part four: an advent circle of grace

the fourth light: incarnation

Christmas is about incarnation, about the son of God becoming flesh and taking on our humanity. When I think about incarnation, I am reminded of this beautiful sentiment from Saint Theresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand after dark that Thursday, and checked into the hotel where my husband Bill had been staying since he arrived here for business a few days before. This would be the first time I travelled anywhere in Asia. Bill had been to Asia countless times before, traversing China, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Indonesia. For me, travel in Asia was very much outside of my comfort zone. Moving to Singapore was the extent of my Asia experience. But I was willing to try this new adventure. Once in the hotel room, I opened the curtains to the lights of the city. Air conditioned and comfortable, I felt a sense of self confidence and hope. The Fodors guide I had carried along with me on the flight suggested all kinds of historical sites and neighborhoods to explore, and Bill and I had a few ideas for the weekend ahead. Tomorrow, though, Bill would be attending meetings with his Asia team and I’d be on my own in this strange, new international city. The last thing I wanted to do was to sit in a hotel all day. So I went online and found a review for an English-speaking Thai cooking class and registered.

The next morning, I asked the hotel for help in getting a taxi to take me to the class, and gave the concierge the name and address of the cooking school so he could tell the driver where I needed to go. Once the cab left the hotel grounds, I began to take in all of the sights and sounds of Bangkok. It was pretty overwhelming! Unbelievably heavy traffic in which drivers seemed not to care much about the rules of the road, scooters and motorcycles driving every which way, stifling, oppressive heat, and so much pollution and noise. The driver seemed nice enough, though every time he spoke to me in Thai I found myself nodding and making non-descript, non English verbal responses. I pulled up google maps on my phone and followed our route. As I followed along on the GPS, I realized that my cab driver didn’t seem to be taking me to the cooking class. With no way of communicating with him, and no way to be completely sure, I simply waited until he pulled the car up in front of a little Thai house. It was clear now that we were nowhere near the destination on my GPS. He began to gesture for me to pay and get out of the back seat, and I began shaking my head NO vigorously, using body language to make very clear that I was not going to be left here on the sidewalk. So, he hopped out of the driver’s seat, opened the back door, and tried to take me by the arm and remove me from the taxi. I continued to protest. It finally dawned on me that perhaps he could read my GPS, even though most of it was in English. He took a look at the little screen, scratched his head, thought for a minute, and then, he understood. And began to laugh. And laugh. And laugh, realizing the mistake.

Once back in the driver’s seat, he drove me to the cooking school, where I faced the next obstacle: crossing a one-way, six-lane road of heavy, high-speed chaos; scooters and motorbikes, taxis and delivery trucks, horns honking and people gesturing, no traffic lights or cross walks in sight. It was completely overwhelming. I honestly could not imagine myself getting out of the car here either, even though we were now in the right location. This lovely man sensed my trepidation, and this time, when he got out of the driver’s seat, and reached out with his worn, gentle hand to take me by the arm, I willingly complied. He literally put himself between me and the oncoming traffic, and assuredly guided me across the road. Miraculously, all six lanes of traffic stopped. Once safely on the other side, I paid this driver, my guardian angel, and headed in to the class. It was fantastic! I learned about Thai cooking ingredients, met some English speakers from around the world, and had my fill of the spicy, fantastic dishes we prepared together.

It turns out that the nice taxi driver who had brought me had unexpectedly waited for me to emerge from the cooking school at the end of the class. Still parked across the busy street, he waved frantically to get my attention, helped me cross the road again, and dropped me safely back at the hotel where our adventure had begun several hours before.

Today, as I tell this story, I am struck with the overwhelming grace of it all. At the time, I was simply overwhelmed. Once I was safely back in the hotel room, I sat down and cried. My first solo outing in Asia was so far from how I expected it to go. And yet this cab driver who spoke no English still understood me, felt compassion for me, and cared for me. In an absolutely breathtaking way, this Thai stranger illustrates incarnation. His were the eyes that looked at me with compassion. His were the feet that led me across that busy street to do good. His were the hands that held the steering wheel, and that gently held me by the elbow as he guided me. His were the hands, the feet, the eyes, the body.

Now, whenever I think of incarnation, of God becoming human, and of our call to being Christ on earth, I think of my delightful, caring, joyful, compassionate Thai friend. Mostly, I think about his hands, and how hands do Christ’s work on earth. Particularly in December, all of our hands are busy caring for others. We decorate with our hands, untangling lights and hanging ornaments and tying bows. We drive our cars to run the countless errands. Our hands give to others, reach for others, receive from others. Our hands give blessing and praise, our hands give comfort and love, and our hands pray. During Advent, we sing, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we yearn for God to be with us. We can also reflect on how we are each Christ’s hands and heart.

When I made the connection between the incarnation and the compassionate care with which my taxi driver helped me, the invitation, for me, was to notice the grace in the situation and to delight in the holiness of my experience in Thailand. For all of us, the invitation in Advent is to contemplate the ways in which our hands, feet, eyes, and body are the incarnation. To notice how we care for others. To delight in our breath, and our heart, and our compassion. And to connect these things with the infant’s coming on Christmas.

