Adding Joy Through Christ this Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas

As we go into the third week of Advent, I think many of us start to feel a little fatigued and anxious. Some of you may be wrapping up a marathon of shopping, decorating, and attending various events. Others may feel stressed out because you haven’t done much preparation and feel like “you won’t make Christmas.” And others may just feel like Charlie Brown, a time when you are supposed to feel happy, but aren’t.

I think many of us can relate to Charlie Brown. It’s hard to reconcile a supposed season of joy with all the stress we’ve created around Christmas. Besides the normal Christmas stressors, we also have to contend with Covid fatigue, wokism, and politics. Many of us also have work, financial, and family issues. How do we put on a happy face on all of this?

The Nativity

We need to look to Mary and Joseph and the first Christmas. They traveled far in hard conditions only to find no room at the inn. They made due in a stable and delivered Jesus away from family and friends. As any mother knows, giving birth, even in the best conditions, is not easy or fun. The first Christmas wasn’t fun or easy. But through all that hardship there was joy. Through Mary, Christ the Savior was born. That event changed everything for all of us.

This brings us back to Charlie Brown. In all his anxiety over Christmas, what turns it around for him? It’s not directing the Christmas play or buying a tree. It was Linus’ monologue retelling the Nativity story that turned everything around, not just for Charlie Brown, but for the whole Peanuts crew. They became nicer to him, saw the hidden beauty of his scrawny tree, and wished him a merry Christmas.

Add More “Christ” To Christmas

We can learn a lot from Charlie Brown, Mary, and Joseph in finding joy this Christmas. We won’t find real joy at Target, Walmart, and Amazon finding great deals or that perfect gift. We’re not going to find it through our amazing lighting displays. It may not easy or even happy as in “laugh out loud happy.” But we can find a level of joy and peace if we add Jesus to this Advent and Christmas.

“Let’s not live a fake Christmas, please, a commercial Christmas,” the pope advised Dec. 10. “Let us allow ourselves to be wrapped up in the closeness of God, this closeness which is compassionate, which is tender; wrapped in the Christmas atmosphere that art, music, songs, and traditions bring into the heart.”

Pope Francis: Avoid ‘fake Christmas’ of commercialism by reflecting on God’s closeness | Catholic News Agency

We only have so much time and attention. We have to choose how we are going to fill that time. Are we maximizing joy by shopping for gifts and trying to create that Norman Rockwell-depicted Christmas? If that is leading to great anxiety and stress, maybe you should try adding more Jesus to your routine in the coming weeks. Jesus brought joy out of hardship to Joseph and Mary. He will bring joy to us as well.

If you want joy this Christmas and Advent, you should remember to add “Christ” and the “Mass” to your day. Ease up on Amazon and ramp up on the Rosary. Don’t focus on finding the perfect gifts, rather pray perfectly. Don’t dwell on what things you don’t have, but rejoice in the real joy you receive when you make Christmas about Christ.

How Much Do We Want God This Advent Season?

Advent has started and it’s time to prepare our hearts for the miraculous gift of Jesus’ birth. This should be a time of joyful prayer and reflection on how we can bring Christ to our brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, this season is overshadowed by consumerism and, particularly this year, crime. How do we navigate these next few weeks when our culture doesn’t make room for Jesus?

Flash Mobs

Crime is on an uptick across the United States. It’s taking the shape of flash mobs — groups of people coordinating online to rush into stores and take as much as they can grab in a few minutes. These groups overwhelm the store’s staff who are told to stand back and not get involved due to potential lawsuits. Basically, it’s a mob looting the store in broad daylight, in full view of cameras and staff, without a care about the ethical and moral implications of their actions.

When I was young, it was the thieves who wore masks, not the customers

It’s not surprising that we came to this place in our culture. Black Friday mobs in the USA have been escalating with arguments, fights, tramplings, and shootings. It was only a matter of time before these mobs started skipping the formality of actually paying. After all, if someone doesn’t have qualms about punching someone over a discounted toaster oven, why would he have qualms about not paying for it at all?

