It’s that time of year—the end is nigh. The airwaves are choked with nostalgic retrospectives for the year that was, and the newspapers print long lists of the great and the good who have gone to meet their Maker (Margaret Thatcher, RIP). I take down my Chick-fil-A 2013 calendar (farewell, Tsar Nikoloin Roastanov), and think back to the year that was. A disappointing dénouement in the culture wars, the resignation of Pope Benedict, the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage . . . well, let’s hope the 2014 cows leave happier memories.
I found myself one January day walking through the halls of Bambino Gesù children’s hospital on top of the Gianicolo in Rome. I knew the priest chaplain there, and he asked me to put on a fake beard and dress up as San Giuseppe and go around to cheer up the little children in the oncology ward.
We had a small Bambino Gesù for the children to kiss, and we prayed a little with the children and their parents. What was each child thinking? My words and their words didn’t align, not just because of our different languages. I couldn’t cure their cancer or give them advice. What about the parents? Did they, like Job’s wife, want to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9)?
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium has produced significant reaction and commentary, both positive and negative. Many in the media have focused on the social, political, and economic implications of the document. Sadly, most commentators have looked past the obvious: the second word of the text and the title: joy. “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (EG 1).
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.
During a particularly stressful December week a number of years ago, this verse of the popular Christmas hymn “Away in a manger” was a source of much consolation for me. Part of it was likely due to its sentimental value: I believe it’s one of the songs I learned on my mother’s lap in the rocking chair as a wee lad. I certainly have known the song as far back as my memory goes.
His whole life had turned out differently from what he had expected.
Born and raised in a small town in upstate New York, he had dreamed since his childhood of traveling the whole world. Yet he always yielded his desires to his concern for others: his drowning brother, his grieving boss, and ultimately, his helpless neighbors. As he was about to leave for college, his father’s sudden death plunged him into the role of the town’s caretaker, preventing a ruthless slum lord from gaining a monopoly over the town’s houses and hotels. Spurned by the girl of his dreams, he reluctantly sought the woman who loved him, whom his mother said would help him find the answers. Even as they were about to leave for their honeymoon, a run on the bank—even more ironic than the rain on their wedding day—led him to come to the people’s aid. Yet he never did fulfill his dreams of travel and architecture, or even leave his hometown. Not even the Second World War, which called his friends into action and made his brother a hero, could draw him away.
In the classic film The Muppet Christmas Carol, when Bob Cratchit (in a compelling portrayal by Kermit the Frog) is closing up Scrooge’s shop on Christmas Eve, he suddenly begins to sing, as is his wont. He sings about some things you might expect Kermit to sing about: magic in the air, people loving and caring, the world smiling. After all, as the refrain reminds us, “there’s only one more sleep ‘til Christmas.”
But I would like to bring attention to a line which is almost missed unless you’re paying close attention. Just before Mr. Cratchit comes upon the penguins’ Christmas skating party (excitedly crying out, “Oh! It’s the penguins’ Christmas skating party!”) he sings: “It’s a season when the saints can employ us / To spread the news about peace and to keep love alive.”
We may not often think of the saints when we think about Christmas, but maybe we should. After all, they’re celebrating Christmas too, and much more fittingly than we. How? Not by giving gifts to one another, but by praising God for his love, shown to us in the man Jesus Christ. And the saints employ us to do the same.
We hear a lot about peace around Christmastime. But peace is a big concept, the term is broad and vast. How can we fathom its real meaning? Luke’s Gospel offers some insight. After the angel proclaims to the shepherds the birth of the Savior,
suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” (2:14)
The angel alone proclaims Christ’s birth, but is joined by a great multitude in praising God for it. The saints, upon entrance into the heavenly kingdom, join this worshiping multitude, singing that eternal song of peace.
And again, in the Psalms we read:
I will hear what the LORD God speaks;
he speaks of peace for his people and his faithful,
and those who turn their hearts to him.
His salvation is near for those who fear him,
and his glory will dwell in our land.
The Lord speaks of peace for his faithful, and the heavenly multitude, angels and saints alike, speak of peace among men with whom he is pleased. This proclaimed peace is the kingdom of God which is at hand for us; it is salvation; it is Christ.
Salvation is experienced after this earthly life is done—but we can begin even now, like the hungry traveler who, while still afar off, smells the great feast being prepared for his arrival home. We do this by faith, by turning our hearts to the Lord who now dwells among us. The Word made man is the cause and culmination of the peace of Christmas, which we experience by faith in the Incarnation.
After the lengthy interlude in which Bob Cratchit and his murine friends admire the expert skating of the penguins, he continues singing. Today we can join him, looking forward to tomorrow’s celebration of the divine peace brought to us in the Incarnation: “Yes, faith is in our hearts today / We’re shining like the sun . . . After all, there’s only one more sleep ‘til Christmas.”
Image: Still from ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’
Two months ago, Star Wars fans around the world were thrilled to learn that JJ Abrams would direct the next portion of the Star Wars saga. Part of this stems from the accolades won as director of the new Star Trek movies, but also discernible are the millions of voices that suddenly cried out in jubilation…and then breathed a collective sigh of relief. After all, the past 15 years have been hard for those who love Star Wars.
Looking back over the last five semesters since I’ve begun my studies in philosophy and theology as a Dominican, I’ve noticed a distinct pattern in the way I choose to decompress after finals. My newfound free time seems to be divided between the odd combination of reading classical literature and writing computer programs. The first is not so uncommon around these parts and is part of a longer term effort to build up a part of my education that was neglected during my many years of studies in the hard sciences. The second is, I would guess, pretty odd, and a bit surprising even to me.
Few objects exert enough psychological sway to stop us dead in our tracks. Fewer still can pull us back after we’ve passed them by. But mirrors do both, inducing teeth-checking, dress-smoothing, and double-taking with gravitational inevitability.
In the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, across the highway from a motorcycle dealer and tucked away in a corner of the property of Holy Spirit Church, lies Caterina Benincasa Dominican Monastery of New Castle, Delaware. Upon visiting the monastery for the first time, you will not find some profound historic building that evokes visions of medieval France awaiting you, but a simple two-floor convent. From within these walls since 2007, Sisters Mary Grace, Mary Columba, and Emmanuella have struck a new spark to ignite the torch of St. Dominic Guzman’s Order of Preachers. That spark has indeed generated a bit of a fire. Shortly before the arrival of the nuns, the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph came to Delaware to staff the Oratory at the University of Delaware and run the campus ministry. St. Dominic wanted monasteries of nuns near their brothers, as the prayers of the nuns form an integral part of the friars’ preaching for the salvation of souls. Eight centuries later, his vision lives on in Delaware.