Christmas

Eyes on Heaven

As a general principle:  Keep your eyes on Heaven, not on Hell.

 

This is some great advice that I received from a good priest friend of mine.  In a world with Hell on full display (let’s be honest in a mirror with at least a good deal of Hell on display) we could use a whopping portion of Heaven.  Sin still exists when we look at Heaven.  The devil is still prowling and evil is still operative, but it doesn’t matter nearly so much.  Because God is operating too in a grander, more eternal, and vastly more interesting way.  Yes we have wounds and faults, but Christ has situated His cross in front of us and implored us to gaze on Love Incarnate.  I think that is a better view than my woundedness any day.  Sure I need to look at those wounds from time to time in order to fully appreciate the grandeur of the Lord’s revelation, but generally God should get my attention.  And this doesn’t only apply to our personal lives, but has societal ramifications as well.  

 

We bemoan “The Culture” (which we apparently have no part in building since calling it “The Culture” anthropomorphised it as some living super-villain entity living and operating outside of ourselves) and is responsible for everything ruining our lives.  We can attach any face to “The Culture” that we want- morphing from that one politician that we think is the Antichrist into that one scandalous pop artist.  It’s all “The Culture” and it's destroying us all and ruining everything.  EVEN CHRISTMAS!


We just ended the Christmas season with all of its incredible graces and revelations and celebrations, but once again “The Culture” has come to soil this immaculate feast.  At least we have our “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper stickers to ward it off.  But did we ward it off or are we be tricked once again in some inception-esque, mind-swirling rouge of the evil one?  

I know I’ve been hood-winked year after year into the joy-stealing, hope-smashing spiral of Hell-gazing when the Church is presenting me with a season meant to bring me to a place of awe and wonder.  Materialism and consumerism has taken over Christmas- even to the point of binding those who furiously run to avoid it in its snares.  This tendency to look towards Hell causes us to miss the grace of Christ.  Christmas is literally the only season where the general population of the western world appreciates Christian culture.  Charitable giving and service go through the roof!  Inexplicable grace and joy are raining down into the hearts of the baptized (even the hard-hearted) just as it did on the night of the Nativity.  And what is a consumerist culture to do in the face of such love? Try to love others through consumerism!  And no one is there to show them the root of the warmth Christ is trying to cultivate in our icy, icy hearts because we’re hum-bugging with our Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow about how terribly materialistic and superfluous the Christmas season is becoming.  We’re looking at Hell and Heaven is moving powerfully.


Father Raneiro Cantalamessa (if you haven’t checked him out, you should promptly set about reading everything he’s ever written) wrote a letter reflecting on the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi.  He wrote about the gaze of God our Father and how that gaze would finally break through all of the distraction of sin and worldly shams when the saved finally reach Paradise and are face to face with Him.  He wrote about when St. Francis’s  father, friends and relatives rejected him and he was left without the clothes on his back or even the comfort of a good reputation.  He was just a radical buffoon who retreated into a cave.  But Fr. Cantalamessa reflected on what happened when St. Francis went into that cave in the midst of all the turmoil boiling around him.  Fr. Cantalamessa surmised that St. Francis met that gaze of love in a profound way, in a way that is usually reserved for that moment in Paradise.  And he couldn’t take his eyes off the Face of God for a single second for the rest of eternity.  And when he came out of that cave, still rejected and alone, other people started to admire what they saw and joyfully joined in on his radical buffoonery.

God give me the gaze of St. Francis!

Yes, Hell is weaving its lies into the fabric of the human psyche and Santa Claus is trying to budge Jesus out of His place in the manger of our hearts during the Yuletide season.  But God is gazing at us!  And His gaze is magnetic.  I have this vision in my mind of a coop full of chickens, stupidly gazing up as the rain is falling on their heads.  You know the scene.  What buffoonery.  But only God can make that somehow a beautiful scene of grace.  Only God can make us stoney-hearted consumerists care about our fellow man (even if for some that’s even only for a month out of the year).  And only God can pull our eyes away from the distractions through a mere glance.

 

The Christmastide Martyrs

The three days following Christmas are, for me, the best example of how saints’ feasts can complement and explain the events of salvation history commemorated in the ordinary liturgical year. Even those of us who have formed the good devotion of daily Mass may miss these feasts as they return to friends and family for the holidays. For me, personally, they are the most poignant moments in the year.

First, there is the feast of Stephen, protomartyr (i.e. first martyr) and deacon. He holds pride of place right after John the Baptist in the canon of Mass. If all the anticipation of Advent has deceived us so that we begin to forget the kind of mission that the Messiah undertook, here is Stephen a perfect imitation of Christ. And if our ultimate hope and confidence rests in Good Friday pointing to Easter, we cannot help seeing St. Stephen as a sign of contradiction to our Advent expectations that traces a quick path from the manger of Bethlehem to the foot of the cross on Calvary.

