News Category: Daily Reflections for Advent

What Do You Want for Christmas?

What do you most want for today? What do you most need? I don’t mean what present you hope is under the Christmas tree waiting to be unwrapped. I mean, what do you most desire when you listen to your heart? Is it reconciliation with a family member? A greater sense of patience and understanding for a difficult relative whom you’ll be seeing soon? A loosening of the grip that loneliness, depression, or grief has on you? An ability to deeply savor the joy and peace of your Christmas celebration?

What do you think God most desires for you today?

When I first started in spiritual direction, my director would often ask me questions like that. “What do you think God is feeling for you right now?” “How do you think God feels about that?” “What do you think God wants?” The frustrated answer that always leapt to mind first was, “I don’t know. How am I supposed to know what God wants?” Slowly, over time, I came to learn and believe what St. Ignatius taught: that our deepest desires are God’s desires in us. If deep in my heart I genuinely desire reconciliation with a family member, God wants that too. If I want relief from my grief, God wants that for me too. If I want to be better able to savor the little joys from the holiday, why wouldn’t God want that for me too? Wouldn’t God already be working in my heart to bring these things about?

For prayer: Ask God for what you most deeply want this holiday season. Ask for the grace to see how God is bringing it about.

Be Quiet and Listen!

He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. —Luke 1:63-65

I used to think Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was cursed when he was struck dumb for the nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. I wasn’t quite sure why he was punished for asking the angel Gabriel how  Elizabeth would have a baby in her old age. Wasn’t Mary’s question about the equivalent when she asked how she would get pregnant with Jesus? She wasn’t struck dumb for her question, so why was Zechariah?

Then someone pointed it out to me. Luke’s Gospel has an overarching theme of God as a God of reversals, a God who overturns the status quo as Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat yesterday. God lifts up the downtrodden and deposes rulers from their thrones and we see that in the story of John the Baptist’s parents also. Zechariah was greatly honored and respected in his culture for three reasons: because he was male, he was an elder, and he was a priest. He had a voice in society, and he was used to people listening to him. His wife, Elizabeth, on the other hand, had no voice. She was a woman, she was barren, and she was not allowed to step foot in the holy sanctuary because she is not a priest. Her words didn’t carry the same weight as her husband’s. How perfect of a reversal then, that Zechariah couldn’t speak for nine months so Elizabeth can be heard. I like to think that in those months when he couldn’t talk, Zechariah learned to listen — to his wife, to others whose voices often went unheard, and to God speaking in the quiet of his heart. I’m guessing that he finally learned that you can’t hear if you’re the one doing all the talking. Which means God didn’t curse Zechariah with muteness, God blessed him by striking him dumb.

For action: Which is more natural for you – to speak so much that others’ voices go unheard, or to fail to speak when your voice needs to be heard? How might God be calling you to be more like Elizabeth or Zechariah before John the Baptist’s birth?

With a Mother Like That…

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. —Luke 1:51-53 (The entire Magnificat is Luke 1:46-55).

Anyone who sees Mary as meek, mild, and submissive hasn’t read today’s scripture passage from Luke or the prophets whom Mary echoes here. When she visited her relative Elizabeth after the angel Gabriel came to her, Mary spoke the verses we now call the Magnificat. Like the great prophets in the Old Testament, Mary proclaims that God is a God of reversals who will lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, scatter the proud, and bring the powerful down from their thrones. Like those prophets, “Mary was not only full of grace but full of political opinions,” writes Bill Cleary.

Mary knew first hand what it was to be lowly but still elevated by God. Historians and biblical scholars generally agree that Mary was probably born in tiny Nazareth, population 1,600. She lived in an occupied state under the violent reign of Herod the Great, who was backed by the brutal Roman military. She was an illiterate peasant. She and Joseph owed triple taxes: to Rome, Herod, and the Temple. Like women in many developing countries today, Mary would have spent up to ten hours a day hauling water, gathering firewood, cooking, and washing. She married at about 13 years old. She suffered poverty and oppression and ultimately the execution of her son.

With a strong mother who endured all that, it’s no wonder that Jesus arrived at adulthood and immediately proclaimed that he had come to let the oppressed go free, release the captives, and bring good news to the poor. He didn’t form those opinions out of nowhere. He heard them from his mother, his first teacher. Mary, in turn, had taken them to heart from their family’s holy book, our Old Testament. She was a prophet in a long line of prophets.     

For Reflection: Does considering Mary as one of the Hebrew prophets help you appreciate her in a new way? Does thinking about her experience of poverty and oppression help you to see her in a new light? How so? 

God Is Still Working

How are you feeling four days before Christmas? How has this Advent season been for you? Has taking a few minutes each day to focus on Advent  made any difference in how the month before Christmas has played out? Even if things still feel more hectic than you hoped, or you are still dreading Christmas because it marks a difficult time for you or your family, can you identify any way that God has drawn closer or gifted you during these weeks of Advent?

Don’t beat yourself up if all of your intentions to re-orient how you “do” Advent and Christmas haven’t come to fruition. Maybe your relatives didn’t go for it when you floated the idea of dropping the annual gift exchange. Perhaps you’ve still spent more money than you planned, caved into the pressure of trying to get out the perfect family Christmas photo, or already gained a few pounds from the extra baking and parties. Maybe it’s been all of the above. That’s okay. The fact that you’ve had some intentionality during Advent to keep your focus on the church season in the midst of the secular holiday season speaks to your desire for a closer relationship with God. God can work with that. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

For prayer: Depending on how you feel Advent has been for you, take some time to thank God for the gifts you’ve received so far this season and/or ask for what you need as you move into the last few days before Christmas.

Small Yeses

And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. —Luke 1:36

Mary pretty much gets all the credit for saying yes to God’s request that she carry the Son of God and raise him to adulthood. (Matthew’s Gospel gives a plug to Joseph for his role in protecting Mary and her child, but otherwise, Mary gets all the praise.) Today’s scripture reading reminds us God needed other people to play key roles so that everything could work together for Jesus’ good. John the Baptist prepared Jesus’ way as an adult, but first, God needed a mother to prepare John. It was Elizabeth who took on that responsibility. Who prepared Elizabeth for her role, and who prepared Mary? That would have mostly fallen to their mothers, as well as some aunts, grandmothers, and other extended family, friends, and neighbors. Their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers all had roles too. In that time and culture, men typically provided food and protection for the women and children while the women did the child-rearing.

I once had a spiritual direction client, a man in his 70s, lament that he will never get the chance to say “yes” to something God asks of him that is as big as Mary’s “yes” was. After talking about it for a bit, he came to the realization that Elizabeth had a particular “yes” to give, as did Joseph, as did John the Baptist, as did every other person who helped Jesus in his life, no matter how big or small their contributions. My client then started thinking of examples when God asked something of him, from buying a sandwich for a homeless person, to pausing what he was doing to help his child with his homework, to turning off the television to listen to his wife. Some of them were things other people could do if he didn’t (like feed the homeless person), but some could only be done by him—like be the father his child needed him to be. He decided that maybe what God needs from him is his willingness to say yes to many, many small things rather than one monumental thing like Mary was asked to do.  

For action: What thing(s) might God be asking of you this week? Can you say yes?