Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Having a Mary (not a Martha) Christmas

Dear Theophilous,

Each year Christmas seems to blow our home through like a tornado… There’s a low dark rumbling that grows in intensity through December that culminates in a whirlwind of family visits, a race to open presents and a multicourse gourmet meal on Christmas day. Once the dust has settled my wife and I will collapse amidst the stacks of dirty dishes, the detritus of shredded gift-wrap and already forgotten toys, our glazed eyes asking, “What just happened?”

What just happened (what tends to happen every year) is a Martha Christmas. Not a Martha Stewart Christmas, but a Martha Christmas, as in the sisters Mary and Martha whom Jesus visited (cf Lk 10:38-42). When Jesus visited the sister’s home, Mary sat at the feet of Our Lord, hanging on every word he said, while Martha was distracted by her many tasks. (Lk 10:40)

Too often this is what happens to us during the Advent and Christmas seasons – we are distracted by our many tasks in bringing the holiday together for others. There are presents to buy, lists to be made to make sure no one is forgotten, a house to be cleaned, a tree to be decorated, a meal to be planned, groceries to be bought, a turkey to be stuffed and the trimmings to be fixed – the distractions can be endless. The temptation to become Martha can be overwhelming.

When all is said and done at the end of Christmas day, which are the memories we will want to cherish – running around the kitchen or laughing with family? fighting the crowds at the mall or holding our children, their faces lit up from the simplest of gifts? Wouldn’t we much rather have been like Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to what he was saying (Lk 10:39), relishing in his presence in those around us, than running around distracted like Martha, missing out on what is really important.

This isn’t to say that we need to completely abandon the trappings of Christmas – absolutely not, they are very much a part of celebrating the Lord’s birth; we just need to be careful not to let the distractions of the season take over. Too often at festive family gatherings, one or two people do all the running around while the rest sit back and enjoy. Just as Martha begrudged Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, we too can begrudge being sucked in by the distractions of the day and not being able to enjoy the Christmas merriment.

There is a time and a place for festive preparations, but we shouldn’t let them take over. In the years that come, we won’t recall every gift that was given or received, but we will cherish the memory of the laugh we shared with family and friends. The greatest gift we can give each other is our time and presence, these things don’t run on batteries, nor will they fade, shrink or give us heartburn – they will give us joy.

This year at Christmas, we need to recognize those special moments when Christ comes into our life through others, and like Mary, we need to chose the better part, which will not be taken away from us. (cf Lk 10:42)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent - Learning to Wait

Dear Theophilous,

A Google search for instant gratification produces “About 2,920,000 results in 0.59 seconds”. I know it’s true, because Google told me!

For all the advantages brought about by our modern technology (coupled with Google) – so much information in the blink of an eye, there are an equal number of disadvantages – so much information in the blink of an eye. Thanks to Google, we have become used to having our every musing answered faster than we can type (or say) it – yes, Google will even auto-fill your search query based on the first few letters you type.

In North America we have become a society of instant gratification – we will wait for nothing or no one.

Case in point: every time I return a piece of evaluated work in class (homework, test or project), a handful of students will begin asking, “What’s my mark?” They need to know instantly where they stand every step of the way. (Frankly, if they took the time to do the quick math and compare it to the other marks they have received, they should have a pretty good idea of where their mark is at).

This need for instant gratification goes beyond immediate recognition of our personal performance. In a consumer society where most are blessed with access to instant credit and an overabundance of material goods, we have become accustomed to catering our every whim as it occurs to us… I’m thirsty; I grab a soft drink from a vending machine… Hunger is sated with chips or chocolate from the machine right beside… I need new shoes/clothing/car/you-name-it – I head to the mall and pull out the credit card without a second thought (or even easier, shop online and get overnight delivery).

But the Catholic Church is different. In this holy season of Advent, the Church tells us we need to wait.

And that’s hard!

Advent teaches us how to wait.

Through the four weeks of Advent we repeat the mantra – We wait in joyful hope for the coming of Christ. Christmas is coming, but it’s not here yet. We’re itching to celebrate, but we can’t just yet – we need to wait.

Any parent who has been brave (or foolish) enough to take a child shopping in December knows the pain of being harassed the whole time for every toy and trinket the child sees. As much as it strains our nerves (and sometimes we crack), the in-store response is almost always, “Just wait, Christmas is coming.” after which we try to turn a deaf ear to the child’s pleas. The forced waiting doesn’t end there, once the gifts are bought and wrapped, they sit under the tree taunting tortured children who are reminded they need to wait until Christmas morning to unwrap them.

It doesn’t get much better as an adult. The temptation to buy something for oneself is great, but we know we need to wait. The harder waiting comes Christmas day, as we smell the turkey roasting, we want to dive in, even before it’s cooked through and carved.

Yet, as we all know… Good things come to those who wait!

So through December we wait… We wait to see if anyone noticed the sweater we really wanted… We wait to see the joy-filled faces of children as they rip open gifts on Christmas morning… We wait to sink our teeth into the crispy skin of a turkey drumstick… All very good things worth waiting for.

Yet as good as all the festive trappings of Christmas are… we sometimes lose sight of something still greater worth waiting for in Advent – the coming of our Saviour.

