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O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

Anybody remember Animaniacs, that cartoon that was on in the 90s? I was a big fan and still sometimes get lines from the show stuck in my head. I vividly remember watching one episode in particular (the episode itself I can barely recall, but I remember the experience of watching it). It involved an Indiana Jones-style quest to find the meaning of life. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old, but I remember knowing even then that this was the question. I sat riveted to the screen, convinced that at the end of the show, I was going to know what the meaning of life was. When they got to the end and couldn’t find the answer (or whatever happened), I was furious. My little agnostic self was desperate, even at ten, to know the meaning of life. I understood that if there wasn’t some objective answer to the question our existence poses, the whole thing was futile.

In retrospect, I suppose I’m glad that they didn’t give an answer. I was so hungry for truth, I’m sure I would have taken whatever nonsense Warner Brothers came up with as Gospel. My ten-year-old heart knew that there had to be something more than the mundane experience of life that seemed universal. Like everyone, I wanted to know that I mattered, that there was some purpose to my life, that there was some objective morality, and that ultimately–eternally–I could be happy.

This is a yearning common to all humanity. We see it reflected in the desperate attempt to capture beauty on canvas or pedestal. We find it in the longing for romantic love and the music that glorifies it. We recognize it in the adolescent need either to stand out or to blend in, the hunger for success, the human tendency toward self-obsession; even the rampant materialism the permeates our society shows that we’re empty and we know it. We are driven to find meaning and purpose, to be accepted, to be seen and known and loved just as we are. That is the desire of every human heart.

And in just three days, the Desired of all nations will come. God with us, our Creator who is the way, the truth, and the life.1 The divine lawgiver who shows us what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves.2 Christ our brother who makes us more than family.3 The Divine Word who knows everything we’ve ever done,4 never condemning but forgiving and encouraging us to sin no more.5 Love incarnate who, in spite of everything, loves us as his Father loves him.6 The Son of God who will welcome us on the last day into the joy prepared for us from the foundation of the world.7

Saint John Paul the Great put it so simply: “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life.”8 When you gorge yourself on comfort food, it is because you hunger for the Bread that satisfies. When you look desperately and indiscriminately for your next romantic relationship, you are seeking One who will complete you. Your drive to do better and be greater comes from the fact that you were made to be perfect and you long to hear him say, “Well done.” When you feel alone or abused or unloved or vulnerable it’s because your identity rests in yourself or others, not, as it should, in Him. Your heart is restless until it rests in Him.

From heaven he called and shouted, sending patriarchs, prophets, and psalmists, but his children–who were looking for him in every brothel or pagan temple or market–couldn’t hear his love thundering through creation. Since the dances of the stars weren’t enough, he sent one star. Since his words of love weren’t enough, he sent one Word.

And on that barren night in Bethlehem, the long-awaited Messiah came quietly into the world to whisper what he had been shouting since the earth was a formless wasteland:

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest9 because I love you.10 I do not condemn you11 but I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.12 I have told you this that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.13 And take heart,14 for no one will take your joy from you.15 I give you my peace.16 Do not worry,17 I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you18 for you are precious.19 Keep my commandments20 and abide in my love21 and I will come back for you so that you may always be with me.22

Everything you’ve ever wanted will be laid in a manger on Monday night. Every longing of your heart is drawing you to Jesus. Your soul wants to belong to the One by whom and for whom it was made. Let your restless heart be captivated by the newborn King who brings the meaning it craves. The Desired of nations, the meaning of life: Emmanuel, God with us. Maranatha.

Another brilliant piece by peggy aplSEEDS. You have GOT to click through to see how this Madonna and child is actually an illustration of the Jesse tree. Beautiful!

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

  1. Jn 14:6 []
  2. Mk 12:30-31. []
  3. Jn 13:34 []
  4. Jn 4:39 []
  5. Jn 8:11 []
  6. Jn 15:9 []
  7. Mt 25:21, 34 []
  8. Or, in greater detail, “It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.” []
  9. Mt 11:28 []
  10. Jn 15:9 []
  11. Jn 8:11 []
  12. Jn 10:10 []
  13. Jn 15:11 []
  14. Jn 16:33 []
  15. Jn 16:22 []
  16. Jn 14:27 []
  17. Lk 11:29 []
  18. Jn 14:18 []
  19. Lk 12:7 []
  20. Jn 14:15 []
  21. Jn 15:9 []
  22. Jn 14:3 []

O King of All the Nations

O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

The Church can learn a lot from the mall.

Wait, is there some kind of holiday coming up?1

If you’ve been in a mall in the past month, you know Christmas is coming. For that matter, if you’ve turned on the radio, been on the internet, or even driven through your neighborhood, you know. The world is preparing for the joy of Christmas. They’re consumed by it. And it may be more about consumption than it is about Christ, but the fact remains that the secular heart is often turned more towards Christmas during December than is the Christian heart.

