace and harmony and not discord? It seems the specific branch of atheism here that put up this display just wants to breed dis-harmony.

And many of us who are religious take the bait every time, myself included. We lash back harder and meaner sometimes.

And that, friends, is evil at work amongst all of us. And I’m not saying that the atheists (or any religious group) are evil here. What I am saying is that discord amongst all people is not the way to go here. Why can’t the atheists just leave the manger displays alone? Why can’t they do some charitable work and say “we do this because we are humanists,” just as Catholics and other religious people have their faith serve them in the same way to celebrate the season?

It seems to me that our constitution calls us not to be mean-spirited about religion, but rather, calls us to tolerate expression of religion. In doing so, we breed peace.

Something I’d like to see happen is a group of atheists, Christians, Muslims and Jews (and others) coming together to serve the needs of the poor, or to build a home with habitat and to not disparage one another. Rather, we’re called to love. All of us. It’s in our nature and whether or not we think God was the impetus for that design, it doesn’t change our desire for peace on earth and goodwill towards all.

So what do we really want? What can we accomplish together despite our differences? Who can we not try to take a cheap shot at? Who is too hard for us to love?

What keeps us human? Love.

Perhaps it’s time we all thought about how to display that together.