Christmas, Everyday Grace

3 Ways to Banish the Post-Christmas-Day Blues

There’s a lot of work, thought, anticipation, and activity leading up to Christmas Day, and, for many people, the following weeks feel like something of a letdown. The jolly Santa Claus images are looking a little tired; the big event we’ve been waiting for has come… and gone. How do you cope with the post-Christmas blues?

  • Keep the light going. The Christmas season is all about light: leave your nativity set out (and pray to the Infant Jesus), keep the decorations blinking and the candles lit: this is the season that gets us through the dark nights of winter and all the way to the Baptism of Our Lord and on to Candlemas.
  • Take care of yourself. Banish the blues! First of all, there’s a good probability that you gained some weight with all those holiday parties. Second of all, exercise releases endorphins, and that will make you feel great.
  • Reach out. Did you know there’s a spike in calls to crisis centers right after Christmas? Loneliness and depression can move in for many different reasons. This is an excellent time to volunteer with an organization that reaches out to those who are alone, homeless, ill, elderly, or shut-in. And getting you outside of yourself will improve your mood, too!

The manger was just the first step of our journey of faith, the journey that will take us though to the cross and the resurrection. Keeping that in perspective, and doing what we can to help ourselves and help others, is what will surely beat the post-Christmas blues!

Christmas, Inspiration, Listening to the Heart

Widening Our Love at Christmas

My first Christmas in the convent was last year. I had been in the United States only one month, and was far away from my home in Portugal. Those weeks before Christmas became the stage for me to ponder the question that Advent poses to each of us: What is Christmas?

As I found myself with my co-novices in St. Louis over Christmas, I sensed within me a reluctance or resistance to accepting that things in my life had changed so radically and so quickly. I began to wonder whether Christmas was what I had always believed it to be.

As the Advent season wore on, my inner struggle increased. Being stripped of everything I knew about Christmas—my family, my home, our traditions with our flavors, music, and decorations, my community, my country—my heart was stretched more than I felt able to bear. It seemed to me Jesus needed a space to be born in me, a space greater than the ocean I had crossed.

It was almost Christmas night when, I don’t know if I was feeling sorry for myself or being honest for the first time, I told Jesus I couldn’t stretch my heart open any more to receive him. If I stretched another millimeter I would break. After all, how could a child occupy so much space inside me?

In the silence, after all my energy had been used to really say what I felt, I heard Jesus say that he would stretch from heaven to earth for me. This immediately made the ocean that separated me from Portugal seem very small. And Jesus would do this for me, even if my heart was preoccupied, even if the only thing I had to offer, almost if only to avoid feeling guilty, was a stable…

And in that moment my heart widened another millimeter and did not break.

After that widening of my heart, I received a letter on Christmas Eve, a Christmas card from a sister in my community in Portugal, which reminded me about the One I was expecting, that One we are expecting on Christmas:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Each of us will be given this Child, who is born to be Light. To be the great light that guides us and illuminates the darkness that exists in our lives, in the darkness that exists in the world. And confident of this promise, on Christmas Eve, we go to church at night, so that this light may shine within us.

We go at night, because in us there is darkness that only the coming of Jesus can dispel. We go at night, because so often we do not see the way, and Jesus is born to give us the counsel. We go at night, because sometimes the future brings fears, and Jesus is born to give us the fortress. We go at night, because death makes us distrust the promise of God’s life, and Jesus is born to give us Eternity. We go at night, because divisions continue to exist in us and in the world, and Jesus is born to give us peace.

When I think of my first Christmas at the convent, I realize that the dispossession of all I knew as Christmas, far from moving me away from its true meaning, increased my openness to the mystery I was living. And it has increased my openness to a new family, a new home, new traditions and all that Christmas is, too.

It is true that the whole context helped me in this deepening, but I believe the first step of this journey took place within me. I have realized that sometimes we want to live Advent in a serious way and really take a spiritual path. We want to create this space for Jesus to be born within us and we come to Christmas Eve, and we only have a stable inside us to receive it. But Christmas is also accepting our poverty to welcome Jesus, yet still doing the best we can. Because we can trust that he, in his love for us, will come—no matter what.