As in so many things, our world gets a lot right by accident. Just like people know that marriage is important enough to merit an enormous celebration, they know that Christmas is a huge deal. And they get that it’s about joy–joy to the world and all that. Watch Elf and tell me the message isn’t that Christmas is all about joy and love.2

But why must Christmas be joyful? Is there something about evergreens indoors, colorful lights, and excessive consumerism that triggers a release of seratonin? Is it just because we give gifts and spend time with family? Or maybe the world is recognizing something real here: the only joy of every human heart.

Okay, who knows who painted this one? I love that they're flocking to him with an eagerness we rarely see outside of Black Friday and Justin Bieber concerts.
I love that they’re flocking to him with an eagerness we rarely see outside of Black Friday and Justin Bieber concerts.3

Christ is our joy, most especially at Christmas because this is the moment when his coming was declared to the world. For nine months, Mary kept the knowledge that God had come to save us in her heart, perhaps sharing it only with Joseph and Elizabeth. But at Christmas, the angels sang GLORIA and shepherds bowed their heads in worship, the lowest of men chosen to bear witness to the humility of God. The magi bent their knees before a no-name child in a no-name village in a no-name province. On Christmas, God who had come near cried from the rooftops that he was here for us.

And this is joy–because God loves you, my friend–not y’all, but you–so deeply, so desperately that while you were still in sin, he came for you. For 33 years, he breathed for you and sweated for you and endured taunts and bug bites and emotional teenage girls for you. For you he preached, for you he suffered, for you he died. But he rose for you, friend, and returned for you in the Eucharist. All for you–with joy, for you.

In this we rejoice–that the God of the universe, the creator of galaxies and molecules, the God who has no need of our praise, this God wanted you. Threw aside the 99 righteous sheep to scour the hillsides for you. This God glows with pleasure when he hears his name on your lips. The God whose ways are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth seriously does backflips when you go to confession.4

Can you imagine? Can you even begin to fathom what Christmas means? Unending love that will stop at nothing even though he knows every nasty corner of your soul. My God saw you filthy and cruel and awful and came running, shoving aside every obstacle, fighting Satan to the death and beyond, so that he himself could clean you and tend you and teach you and nurture you and endure further mockery and mistreatment at your hands. And he rejoices to do it.

This is what it means to be a Christian at Christmas. Pure, unbounded, awestruck joy.

This lady came out of the waters of rebirth screaming "Hallelujah!" Would that we all found such joy in Christ.
This lady came out of the waters of rebirth screaming “Hallelujah!” I think she lives in Singapore but I really want to be her friend.

I know there’s so little time left for cleaning and cooking and shopping and wrapping and all the other little things that we really must do in order to bring Christmas joy to those we love. But if you’re not overwhelmed by this joy I’m describing, do something about it. Watch The Nativity Story or put on some hardcore Christmas hymns a few days early or take a nap or go to adoration or go to confession5 or buy Christmas candy before it’s on sale and enjoy it early–I’m all about the suspense, but if you need a running start to leap up to “in excelsis” where the angels will finally be singing the Gloria on Monday evening, you have my official blogger permission to do what you have to do.

Because you can have the most perfect Jesse Tree in existence or know every verse to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by heart in Latin or wear liturgically appropriate colors all season6 and your Advent will be a failure if Christmas doesn’t find you exulting. Every last moment of his life was for you. Take a page from the Target ad and rejoice.

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!7

  1. via flickr []
  2. Or just watch it because it’s awesome. And seriously read that article. []
  3. Anybody know who painted this one? []
  4. No, I will not let up. Come on, every Catholic Church in the whole world–or at least a whole lot of them–has confession this morning or this afternoon. You can pick the time of your choice using www.masstimes.org. Just go! []
  5. Fun fact: it’s my goal in life to convince people to go to confession. []
  6. It me. []
  7. Really, I think both this and “O come, O come Emmanuel” go with tomorrow’s antiphon. But the best I can tell, the other is supposed to go with the”O Emmanuel,” so then there’s nothing left for today so…whatever. []

O Radiant Dawn

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

I knew a girl once who had been raised Catholic but had rejected the faith. At 20, she was pretty militantly anti-religion, although I don’t think I realized it until our small talk one day turned into something more.

She was asking me about my work, so I explained her that I was a high school religion teacher.

“Wait, so do you teach them all religions? Or do you just teach them yours?”

“Well, it’s a Catholic school,” I replied affably, “so I teach Catholicism.”

The look on her face was like I had told her that I drop kick babies for sport. “How can you do that? How can you force onto young minds the idea that your beliefs are right and everybody else’s are wrong?”

I was rather taken aback by this reaction–she really thought I was doing something evil when I tried to draw young hearts to Christ. I’ve had plenty of people think my attempts to evangelize were dumb or naïve but never cruel. So I didn’t have a pat answer at hand as I do with most of the challenges I get from non-Christians or non-Catholics. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is always on his game.

“What if you had a friend who didn’t like music?” I asked this music major.

