One of the things I love about the liturgical year is the way we cycle around to the same seasons. Each time I seem to find more insight into the symbols, rituals, and stories that comprise each celebration. Lent is a case in point. The word itself comes from the Middle English word lente, meaning springtime, and shares the same root as the world length. As the light of day lengthens during the spring, we move week by week towards the joyous celebration of the Triduum and Easter.
Lent is a time to offer up – to relinquish certain practices in order to embrace others. Doing so freely rather than out of obligation makes such a practice all the more meaningful. For the early Christians, going without food, for example, enabled a neighbor to eat. In this spirit, fasting and abstinence become not only a practice of personal relinquishment, but also a way to nurture others.
This leads to the second form of offering – that of offering to. While we practice almsgiving throughout the year, it takes on particular meaning during the Lenten season. Giving generously to others is a form of self-sharing that leads to radical transformation. In offering monetary help to those in need, we ease the burdens others carry. By sharing our time with those who are lonely or in need of a listening ear, we provide comfort and compassion. Through works of social justice, we contribute to the well-being of entire communities and the realization of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Prayer is an integral part of Lent. Whether joining with others in communal worship or by ourselves in daily acts of contemplation and meditation, we make an offering of our lives to God. Penitential prayers take on particular meaning during Lent as a way to open ourselves more fully to the merciful love of God that is offered back to us in abundance. This humble form of prayer also calls upon us to extend forgiveness and mercy to others and thus make our own small contribution to global peace.
It’s taken many turns around the seasonal calendar for me to come to a deeper appreciation of Lent’s austerity, generosity, and piety. Through each comes an opportunity to make a sacred offering of our lives. In this way, the light that lengthens with the season only grows more radiant.
Talk to your family or class about the meaning behind fasting and abstinence. Decide upon a form of fasting from something, such as criticism, bickering, or complaining, in order to bring about greater harmony. At the end of Lent, take stock of what each person gained through such a practice.
Research charities that are in need of donations and develop a means of offering something to them during the Lenten season. This could not only include monetary gifts, but also the donation of time to serve as a volunteer or the effort to educate yourself about their work and mission.
Download Lenten Practices Reflection Cards for ideas on how to keep your momentum strong throughout the six weeks of the season.
Somewhere in the bottom of a trunk lies my valentine from Donny Murphy. I picked it out of the paper sack that our teacher passed around the room, thus ensuring that everyone in the class both submitted and received a valentine. Since I had a major crush on Donny, getting his valentine made my second grade year. While, even at the ripe old age of seven, I realized that Donny didn’t actually give me the valentine, it was enough to have one with his name on it.
Last year I wrote in this blog about the valentines we give to God in the form of prayers of adoration. (See “A Valentine for God”) Since it is an act of love, it works the other way, too. Nevertheless, it might be trickier to recognize the valentines God sends to us. Caught up in the hectic pace of a day’s work or the anxieties, fears, and tensions that upset our equilibrium, we bypass the little signs and wonders that God gives to show us a love that pulses with beauty and longing. Maybe we all need to reach into a paper sack now and then in order to pull out a reminder of the grace of a simple valentine.
My own go-to bag of God’s valentines includes the beautiful words and images from Psalm 139. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” (vs. 13-14). On those days in which I feel less than lovely, the thought of being part of God’s handiwork lifts me up.
There are other love notes as well ~ the rose-tinted dawn that greeted me this morning, the soft purring of my cat nestled beside me while I journaled, the sweet flavor of spiced tea. Each is a small reminder of a world that is full of wonderful sensations, all given and graced by a God who could have chosen, instead, a black-and-white creation devoid of poetry, music, and the artful dance of life. All we need is to reach into the bag and allow ourselves to be surprised by its infinite blessings.
Invite the children in your class or family to write a valentine from God. Discuss together how God shows his love to us in ways we often overlook.
The Rosary is a beautiful prayer that allows us to meditate on the love of God through the Mysteries of Christ’s birth, life, death, and Resurrection. Now it’s available on an app for your phone!