And in this trust, everything we know as Christmas, family, traditions, decorations, presents, memories, can be lived as a gift. Can be lived with this deep understanding, that the ultimate end of every gift is to love God and our brothers and sisters. Anything that does not have this purpose is not a gift, it is not Christmas.

At Midnight Mass, I saw many families sitting together in the pews of the church, and for a moment I found myself remembering so many times in the past in which I had sat in the pews of my parish together with my family, celebrating the birth of Jesus. But with my new community, with my co-novices, with all those people from a parish that was not mine, I felt very deeply the joy of Jesus being born among humanity, I felt a joy that was greater than what I knew, I felt the joy of what I’ve believed as far back as I can remember.

A child has been given to us, the child of God who comes to save us!

 

by Sr. Marta Gaspar, novice, Daughters of St. Paul

image: Christmas at Faro, Portugal, wikicommons

Advent, Christmas, Listening to the Heart

What if I can’t “rest merry”?

In the shops, it’s all “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” but every time Margaret hears the words, she wants to cry. She’s going about her everyday Advent errands, dutifully buying gifts and wrapping paper and cards; but, “I feel like there’s a barrier between me and everybody else,” she says. “Like I’m seeing them through some kind of blurry lens.” The reason for that distance? “My husband died in September,” Margaret replies. “I just can’t synch up. I feel sad in the middle of so many people being happy. When I do forget for a moment, when I feel even the smallest joy, I immediately feel guilty for not thinking about Daniel.”

Margaret’s story isn’t unique. No matter when we lose people we love, the first Christmas without them is bound to be painful. And that pain isn’t reserved for death: the sadness of the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, missing a faraway friend, fearing for a loved one in the throes of a major illness or addiction… the list goes on and on, for there are myriad events and situations that leave us feeling grief-stricken and therefore inadequate at Christmastime.

My childhood Christmases were shadowed by a death in my own family. When I was two years old, my sister Adele was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that has effective treatments today but very few then. She was born in October and died a few days before Christmas, and my mother never fully grieved—or recovered. All through my growing-up years, she sat and watched the rest of us trim the tree, never joining in because it made her so sad. I understand the depth of her pain, but I think she never really understood what its expression did to the rest of us.

I can’t think that God wanted our Christmases to be dismal, or for Margaret’s to be guilt-ridden. But how else can you cope with overwhelming grief when the world tells you to be merry?

If you Google words like “Catholic” and “grief” and “Christmas,” you’ll find some extremely sensible suggestions for practical ways of getting through—asking others for help, honoring missing loved ones, taking time for oneself. If you are grieving this year, I urge you to read them—especially, perhaps, these 64 tips. But the reality is that nearly all these approaches are strategic in nature, offering guidelines for how to manage grief during the holidays. And of course that’s necessary: we all need ways of coping with the various feelings, situations, people, and memories that can exacerbate sorrow during Advent and Christmas.

But the real need is for something beyond coping strategies. As many people who have moved through grief and sadness have learned, one great comfort is in storytelling; grief loves stories, because it is resistant to logic and linear thinking, but wraps itself lovingly around a narrative. It’s why we take comfort in telling stories about those we have lost.

Advent and Christmas are just filled with holy narratives. What can they tell us about handling grief?

The first thing they say is we’re not alone. In the most difficult places on our path, spaces of sanctuary are waiting for us. Pregnant, unmarried, and alone, Mary is in a perilous state after Gabriel departs; she has said the most luminous and yet most perilous “yes” that humankind can say. What does she do next? She goes in search of someone who can help. She goes to her cousin Elizabeth, who welcomes Mary and offers her safety, blessing, and sanctuary (Luke 1:39-45). Where are places—and people—who represent sanctuary in your life? Can you turn to them now?

The second thing we learn from the Scripture story is to open ourselves to the unexpected. Joseph was in terrible grief when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. His whole future was shattered. Not only marriage but divorce was now in his path. He must have felt sick at heart, numb, empty. And what happens? Joseph falls asleep and God speaks to him in his dream (Matthew 1:20-21; 2:13, 19-20, 22). When God wants to convey something to us, he frequently uses unexpected methods: dreams, stories, metaphors, intuition, poetry, art. God often manifests in our peripheral vision. Are there places where you might be able to discern him now?