This said, much like all the good things at Christmas, we want the instant gratification of Christ coming now too. We want to enter the joy and peace of heaven now, skipping the toil and anxiety of life here on earth. We want all of the goodness that Jesus offers us without putting in the time and effort He asks us to. We want the 896,000,000 results in 0.67 seconds for Jesus (thanks Google).

Unlike the department stores that jump into full-out Christmas mode the moment the last piece of Hallowe’en candy is handed out, the Catholic Church doesn’t dive headfirst into Christmas. Instead, we take four weeks to get ready, to prepare and to wait.

This waiting can take many forms… In our home we wait for Advent to begin before putting up our tree. Many families have the tradition of waiting until after midnight Mass before placing the baby Jesus in the manger of their Nativity scene. Some will prayerfully recall the world waiting for the Light of Christ, the light of the Advent Wreath piercing their darkened home. We know something fantastic is coming, and the waiting helps build our anticipation, which will burst with joy at Christmas.

As much as it kills us, all of this waiting (for gifts and turkey and visits with friends & family) is good for us. Like the good father that He is, God knows what’s best for His children, so He asks us to wait for His Son. This forced waiting of Advent helps us grow patience; patience that is badly needed by the child wanting a toy, an adolescent needing to know their mark, an adult who can’t wait even half-a-second for a Google search.

We live in a world of instant gratification; a world where folks can cater to their every whim. We live in a time when people are self-sufficient, meeting their own every need, where cash is king and others are expected to jump on command. We live in a world where people don’t like to wait, not even for God.

But we are an Advent People – so we wait.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Advent - a Mini-Lent

Dear Theophilous,

As the calendar turns over to December and the malls fill with Christmas decorations, we are reminded of the joyful warmth that Christmas brings. There are office parties to go to, neighbours to have over, as well as family and friends to reconnect with over food, drinks and gifts.

Yet the Church is clothed in a mournful purple, and the Scripture readings remind us of God’s final judgement and call us to forgo the pleasures the season embraces. What gives?

Unfortunately, in all of the hubbub that surrounds our preparation for Christmas, we tend to forget why Christ came in the first place – to save us from our sins.

Keeping this in mind, every year I try to make my Advent a mini-Lent in an attempt to prepare my heart for the true meaning of Christmas. I try to incorporate the three pillars of Lent: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving into my Advent life.

The funny thing is, the craziness of the pre-Christmas season actually lends itself to making Advent a kind of mini-Lent.


December always seems like a whirlwind. There are gifts to buy, friends and family to see, and Christmas concerts to attend. One would think that it’s pretty much impossible to keep a prayer life, let alone deepen it.

When I begin to feel overwhelmed I take a mental step back, a deep breath and create a personal bubble of silence in the busy world. A simple prayer of thanksgiving – for the child who’s concert I’m squeezed into a stuffy gym for, the ability to buy gifts in a mall full of grumpy shoppers, for the job which I leave for and come home from in the dark.

Prayer life in Advent doesn’t need to be monastic; it can be quite simple, and as such, it can give us the strength to meet the festive flurry head-on.


Diet in December… impossible, but fasting can be made easy. Culinary temptation is all around us in the lead up to December 25th; the call to fast reminds us to enjoy this time of year simply and responsibly.

Fasting is Advent doesn’t need to be a complete giving up of food, luxurious treats or drink. Fasting can happen through out your normal daily life: a simpler and healthier breakfast, a small lunch (perhaps one made at home instead of from the food court), and only one helping at dinner. When it comes to all of the yummy nibbles at Christmas socials, taking just one or two, instead of three or four or more, will let you be both socially polite yet aware of our need to fast from overindulgence.


At first glance, the lead up to Christmas seems to be the antithesis of charity. For 11 months of the year we teach our kids the importance of sharing, and then once December hits we inform them they can tell the fat man in the red suit their wildest desires, and then on the 25th it magically shows up in the living room. Even as adults we get caught up in the greed of Christmas, sending family and friends a list of everything we want but felt guilty purchasing for ourselves.

Yet in the midst of the “Gimme! Gimme! Santa!” mindset in the weeks before Christmas we can find the perfect opportunity not only to teach our children, but also to learn a little bit ourselves about almsgiving.

Many schools will collect gifts for families struggling to make ends meet, never mind buy Christmas gifts. Many elementary schools will have Christmas Angels, where families or students will bring in individual gifts, while high-school homerooms will purchase gifts for a specific family. When talking about this kind of giving with my son or students, I don’t approach it as simply giving another gift, but rather to go with one or two fewer presents under the tree (it’s not like there still won’t be an overabundance) so as to give something to someone who is in need.

As for my own Advent almsgiving, I bring my Lenten practice to December: the money I save by fasting (from fast-food, treats or the school cafeteria) goes into the poor box each Sunday. What I have found is that by concentrating on giving to the poor during the Church’s penitential seasons, this practice becomes a habit that lasts throughout the year, giving the St. Vincent de Paul Society a more steady (albeit small) income they can count on.

So, dear Theophilous, as we begin the new liturgical year this Advent, joyously awaiting the coming of our Saviour at Christmas, let us not lose sight of why God sent His only Son to dwell among us. By focusing this Advent on the three pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, not only will your Christmas take on a more sacred feel, you will draw yourself closer to the Lord at His Nativity.