You Can’t Follow What You’re Not Taught

This escalation seems to coincide with a decline in the promotion of basic ethics. Think about where we traditionally learn about what is right and wrong — through our family, schools, culture, and faith. Now, look at the declining faith participation and empty churches. Look at how our society basically preaches that stealing and vandalism are righteous forms of social justice action fighting against large, dispassionate corporations. And when our kids see their parents participating in these Black Friday mobs, that behavior becomes normalized in their minds. We can’t expect people to follow rules like “though shalt not steal” if it’s not reflected anywhere in our society.

What do we do now? We can’t go back in time and teach these adults the basic ethics they should have learned as children. There’s plenty of voices out there warning us about the dangers of wokeness and secularism that are being silenced and ignored. We’re in a hard place right now. Our society is crumbling into warring factions and common sense ideas of how to treat each other have deteriorated. But this is where the awesome power of God comes into play. Nothing is outside His ability to fix. We just need to understand that God’s fix most likely won’t involve a shoplifting mob to magically disappear. But it might be someone changing his mind at the last minute and choosing not to participate.

What Can We Do?

We need to increase our devotion to prayer if we’re serious about changing our world. We need to ask God to help change all our hearts and minds to know and do His will. We have to want God to have a place in our world if we desire to have His truth present. God is the ultimate gentleman and will respect our wishes. If we don’t want Him to get involved in our world, we can remain silent. Or, we can pick up our rosary beads, bibles, and Mass schedules and ask for His help to heal our broken world.

Advent is a great time to look beyond the gifts and celebrations and see the need for God in our lives. Like Lent, Advent should be a time of reflection. Ask yourself, “Do you want God in your life?” And if so, are you making room in your life for Him? When Jesus was born, there was no room for him at the inn. Will there be room for him in your heart?

How to Listen to God in a Noisy World

All that noise, noise, noise! Who remembers that phrase from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas“? Now that I’m older, I can sympathize with the Grinch and his desire for some peace and quiet. I wonder if sometimes God thinks something similar… “how can they hear Me over all that noise, noise, noise”? We can learn about the gift of listening to God from the story of Zechariah.

Then Zechariah said to the angel,
“How shall I know this? 
For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 
And the angel said to him in reply,
“I am Gabriel, who stand before God.
I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. 
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk
until the day these things take place,
because you did not believe my words,
which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah
and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. 
But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them,
and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. 
He was gesturing to them but remained mute.

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent | USCCB

I always viewed Zechariah’s silence as a punishment for his disbelief in the power of God. However, in one meditation book I read, the author wants us to look at his silence not as a punishment but as an opportunity. It was an opportunity for Zechariah to listen to what God was telling him. God freed Zechariah from all the noise, both external and internal, so that he could finally listen.

Notice how Zechariah was stricken mute when he was praying in the Holies of Holies. God was basically telling him to be quiet and listen when he prayed. I think often we are like Zechariah in our prayers. We ask God for this and that, expecting Him to answer. But we don’t give Him a chance to answer, we just keep talking and talking. Our prayers are all output. But do we take the time to accept input from God? Maybe God tries to answer but is drowned out because we won’t stop to listen.

Any parent of small children can sympathize. My kids have a tendency to talk in long, run-on sentences. Even if I want to comment or answer a question, I can’t because there’s no opportunity. Of course, I could always interrupt, but that would be impolite. God, the ultimate gentleman, probably acts the same way. Instead of interrupting us, he waits patiently for the right opportunity. And that means we need to stop the talking and be still enough to hear Him.

Quietness and stillness are at a premium this year. With many of us working from home and our kids remote schooling, finding a quiet time and place during the day is challenging. It may require more of an effort. Perhaps we need to wake up earlier before the daily chaos kicks in to pray the Rosary and just sit silently to listen to God (a good cup of coffee helps). Maybe it means turning off the TV, computer, and phones earlier in the evening and just meditate in a dark, quiet house. These are sacrifices, but isn’t it worth it for a chance to listen to God’s personal advice to you? Or would you rather He strike you mute for nine months?