Finally, Scripture tells us that incarnation begins in darkness. The country was occupied and its people enslaved, and this is where God chose to be born. God comes to us in the darkness that Advent begins to pierce, and promises we shall see a great light. When we are in pain and grief, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path, that is precisely where God meets us. His first priority is not to do away with the dark—but to be present to us in it. Comfort my people, Isaiah cries, and “I will give you treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45:3). Can you look for God’s presence, not beyond your pain, but within it?

This is not the end of God’s story, and it isn’t the end of your story, either. The way you feel this Advent and Christmas is not the way you will always feel. As difficult as it is to imagine in these painful moments, there will be holidays when lightness returns to you. There will be holidays when you can celebrate with memory rather than grief.

But in the meantime, take God’s Word to heart. You are not alone. Stay open to the unexpected. Sit with God in the darkness. Christmas is coming.

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas

When Things Don’t Go As Planned

by Sr. Cecilia Cicone, novice

When I was eight years old, all I wanted for Christmas was a scooter. I enjoyed riding my bike around our neighborhood, but all of the other kids would ride on their scooters. They would make sharp turns and do jumps and tricks that were simply impossible on a bicycle. I made it known to my parents and to Santa at the mall that all that I really needed for that year to full of Christmas joy was a brand new scooter. Preferably a blue one, but that was less important.

Christmas morning rolled around and, sure enough, the first present that I opened was that scooter. I remember being flooded with excitement and waiting for the moment when I could bundle up and take it for a test ride in our cul-de-sac. When that moment finally came, I put on my helmet and opened our garage door. I was not prepared for what happened next.

As the door opened, I heard the whirring sound of motors running through our neighborhood. My heart sank when I realized what it was coming from. Almost every child in the neighborhood had received an electric scooter for Christmas. They were practically flying around our neighborhood as I tried in vain to keep up with my new scooter, propelled only by my little eight-year-old leg.

Just moments after I received the very thing that I had wanted most, suddenly it wasn’t enough. My parents attempted to use it as an opportunity to teach me about gratitude and remind me of the importance of physical exercise, but the disappointment that I felt on that Christmas morning still sticks with me all these years later.

When I recall this story, I realize that it contains a lesson I have had to learn over and over again throughout my life. That there are many times when I think if only I had that one thing, if only that one conversation would have gone better, or if only things had gone exactly as I had planned them, then I would be at peace. Then, I would be happy. Then, things would be as they should be.

You see, like most people, I like things to go according to my plan. There’s something about Christmas that seems to bring that attitude out. Maybe it’s all of the memories we have, or the picturesque Christmas movies we’ve seen, but we do our best to make Christmas “perfect” for ourselves and our loved ones. We spend precious time picking out the perfect gifts, we labor tirelessly over the cookies we bake, and we make plans to see Christmas lights and drink hot chocolate. Then everyone will be at peace. Then we will all be happy. Then things will be as they should be.

Then a family argument breaks out before we even open presents, we drop the container of cookies on the way to the car, and someone slips on the ice as we go to look at Christmas lights. And although deep in our hearts we know it’s not true, we can’t help but feel like this Christmas wasn’t as good as it could have been. We may even feel like it’s been ruined.

That’s because Christmas isn’t about things going according to plan. In fact, if things had gone “according to plan,” we may not have had Christmas at all! At Christmas, we celebrate precisely the fact that things did not go according to plan— at least, not according to our plan.

If things had gone according to our plan, maybe Adam and Eve would not have eaten the fruit in the garden so that we wouldn’t need a savior at all. For some of us, we would have hoped that Jesus would come as a powerful king so that we would know his power beyond any doubt. We might even wish that God wouldn’t have needed to come at all, that he would have stayed far off and just snapped his fingers to save us.

Thank God that things don’t go according to our plans!

Because things didn’t go according to our plan, God revealed his deep love for us in ways that we never could have imagined. This is especially true on the cross. Because things went according to his plan, we have learned that he is merciful, that absolutely nothing can separate us from his love. We know we don’t need to fear him because he came to us as a tiny infant. Things didn’t go as we might have expected, and so we can look into the manger and see just how close God desires to be to us in each moment. Every time something doesn’t go according to our plan, God reveals something to us about his plan of love.