“What do you mean ‘didn’t like music’? Who doesn’t like music?”

“This guy. He’s a friend of yours–a good friend–but he just doesn’t care for music. Any music at all.”

“That’s ridiculous! I mean, has he listened to Rachmaninov? Or the Beatles? Everybody likes some kind of music.”

There was a time when the foul, flat, nasal, tinny music from this book was the only thing that would get my nephew to stop screaming. We called it "Awful Book." Eventually we decided that the screaming was preferable.
There was a time when the foul, flat, nasal, tinny music from this book was the only thing that would get my nephew to stop screaming. We called it “Awful Book.” Eventually we decided that the screaming was preferable.

At this point, I’m wondering how on earth she hadn’t picked up on where I was going with this. But I kid you not–I might be fudging some details, but the trajectory of the conversation is 100% accurate.

“Actually,” I put forward, “he’s never really listened to any music. Or maybe he has, but it was all electronic stuff out of awful plastic toys. But he’s never experienced anything real, anything beautiful or moving or even catchy and pleasant. Could you be friends with him?”

“I guess I could,” she said, embracing the hypothetical. “But–I’d make him listen to music! I mean, how can he live without it? I can’t imagine life without music–it would be…worthless.”

“Because you love music that much? And it brings you that much joy, right? Not because he’s a stupid jerk for not loving music?”

“Of course not,” she said. “It’s not about being right. It’s about wanting to share something that makes me happy with someone I love.”

“Exactly.” I swear to you, she didn’t see where I was going until that moment. She started to object, but then stopped to think. I gave her a minute before continuing. “I don’t evangelize because I want to tell everybody they’re wrong and fix them so they can be like me. It’s about love. I’ve found something–someone–so beautiful that brings me so much joy. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t want to share it? I teach people about Christ and his Church because I love them and I want them to be happy.”

My music analogy didn’t convert her–as far as I know, she’s still not a Christian–but it got her thinking. And tonight, it’s got me thinking, too.

Why do I evangelize? Why do I live this crazy life? Because I know him in whom I have believed. But more than that–because once I didn’t.

Tie-dyed shirt tucked into high-waisted jeans with a watch looped around my belt loop while hanging on some boy and desperate for attention? Definitely a recipe for popularity.
Tie-dyed shirt tucked into high-waisted jeans with a watch threaded through my belt loop while hanging on some boy and desperate for attention? Definitely a recipe for popularity.

I was raised with Jesus, but I rejected him early on. I didn’t know him until I was 13. And I was miserable. Cry-my-eyes-out, wish-I-was-dead miserable. The only meaning I could find in life was getting other people to like me and I wasn’t very good at that. And so, from at least 3rd grade, I spent most of my life feeling sorry for myself and wondering why I bothered to get up in the morning.

But then–oh, friends–light. I had walked so long in darkness and when I found Christ, I found meaning and joy and purpose and hope and the world was new. I had to give up all of my favorite vices. I made myself a target for the people whose approval still meant so much to me. But, incredibly, I was happy. Today, I’m a homeless, unemployed nomad. I have no husband or children. I have nothing that this world says will make me happy, but I am. Deeply, irrevocably so. Despite my tendency to freak out and my propensity for making myself miserable, my life is built on Christ and his comfort gladdens my soul.

I’m going to speak for a moment to those of you who may be reading my blog, for whatever reason, who haven’t experienced this Radiant Dawn I’m so in love with. I get it. It’s hard to believe, hard to accept what you think you can’t see. Maybe Christianity is too demanding. Maybe you enjoy your life just as it is.

The Nativity, by Gustav Dore. In modern images, the light in the stable tends to come from the star. Traditionally, the light came from Christ, the true Light of the world.
The Nativity, by Gustav Dore. In modern images, the light in the stable tends to come from the star. Traditionally, the light came from Christ, the true Light of the world.

But for many of you, I think there’s a darkness. There’s an emptiness, a longing that you can’t quite seem to satisfy. Oh, maybe you’re okay right now–maybe your love for your family or your service to your community or your success or whatever has taken the edge off your hunger. But I think it will be fleeting. I think you know, like I did, that something’s missing.

Forgive me for being so forward, but I can’t help it. Whether I know you or not, I love you. I really do, and I want you to be happy. I want you to be at peace. Forget the fact that I’ve been intellectually convinced of the truth of the faith–I’ve found joy and love and hope and beauty and I can’t keep that to myself. I need you to know that he loves you and longs to draw you gently into the light of a life lived in joy and peace and love. I’ve been where you are. I wouldn’t go back. Not for anything.

For the rest of you, thank God that he has brought you out of darkness into his marvelous light. If you’re like me, consider who you were and praise the Lord that he’s brought you so far. If you’ve never felt that deep, terrible darkness of the shadow of death, praise the Lord for having claimed you even in your youth. Wherever you were, recognize that you’re not there yet.

