There is such a stark contrast when the Christmas season ends. The twinkling lights in the neighborhood have gone dark and trees left for recycling sit on driveways awaiting pick-up. In my parish, the poinsettias, crèche, and Advent wreath have disappeared. It’s all a reminder of entering Ordinary Time.
This time of year the season of Ordinary Time can be fairly short, depending on the end of the Christmas cycle and onset of Lent. The longer period comes after Pentecost and lasts until the first Sunday in Advent. In some ways, the term “ordinary” is unfortunate as it seems to imply that nothing extraordinary is or can happen during these weeks. The intent of the term is different, however. Derived from the word “ordinal”, meaning to count, it refers to the ordering of Sundays. The Lectionary readings focus on the ministry and teachings of Jesus, mostly from the synoptic Gospel of that particular liturgical cycle. Reading the Gospels and allowing them to touch our hearts is anything but “ordinary.”
In his book, Music of Silence, Brother David Steindl-Rast points out the origin of the word “season” and how it comes from a Latin root meaning “to sow.” Thus the seasons in a spiritual sense are times to sow something within our hearts. It’s rare that a season starts or ends on an assigned day, however. Winter, for example, arrived a whole lot earlier in most parts of the country than the day of the solstice. The best way to approach the seasons is as “qualitative experiences”, Steindl-Rast writes. “We sense a subtle difference in the quality of light, the length of daylight, the feel of the air on our skin. We know intuitively that something is happening in nature.” Viewed in this way, the season becomes a time for attentiveness to the world around us – the incremental accumulation of light each day or the beauty of a bare tree silhouetted against the sky. Given this, I am striving to pay attention to the grace of simplicity during this season. Doing so makes it not-so ordinary time.
Find ways to turn ordinary time into extraordinary time and other ideas for the season and share them with your class or family.
Celebrate the season of Ordinary Time with Psalm Reflections for January and share it in your home or parish.
I wish I had listened more to my grandmother. She died when I was nineteen and she was well into her nineties. By then she had ceased most of her storytelling and was content just to sit quietly, enjoying the chaos of our large family gatherings. As a child I recall spending nights with her in her apartment. My mother felt it would provide company for her after my grandfather died. In truth, I was much more interested in exploring the high-rise where she lived than in being much of a companion. She used to take me upstairs to the restaurant on the top floor. While waiting for our food to arrive, she would point out places in Denver where she lived and went to school. My ears did perk up when she mentioned her neighbor, Margaret Brown. At the time, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was debuting in theaters and so the fact that my grandmother knew the real character was fascinating. I learned that she was nothing like the movie portrayal. “She was a lady,” my grandmother insisted. “She never would have danced on tabletops!”
I suppose we all have regrets about the stories we didn’t hear – from parents as well as grandparents. I wish I had asked Grannanny more about her life in early Denver. Her family crossed the country in a covered wagon so she knew about the pioneer spirit. During her lifetime she witnessed the invention of the automobile, the jetliner and the first flights into space. I would give anything to hear her account of what it was like to see her three sons go off to war or how she handled the loss of two babies through miscarriage. Mostly, I would like to know how she would advise me to age with grace the way she did.
Perhaps the loss of these opportunities has made me more attuned to the lovely way in which I see grandparents relating to their grandchildren. Thanks to Skype and email, many stay in touch even though they are miles apart. Just last night a proud grandmother showed me photos on her cell phone of her three grandchildren in South Africa. They had just completed a puzzle and were anxious to show her the results.
Not long ago, I facilitated a workshop on family and asked the group to identify a model of faith. Not surprisingly, many of them named a grandparent. They went on to say that it wasn’t what their grandparent told them, necessarily, but how they lived their lives with dignity, compassion, and good humor. While I can’t go back and reclaim any lost time with my grandmother, I can derive hope and encouragement from her lifelong faith and her gentle manner. Perhaps as I age, I will learn, like her, to talk less and enjoy the life around me more. It is one of her many gifts to me.
Read about Saints Anna and Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus, and download activities for your class or group.
Share a Prayer for Grandparents with your family or class as a way to celebrate their many gifts.