Next, there is the feast of John the Evangelist. While he is not a martyr in the sense that we restrict the word today, his denial of all earthly attachments for the sake of Christ earned him what Church Fathers called “white martyrdom”. Of the apostles he alone would not suffer martyrdom in the flesh; and if you have ever seen a depiction of the crucifixion you will remember why. He alone of all the apostles also stood there at the foot of the cross. Again, at the moment the Church commemorates the birth of Christ, she turns our attention to Our Lord’s Passion.

Last, there is the feast of the Holy Innocents. No fault, save the common lot of all descendants of Adam, lay in these children. If Stephen accepted martyrdom in his will and suffered it in his body, while John only underwent it in his will, these innocents are the first witnesses to the Messiah in the flesh. The Church in her wisdom does not forget that Christian joy and sorrow are but two ways of looking at the same situation. There is sorrow in man’s condition and joy in God’s redemption of that condition. As Msgr. Ronald Knox said,

“[W]e shall find that Christian sorrow and Christian joy have their roots nearer together than we fancied; that the desire for God’s will to be done perfectly in us and in all creatures, which is the Christian religion, bears a double fruit of sadness and gladness.”

As I have thought of these feasts over the years, I see them like the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold for Stephen, who,  like Lawrence his fellow deacon, oversaw the treasury of the church but also because his martyrdom is a rich vein of ore that lies at the heart of the Church. For without Stephen, would we have a Paul? Frankincense for John, since his Gospel with its Bread of Life discourse and his Revelation with its depiction of the Mass are wrapped up in the mysteries of the priestly ministry of Our Lord. Myrrh––which was mixed with wine given to our Lord on the Cross (Mark 15:23)––for the Holy Innocents.

For many a Christmas past my thoughts have been focused on Ss. Stephen and John as examples of Christian perfection. In pride I enjoyed thinking that I would be able to give as bold a witness as Stephen, even unto death. In the same vein as St. Augustine (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”), I secretly worried that God would actually take me at my word; and sought in practice to try to emulate John. Being an academic, I could reason and resolve when I reflected upon the life of these two men. I gave little thought to the Holy Innocents.

This Advent my wife gave birth to a baby girl. And this is a cause of great joy this Christmas. I am sure many a Christmas from now will fill me with gladness to see lights that remind me of the Christmas lights in the hospital parking lot at 3am, and cheesy Christmas songs will serve less as earworms than as mnemonics for taking my boys through the lobby to meet their sister.

And yet, I am sad this Advent and Christmas. Before this girl we lost two children in utero. Their loss is a great emptiness and a strong mystery in my heart. This Christmas my spirit looks to the Holy Innocents and my prayers are with those who experience this season with sadness or grief for those they have lost.  And while I am preparing my soul to rejoice in our Savior’s birth in this world, my sorrow reminds me he did so to prepare us for another world:


“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” - Revelations 21:4

Why I Struggled to be Open to Life

A Note from the Editor: Merry Christmas!!! We hope you have a blessed and joyful Christmas season, filled with family and friends, and a renewed hope in the Christ Child! Today's post is perfect for starting the celebration of the Christmas season as we all welcome God as Babe into our hearts! We are so grateful for everyone who has supported CBC and the CBC Times and can't wait to keep growing with you! -The CBC Team


Recently, I’ve been challenged to practice what I preach.

My husband and I have always proclaimed ourselves “prolife” and that we are open to children in our new marriage. All my life I’ve worked well with children. In fact, I loved children so much I initially entered college intending to be an elementary school teacher and worked as a tutor and teaching aid before I switched my major.  However, as I graduated from college, I began to take my career more seriously and slowly the feeling that children were poisonous to my personal goals –a feeling shared by many in my generation- began to creep into my mind. Then, a stressful stint as an au pair abroad in Spain the summer after graduation with a difficult family made me feel that having children was indeed distasteful. I wanted to do so much with my life: start my career, enjoy leisurely time with my new husband and, most importantly, live life on MY terms. I didn’t want to take care of anyone’s needs but my own. Unconsciously, I began to believe that children would get in the way of all of that.

As someone who faces life changes with resistance and trepidation, I easily buy into the mentality of “enlightened” millenials which is constantly bombard with the rhetoric of “choice” and “success,” yet which shies away from commitment in everything except career choices.

So, despite my proclaimed beliefs on being open to life, when I discovered I was pregnant, I feared that my life was being disrupted forever, and that like popular culture proclaims, my own life would not have room for me anymore. My future was out of my control, and I was dismayed.  And I felt ashamed at my initial reaction, which made me feel even worse. To make things worse, many people around me made it clear that they thought I was destroying my future by having a child. It was easy to buy into their words.