Boost Your Spiritual Defenses this Advent

I love Star Wars. I’ve seen the original trilogy hundreds of times and I’m now enjoying the movies with my sons. If you’ve seen Revenge of the Sith (Episode III), then you know that Anakin Skywalker’s downfall was due to his fear of losing his love, Padame. Being manipulated by Darth Sidious, that fear led him to the Dark Side of the Force and eventually turned him into Darth Vader. Anakin felt alone and abandoned by the Jedi order. I think a similar manipulation is going on right now. Our fear of the Covid-19 virus and wanting to keep our loved ones safe allows Satan to manipulate us.

Everyone can sense it, there is something particularly strange about the COVID virus itself, but also the way government authorities and American public are reacting to it. It’s not just a normal virus/pandemic situation like humanity has experienced numerous times in the past, on a much worse scale. Something else is going on here. What is becoming quite clear is that The Virus, and the reaction to it, is a spiritual attack by Satan designed to destroy charity and souls.

The Devil’s in More than the Details: How Satan is using The Virus to Destroy Charity – The Catholic Esquire

This situation reminds me of a homily I heard a few weeks ago. My priest said that we are joyful and happy when we are grateful and charitable. Basically, we are happy when we feel connected to each other and serve each other. But in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re forced to isolate ourselves. The one thing we are forbidden to do is “connect” with each other. And while the mandates talk only about physical distancing, it creates a domino effect that reduces our willingness to connect charitably and spiritually.

Many of us have adopted a “me first” attitude this year. It’s not something born from selfishness, but rather our basic instinct of self-preservation. We’re always thinking about how we can stay safe, not contract Covid-19, and not pass it to others. We all want to do our part in fighting this pandemic. And there is nothing wrong with that as long as we realize that it affects our spiritual ability to fight off Satan.

When we feel alone and isolated we become an easier target for Satan. He can more easily influence an individual than a group. He can take our wanting to be safe and keep our loved ones safe and use that to push us into despair. We no longer feel a sense of community from our friends, family, and universal Church. Many of us cannot go to Mass regularly. And those of us who can go to Mass often feel like we have to rush through it so as not to be exposed to others for too long. We’re all like Anakin Skywalker, we want to do the right thing. But when we are cut off from sources of truth, Satan has a louder voice. It becomes harder to know what the “right thing” is because the Prince of Lies may be distorting our sense of truth.

The most important thing we can do in these last days of Advent is realize that our normal defenses against Satan are weaker. Many of us haven’t been strengthened by receiving the Sacrament of Communion or attending Mass regularly. We maybe aren’t praying as much as we should. We’ve substituted a spiritual Advent of charity with “rage spending” on extravagant gifts because we just have all this frustration from a year of cabin fever and missed events.

It’s not too late to strengthen ourselves. Pray the Rosary daily! Meditate on the daily readings. Attend Mass daily, even if it is just online, and go in person on Sunday when you can. Contribute to charities. Fast. Sacrifice as you do during Lent. Do these so that Satan will back off and look for easier prey. Pray for those who are at the greatest risk of being influenced by Satan’s lies.

If anything, keeping up with your spiritual needs will have benefits for your emotional needs too.

In 2019, about 42% of those who reported attending religious services weekly told Gallup that their mental health was excellent. In 2020, 46% said the same, an increase of 4 percentage points. Only 35% of those who attend services nearly weekly or monthly reported excellent mental health, down 12 percentage points from last year. Among those who attend seldom or never, 29% reported excellent mental health, down 13 percentage points.

Only frequent church attendees avoided downward mental health trend in 2020 (catholicnewsagency.com)

Advent: A Time to Get Back to Basics

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many of us to change our Christmas plans. As stressful and inconvenient as this year may be for many us, maybe there’s a silver lining. We have a chance to see past the usual distractions and better embrace Advent and Christmas for what it really is — a holy time to prepare our hearts for Christ Jesus.

Many of us cannot partake in the more commercial and secular holiday traditions this year. There aren’t tree lighting ceremonies, public ice skating, nights to go out to a café and enjoy hot chocolate or enjoy family and work parties. But let’s think back to the original Advent. It’s not like Mary and Joseph had a chance to party down either. They had to make a hard journey through the desert to Bethlehem. Mary was 9 months pregnant and probably needed to walk most of the way. They certainly didn’t get to stop by a Starbucks and pick up their holiday-spiced latte.