When I was eight years old, I learned the important lesson that neither a scooter, nor any material thing, would be enough to satisfy me. In truth, only God is enough. It is my prayer, for you and for me, that this Christmas will not go according to our plans. Amidst the burnt cookies and the traffic jams, may we praise God that his plan is the one that always prevails.

 

Advent, Christmas, Inspiration

The Big Three

The big three holidays are almost here: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. Hooray! we say. As you read this, we will be in the immediate preparation for the first of these, Thanksgiving, praying that we make it through with family and friends, and without too much fuss.

We all recognize these three as the extreme sports among our holidays. We flex our best resolutions before entering into this season. Somehow we will power our way through them.

It might be more worthwhile to spend some time with the little three. Now, by this I mean no disrespect, and I really should call them the humble and holy three: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We do well to ask how they negotiated the original version of what we celebrate.

Let’s begin with Advent, which is the season of preparation for the next two celebrations. We often reduce Advent to the season of shopping rather than of reflection on the coming of the Savior. So, let’s pick up Advent partway through its four-week pattern. The young woman, Mary, had an angel in her living room announcing she was chosen to be mother of the long-awaited Messiah. This certainly trumps all the robo sales calls we have to put up with! How calmly did she acquiesce to this turn of events? We don’t know, but she wholeheartedly consented: “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mary’s immediate response was to set out on a mission of mercy to visit an older cousin who was also unexpectedly pregnant. We can see how invested Mary now was in God’s plan. When her cousin Elizabeth’s son, John (the Baptist), was born, Mary returned to her own family and to the scrutiny of her fiancé, Joseph. He was taken aback to find her obviously with child, knowing it wasn’t his own. God decided to clarify the situation for Joseph as he had for Mary, through an angel. Joseph wasn’t to be distressed, the angel said. This Child is of God so go ahead as you planned and take Mary as your wife. )Do you notice anything stressful yet?)

Another curveball is thrown into this original Christmas preparation. No quiet sitting at home, no little shopping expeditions, no cozy chats with happy grandparents-to-be. No, the foreign governing body has called for a census. It isn’t a paper form to be mailed in, but a trek to the ancestral home to register in person. So off they go at a very inconvenient time. Mary was literally expecting the Christmas Child. She was seated on a donkey; no Uber rides were available. She had to balance on the swaying beast while feeling her time was close at hand. Joseph, for his part, could only worry and put on a strong face and pray his heart out that everything would be okay.

When they make it to Bethlehem, it is late. There is no room to be rented. Again it falls to Joseph to provide. We picture him in popular films running from house to house begging for some place, any place, to prepare for what is imminent. How inadequate he must feel: such a mission and such a predicament! Why? he could have lamented, but we believe he was more of a man of providence. God would show him how he was to provide for Mary and the Infant. What Joseph found – a poor animal stable – has become the icon of our individual devotion. We ourselves are poor, unworthy, but welcoming abodes of the Son of God. Thank you, Joseph, for this spiritual gift.

It is a holiday, a birth day–was there a party? Yes, there was one large decoration, the star. The locals, friendly and curious, came. The angels again pointed out the event to shepherds who hurried over to see. Later unexpected kings arrived with precious, symbolic gifts. Privacy didn’t exist and soon neither did safety. The three had to flee in the night, making another treacherous journey, this time into Egypt where they would again be strangers trying to fit in.

>All of this was certainly a stressful time for Mary and Joseph. Our religious paintings and cards portray a peaceful, serene image for the season. The will of God seems to have been like a soft comforter over these harsh circumstances. Sweet smiles and calm nerves prevailed. I think not. I see Mary and Joseph as the true patron saints of our modern holiday season. Think of the emotions, the misunderstandings, the anxiety, the exhaustion of all these days. They were in love with God and totally dedicated to His will, but they had to feel each moment as it came. They didn’t know what was coming next. They definitely experienced stress. They were thrown into it; we on our part create most of our stress.

We find that our stress doesn’t come solely from world or church affairs, but from personal interaction with those around us–the near and dear, but even more so from inner action, from our own unpeaceful spirits. Let’s do as Mary and Joseph and put all of our energy and attention on the Child who is the reason, literally, for the season, the Gift, the charm, the center of everything. If our heart is with Him, we will be able to weather this seasonal squall of stress with grace and even with joy. And we will be able to put a new ring on the coming of 2020.

by Sr. Mary Lea Hill, FSP