“Depending on where you live, this is either the longest or the shortest night of the year.” This is what Father Richard Rohr wrote in his daily reflection about the recent winter solstice. Being a resident of the northern hemisphere, I have been aware these past several months of the gathering darkness and how the coming of the winter solstice has turned the process back towards the light. While I welcome mornings in which I will be able to rise as dawn is breaking, I will also miss the comforting envelope of stillness the dark mornings bring. My appreciation of winter’s lengthy nights is further enhanced by reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. In eloquent language, Taylor explores the beauty of starry skies and moonlit nights. In one sobering chapter, she describes the damaging effects of light pollution and how the continual glare of cityscapes disorients migrating species and the ever-present glow of electronic devices is disrupting our circadian rhythms. The latter, she notes, is not just essential for a good night’s sleep. It also “…affects everything from our body chemistry to our relationships.”
Taylor also notes that, while darkness is portrayed in the Bible in mostly negative fashion, there is another side to it. Abraham, for example, is led outside and told by God to look at the stars in order to visualize the number of descendants with which he will be blessed. The voice of God speaking the Commandments on Mount Horeb comes out of “deep darkness” (2Deutonomy). And in the story of Creation, God separates the light from darkness and proclaims both of them “good.” (Genesis 1:18) Each reference seems to invite us further into mystery, something much more recognizable in the dark than the light.
One of my favorite childhood memories is playing a nighttime game with my best friend, Stephanie. We loved to create mysteries for one another, each involving a trail of clues that led out of the house and into our mothers’ gardens. One time we ended up on her roof where we sat for a while entranced by the light of a full moon. It may have been my first taste of “lunar spirituality” – that lovely sense of being enveloped in the mystery of the night. In such a space we experience not the harsh glare of direct sunlight, but the reflective glow of moonlight, a glimpse of Someone much more luminous than we can fully imagine.
Follow the seasons of this new liturgical year and find the weekly readings with downloadable activities for your class or group.
Share a Prayer for the Winter Solstice with your family or class as a way to develop your own sense of “lunar spirituality”.
Setting up the crèche is a beloved tradition in both homes and parishes. I have seen a number of beautiful Nativity sets over the years. Many of them reflect cultural traditions and customs, thus making the little tableau both accessible and universal. The origin of the crèche is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi who, in order to both accommodate an overflow crowd in the small town of Greccio, moved the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve outdoors. He set up a manger, filled it with hay and brought two live animals to bring the scene to life. According to Saint Bonaventure he “then … preached to the people about the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter his name for the tenderness of his love, he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.” (The Life of Saint Francis, X.7.) Saint Bonaventure gives no indication that there were other figures in this early crèche so the appearance of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, along with shepherds and the Magi, gradually took their places as Nativity sets became more widely used.
Most crèches are based on the Infancy Narrative found in Luke’s Gospel. He portrays the Holy Family in humble fashion by describing how, with no room in the inn, they were given shelter where animals were housed. Thus, the infant Jesus is wrapped in “bands of cloth” and laid in a manger, a feeding trough. Biblical scholar and author Stephen Binz notes that the sheltering place was actually one of the many caves that pitted the hills around Bethlehem. It’s far from the cozy depiction in the Nativity sets under our Christmas trees. Binz goes on to note the horrible conditions which were “…more like giving birth in some abandoned hovel of an urban alleyway today.” (Jesus, the Compassionated Savior, Part 1: Luke)
The Flight into Egypt as described in Matthew’s Gospel, places the Holy Family not in a cave with animals and a manger, but fleeing for safety from the terrors of King Herod’s death squads. As such, they share the plight of a huge number of families today. According to the United Nations, there were 16.7 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2013. It’s a staggering number that includes those fleeing from war-ravaged countries as well as the scourge of poverty, hunger, and disease.
Both Scripture accounts offer a way to use our crèches for reflection as well as decoration. Luke’s setting in Bethlehem invites us to consider how Jesus was born not only into humble but also into impoverished circumstances. Matthew’s portrayal of refugees seeking safety in a far-off land reminds us of the plight of so many people who leave all they know behind in order to seek some semblance of security. Like Saint Francis, such meditations might move us to greater love for the “Babe of Bethlehem” and the hope he brings to a world in need of his light and love.