This is what Advent is about–reflecting on the darkness dispelled by Christ and the darkness that remains. There are still many dark places in my life, deep crevices that I keep hidden from the light of Christ. But daily he pushes me, stretches me, and brings joy and peace even there.

If you don’t know him yet, maybe now’s the time to try.

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Here’s an early Christmas present for you:

Same outfit the next day only I swapped out my mom’s really old sweatpants for the jeans and tied an oh-so-chic sweatshirt (with a large teal sparkly spot made from puffy paint on the sleeve) around my waist. This left me with no belt loops from which to hang my watch.1 No problem! Just hang it from a chain around my neck and off I go with my mismatched socks to pose very awkwardly by a tractor. This was a day when I was hoping to make new friends.
  1. If only there were some way to attach one’s wristwatch to one’s wrist…. Seriously, what was wrong with me?? []

O Key of David

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

If Christ’s coming were merely an event in history, even with the ramifications it has on our collective salvation, we would celebrate it with relatively little fanfare. It might get an octave,1 but it wouldn’t merit an entire season of preparation and then a season of celebration.

Now, it was an event in history–God was made man out of love for us. This is no myth. But our celebration of the Nativity is so much more than a celebration of a historical event. It’s also a celebration of Christ’s advent into the life of each believer. When we pray for the walls of death to be broken down, it’s not some fanciful reflection on something that happened 2000 years ago, it’s a real and serious plea for freedom for you and me and everyone right now.

Hence Advent, a season of darkness that reminds us that we dwell in the shadow of death. We traipse through Ordinary Time blithely unaware of our sin, but this season that places before us a filthy stable awaiting the immaculate king makes us pause. “For me,” we think. “That I might have life.”

The Prisoner, by Mykola Yaroshen
The Prisoner, by Mykola Yaroshen

Because we’ve forgotten that we’re dead. We’ve painted the walls of our prison cell and turned up our music and gorged ourselves on the good food provided to placate our rebellious desire for virtue and we’ve forgotten that we were made for sunshine and joy and freedom and so much more than the prison we’ve made for ourselves by our sin. “I’m a good person,” I tell myself and ignore my temper or my laziness or my refusal to give God even ten minutes a day in prayer. And we might be good people by the world’s standards but Christ says, “Be perfect.”

It starts with a feeling. Unchecked, the feeling becomes an attitude. The attitude becomes an action and the action becomes a habit and the habit becomes a way of life and that innocuous little feeling has suddenly become a wall of vice and I didn’t even notice it! It might not be mortal sin but even venial sin, washed away by communion or contrition or even holy water, leaves a residue that only confession can remove. That residue builds and builds until we don’t recognize who we’ve become. And we who were freed from the prison of Original Sin by the blood of the spotless Lamb have built a new one of envy and lust and sloth.

via flickr
via flickr

So here we are, this fallen world bound by sin and walled in to a prison we entered freely. But Christ has come. He has taken on our flesh that he might bear our punishment and has won our freedom. He stands now and knocks at the door of your prison cell, keys in hand, longing to enter and break down those walls. He comes to wake you up to the misery of your captivity to sin and to lead you into the freedom of life in him.

God is a gentleman, though, and will not enter, will not save and heal and sanctify without permission. He stands and knocks and waits for you to invite him in, waits for you simply to speak the word so that he can set you free. This is his advent in your life right now: the restoration of a broken heart to a state of grace. The key to heaven rests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God’s gift to the fallen.

In this Sacrament, terrible sinners are justified, yes. But we who try so hard and generally do so well–we too are given grace to persevere. We too are bound by sin and freed by his mercy. We too are transformed and drawn from darkness into light. Don’t think that because you’re a “good person” you aren’t imprisoned. The Key of David has come to set you free. You have only to ask.

If you haven’t been to confession yet this Advent season,2 do it. Whether it’s been a month or 30 years, the time is now. Prepare your heart for the pure infant Jesus and receive the gift of new life.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

  1. It certainly would have in the old calendar. []
  2. Not to beat a dead horse, but this is really important. []

O Flower of Jesse’s Stem

O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

In this prayer, we begin with the right words, the words of adoration that seem to fit the occasion. We speak lovely, fitting, shallow, empty words when we approach the Lord. “Heavenly Father,” we say to a God who is our dictator or our servant, but never our Father. “Thank you, Lord,” we say, however bitter we may be at what the Lord has withheld. We’ve become so accustomed to lying to God–“Thy will be done”? Who really means that?

But then we stumble. It’s as though we are praying as we “ought” when our desperation breaks through with something real. We catch our breaths and repeat in earnest, “let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

There’s a longing in that stutter that expresses so perfectly what Advent is intended to be. We are overwhelmed by God’s majesty and goodness at condescending to be with us. We know all the right words about his glory and all that–but, oh! We just want him–we need him!

As Christmas draws near, the Church invites us to ache for Christ. She reminds us of the darkness of life before the Savior came near and asks us to allow all our brokenness and emptiness and need to well up in our hearts and to cry out, “Come, Lord. Oh, please, please come!”