I return again to Michael Taylor’s quote: “Grace happens when life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so I pray: May your awareness of people that are Christ’s hands in this world enrich and grace your lives. And may you delight in the grace of being Christ’s hands on earth.

 

conclusion of the series

My hope is that you’ve been able to find some grace here, during this beautiful, holy Season. And as you’ve moved through these days of Advent, I hope you’ve been able to rest in this idea: Grace happens when your human life is lived and celebrated authentically. In conclusion, I leave you with this lovely blessing written by one of my favorite spiritual authors, John O’Donohue,

“May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.”

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]

Advertisement

part three: an advent circle of grace

the third light: wonder

One December a few years ago, during my lunch break, I decided to visit a beautiful Adoration chapel close to work. It being the most wonderful and busy! time of the year, I found myself having great difficulty finding focus. Lists of things ran through my head, from last-minute shopping, to incomplete tasks left behind at the office, to memories of Christmases past and how I would miss being in Michigan with my family that year.

The altar at the St Isaac Jogues’s Adoration Chapel has a wonderful stained glass wall behind it that depicts Jesus on the cross, with Mary and John at his feet. I’ve spent countless hours in that chapel, my eyes noticing every detail in the glass. But this day, I noticed that the image of the cross seems to float within a wonderful depiction of the tree of life. The dark wood of the cross has leaves in beautiful shades of green swirling around it. The image of Jesus’s cross juxtaposed on the tree of life was enough to get me to take a few deep breaths and settle into prayer. As I was drawn deeper into this link between the tree of life and the cross of the crucifixion, I was struck with another connection. I’ve always loved a wonderful little book about Mary and Jesus by Caryl Houselander called The Reed of God. In it, Houselander says, “The description of Jesus’ birth in the gospel does not say that [Mary] held him up in her arms but that she ‘wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.’ As if her first act was to lay him on the cross.” In the midst of the season’s hustle and bustle, as I sat and prayed with this new, found image of the tree of life, and its wood as the manger AND the cross, I was drawn into the silence of the chapel, and the beauty of the connections that God had made for me. This moment in prayer was, for me, a lovely moment of grace.

As I sat there in prayer and contemplation, I began to realize that a woman had walked into the chapel. She had a tiny baby in her arms. She, too, seemed to be in a hurry that day, and she, too, seemed to need a little nudge from God to find focus. I watched as she walked right up in front of the monstrance and held the infant’s face up where he could see. This mother, her baby in her arms, then knelt before the monstrance for a few moments, her head bowed, all the while making sure her child was facing Jesus. It was if she was saying, “Behold! Do not be afraid!”

In this moment of grace, it was as if God was saying it to me. “Behold!” I sensed God telling me to notice the infant… Notice the way this mother helps her child see Jesus… God seemed to be whispering, “This is all you need to know this Christmas.” This young mother was a stunningly beautiful reminder to me to take in and celebrate moments of wonder.

The invitation here, for me, was the beautiful awareness of Advent as a season of awe and wonder, even (and perhaps especially) in the middle of a busy workweek right before Christmas. For all of us, the invitation during Advent is to remember the baby. To be vulnerable. To open our hands and hearts to the infant. And to grace ourselves with the peaceful moments that bring our focus where we know it belongs.

I return again to that quote: “Grace happens when life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so I pray: May your efforts to go deeper be moments of grace and transformation.

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]

part two: an advent circle of grace


the second light: community

Earlier this year, when I realized that my laptop was on its last legs, I started the painstaking process of tidying up the files on my hard drive. It’s always so time consuming to do this, isn’t it? And, typically, it’s a rushed process because it seems like there’s always a critical deadline looming for which you can’t live without the computer. In the process of creating new file folders, deleting old ones, organizing and weeding out, I found myself sorting through the old “Christmas Cards” folder on the hard drive. This task of cleaning up that I wanted to complete as quickly as possible suddenly slowed down to a crawl.

When we were first married, we experienced several cross-country moves in a relatively short period of time. Sending out Christmas cards in which we included an annual Christmas update letter easily became integrated into our annual Christmas traditions. Once we started our family, we loved taking the girls out on a sunny late-autumn day for a photo at a local landmark to include in the card. Isn’t it funny how these wonderful rituals seem to grow and change from year to year? When we lived in Maine, we wrote about the time that the moose strolled right down our street just like in the opening of a popular old TV show called Northern Exposure. A couple of years later, we suffered the loss of my dad and two of our grandparents in the same year, so we wrote touching tributes to each them in the annual letter. Our home just outside of Washington, DC afforded us with one of my favorite family photos, taken inside the National Building Museum. The girls were so small and everyone was so happy in that picture. One year, when we started to grow tired of coming up with new material, we creatively wrote a Mad Lib with lots of fill-in-the-blanks for our family and friends to fill out. So when I started going through the old files on my computer and came upon all of this Christmas stuff from years gone by, I delighted in the walk down memory lane.