The “O Antiphons” begin today. This beautiful tradition of prayer that marks the Octave of Christmas is a good way to reflect on the coming of Christ during this sacred season. Download reflections to use in your home or parish.
Share a Prayer for the Placing of a Crèche Prayer Card with your family or class as a way to deepen your love for Christ.
Have you noticed the newest warning in theaters these days? In addition to the reminders to turn off cell phones and cease conversation, moviegoers are also asked to stop text messaging during the film. It is probably "old-fogey-ness," but I confess to being stymied by the desire to send a text message during a movie. Is it really that hard to refrain from chatting for a couple of hours?
This may be hitting me more forcefully than usual because it is Advent. I love this season in a particular way for the sounds I associate with it, especially the music. For several years, I have attended a service of Lights, Lessons, and Carols at a nearby Jesuit university. It includes Scripture readings interspersed with song. The “lessons” are about Mary and her encounter with the angel Gabriel, the visit with her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, and the starlit night of Jesus' birth. When we rise to sing carols like "Silent Night," I am moved beyond words by the beauty created by both mood and music. Is there any other time of year in which we harmonize so well?
A few years ago I directed a women's retreat on the power of words to either hurt or heal us. In the course of the retreat, I noted how advertisements, emails, and up-to-the-minute news batter us each day with words that don't matter. By some estimates, forty percent of our landfills contain cast-off words in the form of discarded magazines, newspapers, and junk mail. In the midst of it all, we long for a few words that matter. Thus we do well to pay close attention to the voice of the ancient prophet warning of the transitory nature of all life. “All flesh is grass… The grass withers, the flower wilts, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:6, 8) During this sacred season, we wait in hushed anticipation for that Word which matters above all others.
The late Henri Nouwen wrote about the still, silent voice of God who speaks to us of blessing and hope. The words we thus need to hear arise from a place of deep silence and then, once heard, return there. There is no way to heed them if we are talking all the time. Listening in the way of Mary, we will find the words we most need nestled deep within our hearts.
At the end of the women’s retreat I posed a question: If each of us had only one more word to say, what would it be? The responses fit perfectly into Advent’s quiet beauty: peace, hope, joy, thanks, love, wonder, blessing. They reverberate in the songs we sing and the stories we tell - of holy nights and peace on earth, goodwill to all. If we do send someone a message - text or otherwise - perhaps we can, in the spirit of the season, keep it short, simple, and resonant with the sounds of this sacred season. Let it contain words that matter.
Use the readings for each week of Advent to help deepen your experience of this sacred season. Download activities to use in your home or parish as a way to break open the Word each week.
Share a Prayer for Advent Grace Prayer Card with your family or class and let it lead you into the quiet beauty of this sacred season.
Sadlier offers whole community seasonal events that can be used with the entire parish community or all the students in a school community or religious education program. The Christmas season is a wonderful time to gather the whole community together for a celebration.
Each Gather In My Name event offers a variety of activities. These Christmas handouts can be used if you are implementing the full Christmas Gather In My Name event in your parish or school, or as a standalone activity for students and their families.
Download all of the Christmas event handouts and access event details!
“Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”Luke 6:38
Several years ago, our son, Eric, gave us a great gift. After growing increasingly frustrated with holiday shopping, he told us he was bowing out of the Christmas gift business. He gave us a list of charities in which to donate the money we would have spent on his gifts and asked us to provide the same for him. In short, he gave us the gift of non-gifting!
We shared the idea with our daughter, Anna. Being in in a state of transition, she certainly didn’t want or need more stuff to haul around so she, too, endorsed the idea. We have kept it up all these years, deciding together on a donation that will serve those in need because of natural disasters or other calamities, or simply because of our collective concern about poverty, disease, or environmental conservation. Thus, we gave one year to an organization serving those who had suffered the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and another year to the victims of the floods in Colorado. This year, I suspect our dollars will go to those aiding victims of the Ebola virus.
In truth, there was great relief in bowing out of the exchange of presents. No more mall crawls or Black Fridays. No more fretting over finding the right present or one that, at least, won’t require the hassle of an exchange. Granted, our family is small and we have no little children to consider. Even so, giving to others who are truly in need rather than a bunch of stuff to one another seems fitting for a season focused on the great gift of love embodied in the person of Jesus. We each donate to charitable organizations throughout the year, but doing so in concert with one another brings a particular sense of joy. I am proud of the way in which my children consider so seriously the concerns of those in need, and delight in the conversation that ensues around the charity of choice for the year. Together we have become even more aware of our abundance and the simple gift of giving to others. What we have received in return is a gift beyond measure.