Not a tame lion

I’m not sure I can make sense of the longing and tenderness and desperation and awe and sorrow that I feel except to say that it’s quite the same way I feel about Aslan. When I read the Chronicles of Narnia,1 I need him. And when he comes I’m thrilled and I want to run to him and bury my hands in his mane but I know I have to hold back, because while he is entrancing, he’s also terrifying. And his voice thrills and comforts and challenges. I’m afraid to look into his eyes because I know I’ll see myself as I truly am, not as I pretend to be; but I know that while I’ll see myself I’ll also see how deeply he loves me and I’ll be able to bear it. Truly, I love Jesus so much the more because I loved Aslan first.

When I think of the coming Christ this way, I begin to believe that, like Hwin, I’d suffer anything for him.1 Like Eustace, I’d submit to any pain at his hands. Like Reepicheep, I’d go to the ends of the earth for the glory of his name. It’s just that–when I’m in Narnia–oh, I ache for him!

By another name

This is what Advent is supposed to do–just exactly what Lewis does when he tells us “Aslan’s on the move.” When you read that line–if you love these books as I do–you almost feel for your sword before you remember that you haven’t got one and you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you did. You’re thrilled and terrified and ready and the only thing that matters is his coming.

I suppose it comes down to this–I would give everything to be breathed on by Aslan, to have him whisper in my ear and call me “Dear heart” as he does Lucy. Do I give everything to come near to Christ? When I let myself long for Aslan and then direct that longing to Christ, suddenly it’s all so real. Suddenly I’m past the nonsense of fancy ideas and just filled with a longing to be his. Suddenly I cry out, “Come–let nothing keep you from coming to my aid!”

You know what? Never mind. Just go read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and try to feel about Jesus the way you feel about Aslan. That’s why Lewis wrote them, after all.

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

  1. “Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.” []

O Sacred Lord of Ancient Israel

O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

Sébastien Bourdon, Burning Bush
Sébastien Bourdon, Burning Bush

These last days before Christmas, I’m just ready to hold sweet baby Jesus in my arms. I’ve longed and ached for him all of Advent and I want to hold his tiny baby body and kiss his soft baby head. And just as the baby-lover in me threatens to take over, leaving me with images of snuggling a baby that have little to do with the majesty of the Incarnation, this antiphon drops by to remind me that he is so much more than just a sweet baby, that this is so much more than just a birth.

There is in Christmas the somber promise of Good Friday. There is in the joy of the Nativity the suffering foretold by the myrrh of the Magi, the anguish of the Innocents slaughtered as the Christ child is spirited away. The wood of the manger is the wood of the Cross, and this child raised by a carpenter will hear daily the echo of the nails that will bind him to his death. The freedom we are promised by the Lord of Israel is given us by the blood of the Lamb.

There’s a reason Christ was born in the dead of night, a reason we celebrate his birth in a time of barren coldness.1 Certainly, we see that his coming brings us into greater light. But I think we also need his coming to be surrounded by quiet and darkness and just a little bit of fear. It would feel wrong to celebrate in July, remembering with cookouts and fireworks our king born to die. In winter, our joy is tempered by the chill. We sing “Joy to the World,” indeed, but also weep for the day, coming too soon, when the world will mourn. The best Christmas carols remind us of the purpose of the Christ child:

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Today’s appeal to the God of Exodus carries the weight of wonder, the awe and fear that surrounded any encounter with this Lord of plagues and sacrifices and walls of water. It is this Christ whom we worship, sweet and silent in his mother’s arms. The God made man to save us is the God before whom Moses cowered in fear. The freedom he wins for us is bought at a terrible price.

Jesus manger lambs

Do we greet this child with smiles and stockings and move on, pleased to have celebrated family and love? Or do we fall on our knees before the God born to die? Advent calls us not only to prepare for the joy of the incarnation but to repent, to recognize the gravity, the horror of a God who offers himself as a sacrifice in our stead.

In his infancy, he was given myrrh to anoint his beaten body when at last his life came to fruition. Offer him, friends, the myrrh of repentance. Anoint his tiny body, formed so perfectly to suffer so terribly, with the balm of your prayers, your acts of charity, but most especially your sins offered at the foot of his cradle, the foot of his cross. If you haven’t yet been to confession this Advent, humble yourself before the God of Israel who merits all honor yet stoops to kiss your feet. Give him the gift of your wretched, sinful heart and let him return it to you whole and new.

Oh, come, oh, come, great Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

  1. Unless you’re south of the equator, in which case, hi!! []

O Wisdom

From December 17-23, Christians are in a time of eager anticipation. The intentional expectancy becomes intense as we enter the octave before the birth of our Lord. We throw aside the normal prayers for particular prayers that show our hope, our trust, our longing for the Christ child. Each evening, the antiphon preceding the Magnificat in Evening Prayer proclaims one of the ancient titles of the Messiah, giving us the text of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and excellent fodder for meditation. This week I’ll be sharing a meditation on each day’s antiphon to help us all enter more deeply into this last week of Advent.