I realized, as I was going through all of these things, that I had also saved the annual spreadsheet lists of people to whom we would send out cards. Talk about going through the archives! As you might imagine, the people on the lists changed from year to year, because the places we lived and the circles of people in our lives changed from year to year as well. Our families, as all families do, suffered great losses over the years. As time went on, we lost contact with some friends for a variety of reasons. Likewise, we gained so many new relationships, new friendships, and new communities. When I compare the most recent Christmas card lists with the ones from 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, I am blown away. Memories of faces and moments and life come flooding back. This is the stuff that life is made of, isn’t it? Remembering each person on these years of old lists was an astounding moment of grace for me. And as I reflect on it this Advent season, I find myself reflecting on one of my favorite images from the Letter to the Hebrews. The author of the epistle writes:

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (-Hebrews 12:1)

Reflecting on this scripture causes me to pause. In my mind’s eye, I picture the dozens of people who have filled the lists on all of those Christmas card spreadsheets. I think about the couples, the families, the aunts and uncles and cousins, my brothers and sisters in law, my nieces and nephews, the old neighbors and co-workers. I reflect on all of the places the cards have travelled – the cities and towns and neighborhoods, the mailboxes and kitchen tables they’ve graced. I think of those who have died, and I think of the communion of saints, this great cloud of witnesses, and the way I sometimes feel their presence like a whisper. In the process of remembering, the invitation, for me, was to give honor to all of the holy souls that have graced me in my lifetime. The invitation for Advent is to celebrate the innumerable communities that have formed so many circles of grace in each of our lives.

As Michael Taylor says, “Grace happens when human life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so this is my prayer for all of you: May you find solace and growth in the relationships in your lives. And may you delight in the presence of those holy friendships that enfold you in circles of grace.

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]

part one: an advent circle of grace


the first light: patience

Advent is a season of patience. It begins, it seems, as we wait for the days to begin to get longer. For me, as the days get shorter and shorter in December, the darkness that comes earlier in the evening is sometimes unbearable. And yet, when I drive home after a long day and darkness surrounds me, the beautiful Christmas light displays seem to light my way home. I love the way Chester County provides so many open vistas, so many fields and rolling hills, where I can spot lovely houses outlined with lights, some multi-colored, others clear; some displays so over-the-top and others more understated.

As it was mentioned, we recently lived in Southeast Asia for a couple of years. Our first Christmas in Singapore, we moved heaven and earth as we arranged for our adult daughters to visit us in Asia for the holiday. With the flights booked, I began to realize that I hadn’t brought any of the family Christmas decorations with us during our move around the world. No cross-stitched stockings that I’d made when the girls were babies, no Christmas tree, no garlands or ornaments or Christmas plaid placemats brought out only for a short time every year. The girls would be coming, but I found myself worrying that our modern, 29th-floor apartment wouldn’t ignite the feeling of coming home for the holidays.

Those few weeks before the girls arrived became a whirlwind of my making Christmas in a foreign country. I found an artificial tree, picked up makeshift ornaments along the way, paid way too much to have some new stockings shipped from the US that were embroidered with each of our names, and I baked batches and batches of Christmas cookies. Having been away from our kids for so many months, I had a strong desire to create a “perfect” Christmas. They wouldn’t be coming home per se, but I still wanted their Christmas to resemble all of the ones we’d celebrated with family and friends over the years. As I look back on it now, I realize that I went a bit overboard. At the same time, I am keenly aware of the grace of this experience. As you’ve probably guessed, it turns out that our Singapore Christmas was nothing like those Christmas pasts. But in the process of trying to make a perfect Christmas, I can say now that God presented me with the grace of learning. I learned to be patient, with myself, first and foremost. I learned to let go of some perfect image of Christmas that existed in my imagination and to understand that what was most important was that we were all on the same continent, in that little apartment in Singapore, enjoying each other’s company. I also learned that waiting to see my kids after many months of being away from them was the most difficult exercise in patience I’d ever experienced.

In Advent, we wait in joyful hope for the birth of the infant. This waiting is a sort of holy patience, isn’t it? What I found myself struggling with that first Christmas in Singapore was that the joyful part of that waiting became eclipsed by the worry and anxiety about making it perfect for the four of us in a foreign country where most people didn’t really seem to understand the reason for the season. My focus was on the stuff and not the fact that we were all going to celebrate together on Christmas eve and Christmas morning. This realization, this awareness, and this understanding was an amazing grace. It was if as a switch went off inside of me, and I began to notice the joy and let go of the anxiety. The invitation here, for me, was to have patience with myself, to slow down, and to delight in the moments preparing for and sharing with my family. For any person in Advent, this invitation to be patient with ourselves, and to be patient in our waiting can be a wonderful way to enter this Holy season. To find joy. To breathe deeply. And to be aware of the times when striving for a picture-perfect December has eclipsed our ability to be present to the gifts right before our eyes.

As Michael Taylor says, “Grace happens when human life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so this is my prayer for all of you: May you savor moments of joyful awareness as grace and gift during this season.

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]