And yet, despite the hardship of traveling, Mary and Joseph were filled with joy. Like any parent, they were eagerly anticipating their first-born child’s birth. And they knew that this baby was special – conceived by the Holy Spirit. Did they want to travel far from their home? No. But they had to under orders by the Roman emperor. But even in the midst of that hard journey, they found joy.

Does anyone want to celebrate Advent and Christmas with Covid-19 lockdowns? No, of course not. Like Mary and Joseph, we too have our hardships this Advent. But we can still eagerly anticipate Jesus’ birth as they did. Without all the commercial distractions, maybe this Advent and Christmas can take on a new meaning for many of us. It’s a good time to start or resurrect some of the more spiritual traditions that usually get lost in the noise of a normal December.

Perhaps this Advent would be a good time to prepare our souls for Jesus’ arrival. Make some sacrifices like giving up treats, alcohol, or some other luxuries like you do for Lent. Meditate on all the sacrifices Mary and Joseph needed to make while preparing for Jesus’ birth. Make Advent a time of preparation by increased prayer. In the time you would usually be fighting for a parking space at the mall, pray the Rosary instead. The time that you would be sipping on a hot chocolate at a tree lighting event, read the Bible. Light an Advent wreath and pray as a family. Give thanks for God’s blessings that you otherwise might not think about because you would normally be looking for that perfect toy at the store.

I know it’s hard to avoid the negative vibe this Advent and Christmas have. We often can’t change the challenges in our life. But we can choose how we want to respond to those challenges. Let’s take our queue from Mary and Joseph and ask God for the strength to approach our current challenges with a sense of joy. Just because this Advent is different, doesn’t mean it needs to be bad. Instead of focusing on what we’re losing, let’s focus on what God is giving us — an opportunity for Him to fill our lives with His grace.

Saint Dominic: Model of Humility

I recently completed reading Saint Dominic and the Rosary by Catherine Beebe.  Saint Dominic’s life was a saintly one in every sense of the word.  He practiced the saintly virtues of humility and patience throughout his life.  We should also practice these virtues during Advent as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth and reflect on the life of the greatest saint, our Mother Mary, who is the paradigm of patience and humility.

Catherine Beebe’s book walks through Saint Dominic’s life from his early childhood through his holy death.  Keep in mind that this isn’t an academic or rigorously historical book.  It contains conversations and events that I’m sure came from second and third hand sources or were created in an attempt to better explain aspects of Saint Dominic’s personality.  But that in no way takes away from the motivational and inspiring power of this book.  Personally, I want to learn about Saint Dominic’s virtues, not a dry day-by-day historical account of his life.

According to the book, Saint Dominic strived for sainthood his entire life.  He always oriented himself towards bringing people closer to God.  When he was a young priest traveling through Spain, he was never too tired or busy to preach to the Albigensian heretics and try to convert them.  He lived humbly, never indulging in earthly delights.  In fact, he never ate more food than what he needed to stay healthy.  Even the order he founded put their faith in God to provide for them as they relied entirely on people’s donations of food, clothing, and other provisions.

It is this total giving of self that is the main theme throughout
Catherine Beebe’s book.  And I think this is also why our Mother Mary choose Saint Dominic to bring Her Rosary into the world.  She too, was a total servant of God; putting aside Her wants and expectations to completely accept God’s plan for Her.   That is what God wants out of a saint — a complete and willing submission to His Will.  When I say “submission” I’m not talking about it in that dominating sense of the word.  I mean that we willingly put our lives into God’s hands with faith that He will lead us to true happiness.

You have to be humble to be a servant to God.  Humility is the virtue which defeats pride.  And pride is the sin of centering your entire life around your wants and desires.  You can’t put yourself into God’s hands while centering your life around what you want at the same time.  You have to choose.  Likewise, saintly behavior requires patience.  It’s a lifelong journey of trusting in God when times are either good or bad.  You can’t say you’re devoted to God and then bail on Him at the first sign of hardship.  Is it easy?  Of course not.  But where do you think the phrases patience is a virtue and patience of a saint come from?  Being a saint isn’t easy but it’s the life God calls all of us to live.