O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.

The God who is coming into our midst is the God of all creation, the wisdom of the Father by whom and through whom and for whom all things were made. And yet, with all his power, he chooses weakness for love of us. The God who could announce his presence with thunder and trumpets and booming words from heaven speaks instead in shepherds’ voices. This God who could force us to love him invites instead. He speaks tenderly to our hearts, beckoning, begging, but never compelling.

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This is wisdom: the God of power and might becomes an infant. Because he couldn’t forbid suffering without impairing our freedom, he chose to suffer with us. St. Augustine reminds us, “God had one son on earth without sin but never one without suffering.” Too strong to be defeated by death, he was yet tender enough to die. Too strong to abandon us in our sin, he was yet tender enough to allow us to reject him. God in his wisdom is everything we need–just enough and never too much. He woos us as far as we will come and then mourns as we choose ourselves over him. In his wisdom he leaves us free, though we might prefer to be enslaved but happy rather than free in the misery of sin.

And when he shows us the way to salvation, he doesn’t call from afar or point the way through peril and misery. He walks with us, shoring us up by his strength and tenderly wiping away our weary tears. He asks of us nothing that he hasn’t himself done or suffered or been subjected to. When we are hurt, we find his pierced hands lifting us up. When we are rejected, his pierced brow speaks of his betrayal. When we are lonely, we hear the echo of “My God, my God.”

This is the wisdom of the incarnation: the foolishness of the Cross. This is what we long for in Advent: not merely the coming of the Christ child in the liturgy but the coming into our hearts of him who breaks down the walls we’ve built and gently smooths our rough edges.

What tender strength. What wisdom. Come, Lord Jesus.

O, come, O Wisdom from on high,
Who orders all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Advent Boot Camp 2018

I put out an Advent Boot Camp four years ago and the response was great, so it’s become an annual thing. Just a little tweaking since Christmas isn’t always the same day of the week. Read the intro here or just dive right in and prepare for the Spirit to pump you up.1

This “Advent Boot Camp” is a guideline, not a foolproof plan. Feel free to substitute anything. What’s essential is that you’re spending time in silent prayer–not just prayer but silent prayer–and that you’re easing into it.

Each day’s prayer starts with a 5 minute warmup. It’s hard just to snap from all the noise of the world into prayer, so take some time to slow down, talk to the Lord about what’s weighing on you, and get quiet. Then see what God has to say to you through his Word, his Saints, and the prayers of his Church. Finally, spend some good time in silence, either processing what you’ve read, talking to God, or trying to be still in his presence. If your prayer life has consisted solely of grace before meals and Mass on Sunday, this might be tough. But it will get easier. And what better time to seek silence than in the mad bustle leading up to Christmas?

Advent boot campWeek 1: Begin each day with 5 minutes of prayer, make one chapel visit

  • Day 1: 5 minute warmup; Isaiah 40; 5 minutes silence
  • Day 2: 5 minute warmup; Isaiah 9:1-6; one decade of the rosary, 5 minutes silence
  • Day 3: 5 minute warmup; Luke 1:26-38; 10 minutes silence
  • Day 4: 5 minute warmup; Catechism 522-526; one decade of the rosary; 5 minutes silence
  • Day 5: 15 minutes of prayer: your choice
  • Day 6: 5 minute warmup; “In the Bleak Midwinter”; 1 John 4; 5 minutes silence
  • Day 7: 5 minute warmup; the Office of Readings2; 10 minutes silence

Week 2: Begin and end each day with 5 minutes of prayer, attend one extra Mass

  • Day 8: 5 minute warmup; Isaiah 11; two decades of the rosary; 5 minutes silence
  • Day 9: 5 minute warmup; Luke 2:1-21; one decade of the rosary; 10 minutes silence
  • Day 10: 20 minutes of prayer: your choice
  • Day 11:5 minute warmup; reading from St. Bernard of Clairvaux; 10 minutes silence
  • Day 12: 5 minute warmup; 15 minutes journaling on why you need the incarnation; 5 minutes silence
  • Day 13: 5 minute warmup; Stations of the Cross
  • Day 14: 5 minute warmup; make a good examination of conscience, asking God to cast light into all the areas of sin in your life and to make you truly repentant and grateful for his love and mercy; go to confession; 15 minutes silence

Week 3: Begin and end each day with 5 minutes of prayer, attend two extra Masses

  • Day 15: 5 minute warmup; John 1:1-18; reading from St. Gregory Nazianzen; 10 minutes silence
  • Day 16: 25 minutes of prayer: your choice
  • Day 17: 5 minute warmup; “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; 15 minutes silence
  • Day 18: 5 minute warmup; Isaiah 61-62; 15 minutes silence
  • Day 19: 5 minute warmup; full rosary (joyful mysteries); 5 minutes silence
  • Day 20: 5 minute warmup; memorize Isaiah 9:5 (“A child is born to us…”); 10 minutes silence
  • Day 21: 5 minute warmup; Isaiah 35; reading from St. Augustine; 20 minutes silence

