As the theme of this edition of The Bishop’s Bulletin makes clear the seasons of the Church calendar are an opportunity for us to reflect with varying emphasis on the fullness of the pascal mystery, the gift and sacrifice of Jesus in its fullness.
In December we begin with the season of Advent, a time of joyful anticipation of the coming of Christ in history over two thousand years ago, and at the end of time at the second coming which only God will determine. This month we also will enter into the season of Christmas when we with grateful hearts remember that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Advent encourages us to slow down despite the pressures of the secular culture so that we gratefully pray in anticipation of the uplifting Christmas celebration this year. One way to do so is to reflect on Christmases past and contemplate what was lasting and what left little memory.
Gift giving is a wonderful part of the season when offered for the right reasons. As I write this column “Black Friday”, the day after the national holiday of Thanksgiving, is on the horizon, although early ‘deals’ are already being advertised. Sadly each year there are reports of shoppers being injured when the emotional and aggressive intensity of some displaces their respect for one another in order to buy that perfect or coveted item.
Gifts thoughtfully given as a way to acknowledge our love or appreciation for those who touch our lives are beautiful gestures. They can be much like the gifts of the Magi of gold, frankincense and myrrh, signifying God the Father’s gift of his Son out of love and for a holy purpose, our salvation.
As I reflect on past Christmases I try to recall what I gave to others or what I received. Maybe it is my aging memory but it is often difficult to remember them. It is the gift-giving gesture of love and appreciation that is most important, not the gift itself. Some of the most significant gifts to me have been those that were given in memory of me to worthy causes and those who have special needs.
Advent is also a time when we might pause and recall those memorable moments from Christmases past that helped shape who we are today.
Among mine are these.
My two brothers and I shared a bedroom. As the youngest of the three I was often the subject of their pranks. One Christmas Eve my brothers goaded me to go down the stairs late at night to get a glimpse of what was under the Christmas tree. That was my first encounter with Santa’s helpers in the persons of my grandparents who did not seem to have the holiday spirit that night. Things received are not the most important gift of Christmas.
On a more serious note, while in high school before my conversion I would go alone to the late Christmas Eve prayer service at the Methodist church down the block. When I returned home I would then join my grandfather, a non-practicing Episcopalian, and watch midnight Mass on television from the Vatican celebrated by Pope Pius XII and then by now Saint John XXIII. This was not a planned time together but it became our Christmas tradition. Surely it had an influence in my faith journey.
I also recall my Christmas in Vietnam where I served as an air intelligence officer also before my conversion. I attended my first Midnight Mass which was celebrated by the Archbishop of New York, Terence Cook soon to be named a Cardinal. It was held in the movie theatre on an airbase. I remember my boots sticking to the floor from the remnants of sodas spilled, and I remember my first encounter with the enveloping odor and wisp of the fullness of incense. I also remember wishing I could receive Holy Communion, though I had no understanding of its significance or sacredness at the time. Surely this night too had an influence in my faith journey. Looking back I recognize how important it was and is to not trivialize the reception of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.
Among my most moving memories of Christmases past is the privilege of presiding at my first Midnight Christmas Mass as Bishop of Sioux Falls in 2006. It was especially moving not only because I was doing so as bishop but also because I was in this Cathedral of Saint Joseph, our patron who humbly accepted his significant mission as protector of the Christ child and the Blessed Mother, his spouse. It also was the first time in several years that I was able to pray Christmas Mass in a Cathedral because the one in the Diocese of Madison had been destroyed by fire while I was rector while sleeping in the attached rectory.
These are a few of the memorable memories I will ponder again these Advent and Christmas seasons.
In the midst of the busyness, the joyful gatherings with family, friends and co-workers which will create new memories, I encourage you to take some time to simply thank God for this time of year, in which we recall the truth that the song proclaims, “Love came down at Christmas”, for you and for us all.
My prayerful wishes for a reflective Advent, a joyful Christmas season, and a new year filled with hope because He, Love, did come down at Christmas and remains with us today.
Prayer at Advent
Father, we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We celebrate what is past: the Word made flesh and dwelt among us. We rejoice in the present grace, that to as many who receive him he gives the power to become your children,
With steadfast hope, we look forward to that day when every tear will be wiped away, when Christ, your Son will come in glory,
Help us to remember that He is truly Emmanuel, God with us. Help us to be open to his grace in this time, so pregnant with opportunity. Help us to pray with yearning hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Amen. (Sacred Heart League)