Download my Valentines from God and pass them out to your class or family, or use them as daily reflections on the grace of God’s love.
photo © iStockphoto
As January comes to an end, I am busy collecting all the necessary forms and receipts in order to file my taxes. Each year I try to get a jump start on this but it generally takes longer than I expect. Even so, I don’t really mind paying taxes. It is a way to participate in the system even during years when the levies are particularly high. It turns out I am not at all unique. According to the IRS, roughly 95% of Americans regard paying taxes as part of their civic duty. In addition, 86% of Americans don’t cheat on their taxes. Of those who do, it’s generally a case of underreporting. If only we regarded other aspects of our lives as worthy of such honesty.
Not long ago, I took part in a discussion with Catholic school teachers about the importance of nurturing virtue in children. When asked to name the most important virtue to instill in students, honesty placed first. As many of them noted, the proliferation of social media ramps up the possibilities for online bullying and spreading malicious rumors and gossip. Music and movies are easily pirated and computer hacking requires constant vigilance on the part of online security services. Opportunities to be dishonest flourish and are often shaded in gray, as if stealing off the Internet or passing along half-truths aren’t still damaging and destructive.
It is ironic that the saying, “honesty is the best policy” was most likely coined by a politician - Sir Edwin Sandy, one of the original founders of Jamestown. It is one of the most widely recognized proverbs by children. Honesty is rooted in Judeo-Christian history and extolled throughout the Bible. Two of the Ten Commandments are based on a call for honesty – you shall not steal (7th Commandment) and you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (8th Commandment). There is inherent wisdom in the proverb, as one lie or bit of cheating often begets another. In a purely pragmatic sense, then, honesty truly is the best policy. Even when painful, being honest is its own reward. Take paying taxes. While no one probably enjoys the process, those who report their earnings honestly do so for an important reason: personal integrity.
What I heard the teachers expressing was a desire to not only teach their students the basic difference between right and wrong. They also wanted them to learn what it means to be grounded in a virtue that builds character, instills honor and fosters a deep sense of self-worth. Christian faith and practice call for keeping God’s law and following the example of Jesus. By teaching children and young people that honesty is not only practical but also virtuous, we bear authentic witness to our faith and reveal to them the truth of Jesus’ life and teaching.
Lent is just around the corner and is a wonderful opportunity to nurture virtues through the practices of penance, prayer, and almsgiving. Find prayer services, activities, and other resources to share in your parish in the Gather In My Name Lenten event.
Download Reflections on Honesty and use it to generate conversation about this virtue with your family or class.
photo © iStockphoto
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
What draws so many people to services on Ash Wednesday? After all, it’s not a holy day of obligation and it falls smack in the middle of the week. I once discussed this with a pastor who noted how everyone who showed up left with something, no matter what their status in or outside the Church. Leaving with a black smudge on the forehead seems like a piteous gift, but one that obviously holds deep resonance for many, many people.
The late Henri Nouwen described Lent as a time to re-focus and to re-enter a place of truth. It is here where we find our true identity. The line from Genesis reminds us of this in stark measure. Our lives on this earth won’t last forever. We are a finite people who hold hope in something infinite and beyond ourselves. Bearing a mark throughout the day that is visible to others puts an explanation point on the Genesis passage. We become walking witnesses of that place of truth.
Heaping ashes upon the head, rending the garment, and donning sackcloth were all outward signs of penitence in biblical times. Such a display was one of abject humility and repentance, but could also turn into an occasion for infighting and ego-inflation. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?” the prophet Isaiah asks. “Is it only for bending one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?” He goes onto describe the more appropriate fast – that of loosening the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, and setting the oppressed free. (See Isaiah 58:4-6)
The three traditional Lenten practices echo Isaiah’s call. Not only is it a season for penitence, but also for prayer and almsgiving. It is a one in which to return to ourselves as well as to God. So perhaps an innate understanding of this draws so many people to Ash Wednesday. We somehow know the best way to begin a season which calls us into self-examination as well as self-denial, into deeper contemplation about the mystery and grace of God’s mercy, and towards more radical giving towards those most in need of comfort, sustenance, and hope.
Download Reflections on Ash Wednesday and use them with your class or family to further contemplate the meaning of this ancient practice.
Download my Prayer for Ash Wednesday and use it in your home or parish as part of your Lenten preparation and celebration.
A bishop once said that he considered prayers of adoration our “Valentines to God.” In them, we express our utter delight and fascination with being cherished by a God whom we recognize in the smiles, hugs and “luv u” messages received from others.
Download A Valentine for God Prayer Card and share it with loved ones throughout the month of February!
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.