Week 4: Begin and end each day with 5 minutes of prayer

I’ve compiled the non-Biblical readings here if you want to print them in advance: Advent Boot Camp readings

This is going to max you out at 30-35 minutes of prayer at one time. If you feel like you can do more than that, go for it. If you’re a beginner when it comes to non-liturgical prayer, though, this might be a good way to get started. Whether you’re interested in this approach or not, do spend some time praying about how you’re going to try to grow closer to the Lord this Advent. But don’t stress about it–it’s supposed to be a time of preparation and peace, not frantic anxiety, despite what the mall might do to you this time of year. You might consider starting to read the Bible through in a year using this schedule. Or read Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God. Just be sure you do something more than bake and shop to prepare for Christmas this year. The Christ Child is coming, after all. Offer him your heart.

  1. Ten points if you read that in your Hans and Franz voice. []
  2. Click “Office of Readings” on the left side of the page []

Our Lady of Victims and Survivors

I never understood that line you hear so often from Catholics trying to defend their relationship with Mary, that matter-of-fact way they would say, “You go to Mary when you can’t go to Jesus.”

Why on earth could you not go to Jesus? I wondered, baffled by a theology that seemed to make Mary the gatekeeper to Jesus, himself the one mediator between God and man. Surely there was something wrong with a faith that made God-made-man seem inaccessible, something wrong with a Christian who viewed Jesus as someone too far away to approach. I never understood.

I understand it now.

I understand that a man who has been raped by a priest might not be able to seek intimacy with Jesus, the Great High Priest. I understand that thousands of children have grown into adults who are desperately grasping at the faith of their youth but cringe when they hear the word, “Father.” I understand that they might not be able to approach the throne of the Father, to climb up into his lap and be anything other than terrified there.

So Jesus gave us his mother. For such a time as this and for every other need in every other era, he gave us his mother. Because he knew, as he hung on the Cross pouring out his blood for our salvation, that men who bore his name would terrorize the flock for which he laid down his life. He knew that his broken children would be too afraid of them to come to him. He knew about PTSD. He knew that millions of fathers down through the years—spiritual fathers and physical fathers—would be so unworthy of the name that they would build walls between their children and the Father, walls built with mortar mixed of blood and tears.

So he gave us his mother. Not because we would be unworthy to approach him but because so many of us would be afraid and broken. He sent his sorrowing mother, her eyes streaming with tears for the sins of the shepherds, to hold and comfort her children and slowly—slowly—lead them back to him.

He gave us his mother as model and intercessor and mother and queen, to rejoice with us and pray for us and show us how to love. But he also gave her so that when Holy Mother Church seems to be more akin to the wicked stepmother of stories unfit for children, we would have a mother’s arms to return to. Mary, Mother of the Church, sees the Church’s flaws, horrific as some of them are. And as the Church’s mother, Mary rebukes her. As the mother of sinners, she rebukes them. As the mother of priests, she rebukes them.

But she also comforts. She comforts the Church, the sinners, the priests. She comforts survivors. She comforts good priests striving to remain faithful. She comforts the millions who are shaken by the newest wave of revelations about wolves in shepherds’ clothing, whispering tenderly, fiercely, “Your priest betrayed you. Your bishop betrayed you. But your God did not betray you. In all your suffering, he was suffering alongside. He weeps for you as I weep for you. You are not alone. You are loved.”

She speaks now as she did to St. Juan Diego on Tepeyac: “Listen and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son. Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Jesus is your Savior, the Bridegroom who laid down his life for you. He wants nothing more than for you to know him in a personal, intimate way and to spend eternity with him. But he understands that right now you might not be ready for intimacy. You might not be ready for a bridegroom. You might not be ready for a man at all. So he sent his mother.

Mary always leads us back to Jesus. If you’re too angry or wounded to turn to Jesus right now, he understands. He gave you his mother to speak his love for as long as you need until you’re ready to let him back in. If you can’t go to Jesus, go to Mary. She’ll lead you home.

Jacopo di Cione, Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, with St Louis of Toulouse and a female donor

 

A Letter to My Bishop

Friends, I’ve been praying and thinking quite a lot about what I actually want our bishops to do. I thought I’d share my thoughts with you. I’ll be mailing them to my bishop (and, in some form, to several other bishops). Feel free to adapt my words and use them in your own letter-writing, or to find excellent templates at The Siena Project. Your bishop’s address can be found here.

Your Excellency,

 

You know why I’m writing. It’s the same reason everybody’s been writing. Priests abused children and adults, bishops coerced seminarians into unspeakable acts, and everybody seemed to know. And nobody seemed to care.