The Rosary Connection

Look at Mary in the First Joyful Mystery.  She showed great humility placing Her life in God’s hands in the Annunciation.  Now move on to the Fifth Joyful Mystery.  Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus for several days “in sorrow.”  Imagine the patience Mary had to show and not give up hope of finding her lost son.  We can learn from Mary that even when times are difficult, we need to show patience for God to show us the way.  It is in that quiet patience that God will show us the way out of hardship.

PSA: archive.org

Lastly, I want to point our a really useful Rosary resource — www.archive.org.  I found that book about Saint Dominic on archive.org and, like a library, I was able to check it out as an ebook.  If you do a search for “rosary” on the site, you will find all sorts of books, newsletters, pamphlets, etc.  Many of those are out of print and you cannot find anywhere else (which is the whole point of why we have archive.org).  If you’re looking for some new Rosary material, give archive.org a look (and support it with a donation if you find anything of value).

Why You Need Contemplative Prayer Right Now

With only two weeks left before Christmas, many of us are feeling that last minute pressure to finish shopping (or start it) and finalize plans.  Did you get the right presents?  Did you forget to send a Christman card to someone important?  Will the package you ordered be delivered on time?  There are so many questions and concerns spinning around in our heads right now.  And that is why it’s the perfect time to stop and engage in some contemplative prayer.

In my recent presentation, I emphasized how the Rosary is a meditative and contemplative prayer.  And this makes sense given its origin — our Mother Mary.  In the Gospel, Mary is a woman of few words.  Instead, she is always listening and observing what Jesus is saying and doing.  In so many instances, the Gospel talks about how she keeps things in her heart.  She is humble and reserved taking the role as God’s servant.  She is the paradigm of contemplative behavior.  And likewise, her gift to us, the Rosary, is modeled after her contemplative nature.

Here are some examples of how you can use contemplative prayer to great effect.  This Advent, in addition to a morning Rosary prayer, I’ve taken up reading from a daily prayer and reflection book.  By front-loading my day with prayer and scripture, I have plenty to think about and meditate on when I find some quiet downtime throughout my day.  Jonathan B. Coe, in his article on Catholic Exchange, calls the combination of scripture and Rosary prayer a “contemplative canvas that renews the mind and facilitates an open-handed generosity in life.”  If your day is a blank canvas, how are you painting it?  And you filling it with holy thoughts and actions fueled by the Gospel and Rosary?

One of the Advent reflections I read stressed the importance of silence and clearing your mind of all the holiday distractions.  Remember, Jesus’ birth wasn’t a grand event in the physical sense.  It was a quiet one that took place in a stable or cave in some small, out of the way village.  And even today, the commercial grandeur of Christmas drowns out the whisper-like presence of Jesus’ birthday.  It is only in the stillness of meditative prayer that we block out the noisy world to truly appreciate the heart of Christmas.

Lastly, I recently finished reading a biography on Saint Dominic, through whom Mary gave the world the Rosary.  He traveled throughout Europe in his life.  And wherever he went, when he had free time, he visited a church or cathedral and prayed.  That routine of filling part of the day in contemplative prayer can be said of any number of saints.  God desires all of us to saintlike behavior as that is the quickest means to internal happiness in His kingdom.  And so, maybe we should take a cue from the saints and also fill some of our lives with meditative prayer.  For example, after I drop off my son at school, I stop by the church to sit quietly and pray.  Maybe you can find time to attend Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  Try attending a weekday Mass or just sit quietly in a Church for a few minutes.  Or maybe, just lay still in bed when you wake up and spend a few minutes in prayer before starting your day.

Think about Mary’s contemplative behavior in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.  When the shepherds came to Jesus talking about angels announcing His birth, Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19).  Upon finding Jesus in the temple and hearing Him say that he needed to be in His Father’s house, she treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51).  Are you talking regularly with God through prayer and treasuring His response in your heart?

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Don’t Lose Your Moral Bearings in the Darkness

Imagine you’re a pilot flying alone on a completely dark night with no instrumentation.  Envision how hard it would be to know your altitude, your level, and whether or not you’re about to crash into something.  In total darkness, with no visibility and landmarks for reference, there is a good chance the airplane will crash and burn.