The following months of pregnancy I grappled not only with physical changes, but with internal changes as well. I struggled with my own innate selfishness. I had to admit that I was afraid of not being the only important person in my life and in my husband’s eyes. I had to face my insecurities on having to switch the career path that I had envisioned for myself. I feared sacrificing myself through the physical discomforts and pains of pregnancy and childbirth and the sacrifices in the years that would follow as I raised my little boy and any other children that would follow. These fears contrasted my belief that children bring innocence, joy and hope, and that raising them would better me as a person and give me the privilege of seeing life grow.

After cycling through cynicism and happiness during my pregnancy, I had to sit down and really ask myself: am I truly open to life? Why was I buying into the belief that this child will only cause loss in my life?

Around the time Mother Teresa was being canonized, I stumbled upon an article about Mother Teresa and her stance on abortion and her interactions with Hilary Clinton. I was struck by a quote by Mother Teresa.

“But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” Mother Teresa said, “Because Jesus said, ‘If you receive a little child, you receive me.’ So every abortion is the denial of receiving Jesus, the neglect of receiving Jesus.”

Through this quote I realized that the Lord was telling me that not accepting this pregnancy was the same as not accepting Him in my life. As a believer in Christ, I was struggling with the most fundamental task: accepting life, and therefore, accepting Christ in my life in a way that I couldn’t 100% control. This pregnancy taught me empathy as well. I had plenty of resources and support and still struggled with my pregnancy; how much more frightening is it for women to keep children when they don’t have any support or resources! Now, instead of judging women who contemplate having abortions, I feel much more empathetic and am now determined to support those organizations that provide support and resources for women struggling with pregnancy.

Several months later, I welcomed my child into this world in what was the most painful and yet one of the most amazing moments in my life.  As I held my child, I wanted to weep that I had been dismayed at this beautiful gift that was already regarding me with such innocence and trust. Yes, my life as I knew it ended when I had a child; but by no means did it end. My life- and this new life- is just beginning. And I want to live my life in testament to that.

 

 

 

The (Bad) Beer Truce of 1914

The following post is from a good friend of mine, Eileen Wittig, who attends Benedictine College with me. She, too, is a blogger and a good one at that. After a conversation or two, we both thought it'd be a good idea to have her do a guest post for CBC, and I have to say, she didn't disappoint. I particularly enjoyed this post, and I hope you do as well. If you'd like to see more of her writing, you can go to her personal blog here

Before I go, I'd like to wish you all a Blessed and Happy New Year! I have a birthday on the first of January, and will be celebrating my 21st birthday with friends, blackjack, and of course, beer. (And a happy birthday to my younger brother, Brennan, who shares my birthday on New Years). 

 

By now we’ve all heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914, whether because we were cultured and learned citizens, or because we saw the amazing Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial. And because we are all cultured and enjoy edifying ourselves, we know the general events that started and continued the truce (in case you partied so thoroughly you forgot, the reason was that both sides wanted to celebrate Christmas, and they were sick of the trenches. Solid reasons). But for a reason I can’t for the life of me figure out, no one has really talked about the best part of the truce—the beer.

This is how one polite, occasionally-poorly-grammared soldier described it:

“The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill [the British Company Commander] if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assure him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another’s health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches

…The two barrels of beer were drunk, and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff. […]

During the whole of Boxing Day [December 26] we never fired a shot, and they the same, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling. One of their men shouted across in English and inquired how we had enjoyed the beer. We shouted back and told him it was very weak but that we were very grateful for it. We were conversing off and on during the whole of the day.”

We all already know the magical communal powers of beer. You just can’t help but liven up a party by a factor of 10 by rolling out the kegs, and the sense of community can’t help but increase in a direct correlation to the amount drunk.

But there is something that can connect people even more, and that is bad beer.

You know it’s true. Beer is great, but people prefer some kinds over others, they want something different depending on what they’re eating, they’re not in the mood for one or another, so there’s still a bit of separation in a room full of people drinking beer. But when everyone, everyone, agrees that the only beer available is rotten, then there is a new sense of community. Everyone agrees that it’s awful, so it becomes a shared interest. But obviously everyone’s going to drink it anyway, and everyone sympathizes with everyone, because everyone understands. It’s a party.

The truce of 1914 was a Christmas party, literally on the front lines of a war. You’re not going to not drink the beer. That doesn’t turn bad beer into good beer, but there is a feeling of camaraderie as everyone suffers through the beer together, trying to celebrate as properly as they can.