I don’t know what you knew. Perhaps your conscience is entirely clear. Perhaps you removed every abusive priest from ministry, chastised and reported abusive and negligent bishops, and wrote the Holy Father when you heard rumors. Perhaps you have been an exemplary priest and a saintly bishop. If so, I thank you. With fierce, desperate gratitude, I thank you.

But perhaps not. If you have been a part of this vile infection plaguing our church, even just through looking the other way, I beg you to confess your sins–not only sacramentally but publicly. You may be judged harshly by those you failed to shepherd; you will be judged more harshly by the Shepherd who appointed you if you continue to abandon your flock.

I can’t know which is the case, but I choose to believe you are who you say you are: a lover of God and servant of his people. And I’m sure that you feel lost and confused and exhausted right now. Believe me, I’m praying for you. Your PR department recommends polished statements and your people demand that heads roll, regardless of whether or not the possessors of those heads have been proven guilty. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be a bishop right now. And perhaps more demands from your people just add to that weight. But in the hope that you are genuinely seeking to bring healing to this broken Church, I’d like to offer some suggestions of practical things to do right now–this week. Come November, I’ll have more thoughts about what the USCCB as a whole ought to do. But today, I offer these thoughts for your prayerful consideration:

  1. Begin by inviting a full investigation by the state’s attorney general and encourage all other bishops to do the same. Open all the files, whatever they contain. All of this will come out in the next ten years–if we deal with it all at once, the Church in America may survive. If we drag it out, we continue to torment survivors, endanger children, and abdicate any moral authority we still retain. The condemnation of wicked men could never cause such scandal as our secrecy has.
  2. Work to extend statutes of limitations such that justice can be wrought in this world as well as the next.
  3. Meet personally with survivors and their families. Meet on their terms: where they want, when they want, with whom they want. Allow media if they prefer, but do not make this a photo opp.
  4. Host town hall meetings throughout the diocese. Listen. Apologize. Don’t defend.
  5. Publicly ask the Holy Father to invite an investigation of what Vatican officials (including the Holy Father) knew about McCarrick and when. We have had enough of silence. Now is a time for fathers to answer their confused and frightened children, not to stand by impassively as the family self-destructs. I do not want Pope Francis to resign. I want him to lead the way in transparency and (if necessary) repentance.
  6. Establish a policy of surveying seminarians semi-annually about their experience of and concerns about seminary life. Visiting the seminaries you send your men to is essential, though it alone is not enough. Make it clear that those reporting sexual misconduct or the abuse of authority will always be granted a meeting directly with you. Their concerns will not go unheard.
  7. Commit yourself personally to public acts of penance and reparation. Bishop Reed in Boston has taken the lead on this, engaging in an act of prayer and fasting that has stunned the Catholic world. Ask the Lord how you can take a stand, showing survivors and all the wounded faithful that you will fight for us, that you will sacrifice yourself for love of Christ and for love of us.
  8. Call on the clergy of your diocese to return to the practice of Friday abstinence. Encourage them to undertake other acts of penance and reparation on behalf of their fallen brother priests and for the healing of the Church. Remind them that they became priests for the salvation of souls and that no good thing comes without effort. The demons attacking our church will be cast out only through prayer and fasting.
  9. Exhort all priests of the diocese to offer a Mass of Reparation every Friday between now and Christmas. (The Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Cross and the Feast of All Souls are, of course, universal feasts that cannot be replaced by votive Masses, though both are particularly connected to this cause as well. It is, I believe, in your power to remove all obstacles to celebrating a Mass of Reparation for every other Friday between now and Christmas.)
  10. Ask every parish to recite the St. Michael prayer following each Mass (before the closing hymn on Sundays) for the purification of the Church and her protection from all evil influences.
  11. Continue preaching on this and asking your clergy to do the same. Not every homily needs to be an apology on behalf of the clergy, but too many Catholics have heard nothing at all and feel abandoned. Just mention that this is a hard time in the Church, that you’re sorry for those who have suffered, and that Jesus loves us in our pain–we just need to know that you aren’t pretending that this is business as usual.
  12. Finally, Your Excellency, if there is anything at all in your past that, if exposed, would force you to resign, skip the drama. Resign now. Tell us everything and retire to a life of penance. Owning up to your sins, begging forgiveness, and doing public penance may just get you canonized one day. Diverting blame and keeping your head down may earn you a place in hell. Catholics are in the habit of forgiving repentant sinners. This isn’t a hard choice.

You will, I hope, forgive my forwardness. But my Church is under attack and you, Excellency, have been clothed in armor and given a sword to defend her. I may pray and fast (and I do), I may call for reform, I may stand before thousands and point them back to Christ in the midst of this chaos they long to run from, but only you can be our shepherd.

Thank you for the gift of your priesthood and for the courage and wisdom with which you lead our local Church. I pledge to pray for you daily by name as you seek to be faithful in carrying out the work of the Spirit.

Yours in Christ through Mary,

Meg Hunter-Kilmer