Keep that airplane analogy in mind as you read this article about the Glamor of Evil by Dr. Gregory Popcak.  We all know about how we should avoid committing sin. That’s Catholicism 101; easy stuff. But you can also be seduced by sin without actively participating in it.  He writes:

Evil is glamorous, not only in the sense that it can be hard to resist being drawn into it, but also in the sense that it can be hard to look away from it. If you aren’t careful, it’s tremendously easy to stare at it, and stare at it, and stare at it, until you can’t see anything else. Until everything good, and godly, and righteous, and beautiful has been drained from view, and all that is left is outrage, and anger, and indignation, and disgust.

Like the pilot alone in the dark, when we fixate on all the evil, darkness, and problems in this world we lose our moral bearings.  We can become disoriented in the darkness and start to lose hope, joy, and our faith.  We can no longer see the differences between good and evil because we’ve lost our spirital point of reference.  Our actions no longer seem to matter because we don’t see any goal or point to them.  Does it really matter what I do if everything is falling apart around me?

Being lost and aimless doesn’t usually end well.

Dr. Popcak tells us that we can’t let negative thinking completely envelop us.  Our faith and relationship with Jesus Christ should act like a shining beacon, even in our darkest hours.  The beauty and goodness of our faith can provide all the guidance we need to find strength, peace, and maybe even happiness, even when our world looks nonredeemable.

When Good Things Turn Us Bad

I’m going to go one step further. It’s not just evil that can completely block us from whatever is good and godly. Neutral activities can also do the same. Consider social media and the 24/7 cable news cycle. On their own, there’s nothing sinful about them.  They allow us to stay updated on recent events and connect with each other. But for many of us, these seemingly harmless pastimes can consume 100% of our attention leaving room for nothing else. And when your world is completely consumed by Twitter, Facebook, Fox News, and MSNBC, you can stop seeing the genuine good in the world. You will either see a carefully curated goodness that isn’t real or you will just see everything as bad and hopeless and fall into despair.

As we enter the season of Advent and Christmas, it’s important to not allow ouselves to fixate on what is ultimately unimportant. I know we want to buy presents, decorate our homes, and participate in all the other traditions associated with Christmas. But we can’t let the commercial side of Christmas blind us to the true meaning behind it. Because when you obsess over what to buy and what you want to receive, you leave yourself open to the sins of greed, envy, and even wrath. Want an example?  Look no further than the annual chaos around Black Friday and how people lose their moral bearings fighting over TVs and toasters.

The Rosary Connection

Look at the Fourth Luminous Mystery, The Transfiguration.  I’m talking about darkness and the light in this article.  Well, in this mystery you see Jesus’ clothes literally become dazzling white (Mark 9:3).  And that, of course, got the apostles’ attention.  When you meditate on this Rosary mystery, ask yourself, is Jesus a dazzling beacon of love, hope, and goodness in your life?  Does He shine brighter through the darkness keeping you morally oriented toward His teachings?  If not, maybe you need to turn around or take off your blindfold.  Jesus is always present in our lives.  If you don’t see that “light” in the darkness, ask Mary for guidance when you pray the Fourth Glorious Mystery, Her Assumption.  She wants nothing more than to guide you through the darkness to Her son.

Also, when you pray the Third Joyful Mystery, think of the wise men traveling through the desert to pay homage to Jesus.  They would have been wondering around aimlessly and hopelessly if it weren’t for a star to guide them.  Again, you have a point of light, a referrence point, which guided the three wise men to Jesus. Are you following the signs in your life which lead you to Jesus?

Are You Ready for a Lenten Advent?

As we approach Advent, I’m sure most of us will focus more on what’s on sale on Amazon than on prayer and fasting. When it comes to seasons of preparation, Advent tends to take a back seat to Lent when it comes to people focusing on their spiritual needs. This Advent, I want to challenge you to devote more time and energy preparing what is in your heart in addition to what is under your Christmas tree.

True story. One time my wife and I met with a priest for a class on a weekday in Advent. The priest offered my wife a small brownie bite which she politely refused saying that she was abstaining from sweets during Advent. The priest surprisingly said that was the first time he’d ever heard of someone fasting during Advent. Lent? Of course. But you must be a special sort of crazy to fast during a time when stores, markets, homes, and offices are stocked wall-to-wall with Christmas candy and pastries.

eat as much as you can
It would be a Christmas miracle if I could abstain from eating from the office cookie dish.