Saint Katherine Drexel inherited a large fortune and gave it all away in order to help others, particularly Native Americans and African Americans, improve their lives through education. Read about her story and download activities for your class or family.
Download a Prayer for Christmas Giving and share it in your home or parish.
The candy cane is a treat often associated with Saint Nicholas, the patron and protector of children. The crook symbolizes the gentle image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Celebrate Saint Nicholas Day with a blessing and sharing of candy canes!
Download the Saint Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes Prayer Card now.
My favorite season of the year is approaching. Setting out familiar symbols puts me in the mood for a time of joyous expectation. Advent is about to begin.
Years ago I started a practice of beginning each day in Advent with natural light. Since I generally rise an hour or so before dawn, this means making my way downstairs in the dark and fumbling around for a fire starter. Then I light a candle on the Advent wreath. Its warm glow illuminates the room and creates a mood that lingers well into the morning. As the weeks wear on, the light accumulates as more candles are lit. All of it culminates with the bright feast of Christmas.
This Advent I am offering a retreat on the Infancy Narratives, so I have been immersed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each provides an entirely different picture of that long-ago time. Luke’s portrait includes angels proclaiming astounding news to a young maiden and to shepherds in a field. It is filled with wonder, light, and exclamations of praise from expectants parents, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zacharias. Matthew paints his story with darker hues. Joseph takes center stage as he is awoken from sleep to be told where to go and what to do in order to take his part in this mysterious story of redemption. Herod’s bloody rampage is shocking even by today’s standards of violence and brings into focus the dangerous times into which Jesus was born.
John’s Gospel begins in different fashion. There is no manger scene, shepherds or wise men following a midnight star. In place of an infancy narrative there is an ancient song extolling Jesus as the incarnate Word of God and light of humanity. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4). Perhaps it is this image that brings such comfort as I ignite the Advent wreath in the early morning darkness. It reminds me of the light that Jesus brings in the midst of all distress and despair, agony and anxiety, confusion and chaos. The great mystic, Julian of Norwich, wrote about a vision of God telling her all would be well. This was not a promise of a life without labors, disquiet, or troubles. Rather, God told her, “You will not be overcome” (Showings, 315). Advent’s light is a beacon of hope and a call to trust in the presence of Christ’s love shining in the midst of our darkest days.
Download Prayer for Lighting the Advent Wreath Prayer Card to use at home or in your parish.
A 90-year-old man was arrested recently in Fort Lauderdale. His crime: feeding the homeless. It sounds like a joke, but it’s altogether true. The town passed an ordinance restricting the feeding of homeless people in public areas. Fort Lauderdale is not the only community with such laws. As cities and towns grapple with ways to safeguard neighborhoods, such restrictions are becoming more commonplace.
One argument in favor of these laws is that feeding the homeless only creates a further state of dependency. The practice might also serve as a panacea for those who would rather not look more deeply into the systemic causes of homelessness and other forms of poverty. This makes such measures a call for justice rather than charity.
As Christians, this isn’t an either-or question; it’s both-and. While the search for solutions to homelessness must be part of our response, charity cannot be put aside. The Gospels are crystal-clear on this matter. The words of Jesus about the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) describe the importance of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothes to the needy, and welcome to stranger and the prisoner. No talk of long-range studies; simply extending a hand to those in need. The great scholar and teacher, Saint John Bellarmine, put it this way: “On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.”
I don’t think Jesus or John Bellarmine would argue with the need for systemic solutions to the pain of poverty and homelessness. In the meantime, however, the way in which we reach out to one another with a plate of food, glass of water, or comforting words still matters. With the approach of Thanksgiving, I hope the bans on feeding the homeless are not only relaxed, but also re-examined. The mandate of charity is clear.
Read about the life of Saint Vincent DePaul, a great model of charity and compassion and use the activities with your class or family.
Download a Prayer for Charity and share it in your home or parish.
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