Naturally this camaraderie extends to the ones who have been drinking the nasty stuff for a while now and the ones who gave it to you, i.e. the Germans across the mud. It even sparks another day full of conversation and not bullets. The two armies have been shooting and shelling each other for five months from water-logged trenches in a country neither are from, watching their companions die of disease as well as battle wounds, fighting the “war to end all wars.” Yet they call the whole war off for a day to celebrate Christmas together in no-man’s land with something they mutually enjoy, the effects of which carry over to the next day. The shared beer brings the two sides together even more, adding another element to turn the individual festivities into a shared experience.

That’s how connective beer is. Especially when it’s weak. And made by a people neither you nor your enemy likes. After all, the enemy who agrees that my beer enemy is bad at making beer is my friend.

And why the Brits nicknamed their commander “Buffalo Bill” I will never know.

THE ART OF RECEIVING

Christmastime brings about a lot of gift-giving to family and friends along with charitable gifts toward those who are in need. This past week, we all have received our fair share of gifts, whether they have come through material possessions or intangible realities. In all, I have always found it easier to give a gift to anther than to receive one for myself. I think I’m not alone in this. I think most people readily accept the joy that comes with the experience of giving a gift than in being the one who receives a gift unwittingly.

There are many ways to be a “bad” receiver of a gift. Receiving gifts politely doesn’t always come natural to us, and most often is a habit that must be taught to little children (i.e. saying thank you, even if they really aren’t thankful at the time). When I receive a gift that was particularly unexpected and thoughtful, I sometimes find it difficult to know the appropriate way to react. There’s one extreme that wants to get overly excited and thankful in a way that can overwhelm the giver (or others around for that matter). The other extreme tries to counter the over-excitement and can come across as ungrateful or unappreciative. Somewhere, the “virtuous” receiver can be found in the middle of these extremes. Even as one gets older, it can be difficult to receive a much needed gift in a suitable manner. It’s easy to become excited with anticipation for a present you’ve been waiting for only to be let down by it not being exactly for which you had hoped. Or one can surely feel inconsiderate when one receives a gift but has nothing to offer in return. I think a lot of people subconsciously like to pay-it-back when giving gifts just so no one, including themselves, feel bad about receiving a charitable present. In reality though, I think we diminish the charity of another when we try to counter one thoughtful gift with a thoughtful gift of our own. In fact, charity requires someone freely accepting the a gift and not just the exchange of one gift for another.

To explain this point even further, let’s up the ante shall we. Imagine now that you’ve received a gift that is in No way merited and cannot simply be sufficed by a mere thank you. Not only is this gift a substantial one, but it is constantly being given to you. Such a gift is so great that there is nothing you can do or say or buy that will even come close to showing your gratitude for such a gift. Like I said before, this gift is absolutely unmerited and, if viewed by outsiders, could very well be considered a wasted gift. C.S. Lewis offers such an example in the form of a newlywed couple in which one of the spouses is struck down with an incurable disease that leaves him/her hideous, useless, dependent on the other’s salary, and on the continual, selfless care from the other. While the loving spouse who commits to taking care of their decrepit spouse offers a tremendous, self-sacrificing gift to be treasured, Lewis argues that it is much harder and more efficacious to be on the receiving end. To have to submit oneself to being completely helpless and undeserving of such tremendous love is hugely altruistic in and of itself.  

It took me a while but I finally realized that this is one of the greatest lessons we can learn during the Christmas season. This lesson comes not in giving gifts to others, but in receiving gifts that are absolutely undeserving and have no adequate means of reciprocation. This doesn’t hold any more true than in the Incarnation of Christ and celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist. The reception of our Lord and Creator is a Very intimidating thing and rightly so. I once heard someone remark that if we had perfect understanding of the glory of Christ we are receiving at Communion, we would be too afraid to approach. But here we are, in the Christmas season, celebrating the humble beginnings of a child born of a virgin, surrounded by the lowliest of society. There is no way we can ever deserve to receive Christ in such a manner, but knowing that full well, He offers Himself to us freely, everyday of our lives. Again, it took me a while, but I finally understand what people mean when they counsel you to pray to better welcome Christ into your life. It’s a very humbling experience and takes a commitment toward forgoing one’s own desires to be deserving of such a tremendous gift. As C.S. Lewis points to, Charity is a two way street that requires both a giver and receiver. May we be the humble and virtuous receivers of such an extraordinary gift.

U.I.O.G.D.

Policing Christmas

Policing Christmas

At this time of year, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Read: social media) lectures me about the evils of consumerism, taking Christ out of Christmas, and the ever-earlier Christmas “season.” Often the question is simple: What are we really celebrating this time of year? But I would like to pose an accompanying question: Why are we policing Christmas?