I mention this not to show how strong-willed my wife is (okay, maybe I wanted to brag a little). I mention this because of the priests surprise that someone actually took a season of preparation to actually prepare for Christmas! I think many of us hear that word, preparation, but don’t actually internalize what it means. We decorate our homes, buy gifts, trim a tree, and do all sort of things to prepare for Christmas, the holiday. But we so often skip the preparation for Christmas, the Holy Day.

I encourage you to make a plan for Advent similar to what you do for Lent. Don’t just think about what you can give up. Advent is a good time to think about what you can add. Here are some ideas:

  1. Set up an advent wreath and pray around it every day with your family.
  2. Buy an Advent prayer book that you use daily.
  3. Make an effort to go to Eucharistic adoration and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
  4. Consciously do extra good deeds.
  5. Pray the Rosary daily.

And on that last point, I have just the solution to help you pray the Rosary during Advent.  After many long months, I’m happy to announce that my latest book, The Rosary Prayer Guide for the Rest of Us, is now available in paperback on Amazon.  Right in time for Advent and Christmas.  This book continues what I started in The Rosary for the Rest of Us.  But instead of taking a holistic approach to each Rosary mystery, this new book takes a tactical approach.  It has scripture passages, intentions, and quotations of wisdom for each Rosary bead.  Get an overall understanding from The Rosary for the Rest of Us but get focus for each prayer in The Rosary Prayer Guide for the Rest of Us.

Remember, a Rosary a day keeps the Devil away!

Two Different Responses to God’s Unbelievable Plan

The Bible is full of parallels.  It may be parallel themes between Old and New Testament readings or accounts of different people having similar encounters with God.  We see one such parallel between the story of Mary in the Annunciation and that of Zechariah, husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.  We pray and meditate on these readings, which make up the first two Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, all this week leading up to Christmas.

Cappella tornabuoni frescoes in Florence. Annu...
Cappella tornabuoni frescoes in Florence. Annuncio dell’angelo a San Zaccaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In both accounts, the angel Gabriel comes with news of a pregnancy.  Mary is told she will give birth to a son through the Holy Spirit and Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist.  Furthermore, the announcement is initially met by disbelief.  Mary’s amazement comes because she is not married and Zechariah’s stems from Elizabeth’s old age.

The difference in these two accounts comes next.  In Mary’s case, she praises God and humbles herself saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”  But in Zechariah’s case, the angel Gabriel takes away his ability to speak because of his disbelief.

What confused me about these two accounts was that according to the text, it appears as if Mary and Zechariah both show a very similar reaction, one of amazement and disbelief.  Why was Zechariah punished and not Mary?  I think the key is understanding Gabriel’s ability to see into someone’s heart and not just hear their words.

Angel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary, by Muril...
Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, by Murillo, c. 1655 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Mary was confused initially, in her heart she truly believed and accepted God’s Will for her.  But I think that Gabriel must have sensed that Zechariah did not fully believe the news he had just heard.  To put it another way, Mary’s initial reaction may have been out of shock and quickly passed while Zechariah harbored a real sense of disbelief.  Maybe, while he was in the holy sanctuary, Zechariah was going through the motions of prayer but not fully open to God’s grace.  It is fitting that he was punished with speechlessness as a sign that maybe he was giving more lip service to his faith rather than truly internalizing it.

As we prepare in these final days of Advent, let us remember to have an open heart like Mary and not a closed one like Zechariah.  Pray that you don’t go through the motions of spirituality by treating Christmas Mass like a mere formality before the real celebration can begin.  Mass is the real celebration!  I know many of you have large dinners to attend, guests to entertain, and presents to open.  And while you may say you believe and celebrate Jesus’ birth, how much of your heart is centered around Him?  God knows what is in our hearts and you can’t fool him.

This Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  The best birthday present you can give Him is an honestly open heart.  Don’t go through the motions of prayer and practicing your faith but earnestly make room in your heart for God’s grace manifested in His son, Jesus Christ.  Merry Christmas!