Nativity

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Last week, my husband hurled our Christmas tree out of our living room window. We discovered this method of getting the tree outside last year and it saves us from having to collect needles that were, in previous years, strewn across our living room to the front door. Pushing a tree out the window is also just ridiculous enough to feel liberating. While our tree (which was so dry that it was ready to go up in a fiery blaze) had to be disposed of early this year, our Nativity set reminds us that it is still Christmas for one more day. However, it is a different Nativity scene that I find myself contemplating as I write this.

Unlike the peaceful statues that depict the birth of Christ in my home, the Vatican Nativity scene this year has caused quite a bit of controversy. If you haven’t seen pictures of it, I would encourage you to look it up. Far from the usual tranquil and picturesque scenes that tend to depict Jesus’s birth, this one is chaotic and messy. The walls behind the Holy family appear to be crumbling. The figures are crowded together, so much so that it is sometimes hard to tell which appendage belongs to which statue. When we really think about the Christmas story, we realize that this is how it should be – Christ’s birth was chaotic and messy. His family was “living out of a suitcase” as they stayed in a town that was overflowing with visitors. They were sleeping in a shelter for animals which, no doubt meant that they were enjoying all of the sounds and smells that accompany a quaint barnyard birth. Into this environment that was far from homey, came unfamiliar visitors from diverse social classes. To top it all off, the king already wanted Jesus dead. Certainly there was peace and joy on that night, but that had nothing to do with Jesus’s surroundings. Instead, God Himself reached down and drew peace and joy out of a virgin womb. It was this act of God that brought those two gifts into the hearts of those who worshiped the newborn King who was born to dwell in the desperation, filth and despair of humanity.

While the infant Jesus is at the center of the Vatican’s Nativity scene, the figures that surround the more traditional Christmas statues reveal another aspect of our Savior through the corporal works of mercy that they are performing. In one corner, a woman quenches her neighbors thirst. In another, a man offers dignity to a boy lying naked beneath him by offering him clothes. At the bottom of the scene, with arms outstretched, a figure walks toward an invalid who is bandaged and flushed with fever. Next to them, someone visits a prisoner and, in the far corner, a young man provides burial for a dead body. These figures not only prod us to do what Jesus calls us to do, but they remind us that the irresistible baby lying in a manger would grow up to be a man whose teachings divided families, who demanded that we take up our cross daily, and who told us that to truly serve Him, we must care for others.

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:34-40

If you know this passage, you will also know that Jesus’s next words are some of the most terrifying in the Bible:

Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” Matthew 25:41-43

Every time I read these words, I shudder. For how much food do I have in my pantry, while there is still great hunger in the world? How easily do I open my faucet that flows with pure water, while children are dying from diseases borne by unclean water? How many strangers have I failed to welcome into the safe, little world that I exist in? How many homeless men and women are shivering on the streets, while hats, gloves, scarves and coats hang unused in my closets? How many times have I been too busy or afraid to offer help to the sick or to those who are cast aside or imprisoned by society? The reality is that I do not measure up well to the standard that Jesus has set before me. However, one of the incredible mysteries of our faith is that salvation is available only through Christ even though we do not deserve it and, yet, Jesus Himself has commanded us to perform great acts of love and sacrifice.

The 2017 Vatican Nativity, portrays both of these truths: that God loved the world so much that He sent His son to be born amidst a desperate people and that He sends us to minister to that world today. It reminds us that faith in Christ has little to do with adoring the little Lord Jesus who made no crying and much more to do with following a man whose message was loud and painful. It forces us to consider the reality that, from birth, our God made His home in the often dirty, fragrant, and chaotic company of the poor, the forgotten, the sinners, the hopeless. It makes us wonder whether or not we have made our homes with Him there, too.

 

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Peace To All People

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On that first Christmas night, so long ago, the shepherds fell to their knees as they beheld a wondrous presence. They bowed, with their heads so close to the ground that they could smell the rich dirt beneath their knees, and heard a host of angels crying out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14) As the years have passed, these words have persisted at Christmastime. We print them on our cards, we sing them in our carols, we write them in our stories: “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” “Peace on earth,” “Peace,” “Peace,” “Peace.” Yet, somehow, in the two thousand years since they were first proclaimed, the angels’ words have lost their power. They have come to be happy reminders of warm, cozy feelings that many of us associate with Christmastime, rather than signaling a powerful change that was taking place in our world.

When the angels’ songs pierced the cold, dark fields that night, they heralded the beginning of a life that would shake the very foundation of our existence in two profound ways: by His sacrifice and by His teachings.

First, because the baby born that winter night would offer himself up as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of a perfect God, the angels’ songs proclaimed that the time had arrived when the favor of God, which had been lost through sin, would be restored.  The Bible tells us that when sin first entered our world, Adam and Eve heard God coming and hid from Him. In other words, their sin shattered the intimacy they once shared with God and the angels’s song so many years later proclaimed that men could again draw near their Creator. “Peace,” they sang, “peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”  They rejoiced before the shepherds: “Finally through God’s son, His favor can rest on you,  unworthy though you may be.” The praise of the angels was an announcement that the sin of man no longer demanded that he was the enemy of God. Instead, unlike Adam and Eve men could again stand before God naked and unafraid.

But let us consider that moment when sin first entered our world again. Immediately after Adam and Eve found their relationship with God to be shattered by their disobedience, they discovered that their own relationship had been marred. While Adam had once loved Eve so deeply and intimately that he viewed her as part of himself (Genesis 2:23-24), after sin entered the world he became so detached from his beloved and so controlled by his fear that he turned on Eve in an attempt to deflect blame from himself (Genesis 2:12). God Himself identified this shift in their relationship when He told Eve that, because of her sin, “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 2:16). Because of sin, the selfless peace of right relationship that had existed between man and woman was lost. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that this disruption of peace spread beyond the relationship between the first man and his wife. The story that comes immediately after Adam and Eve’s descent into sin and their banishment from the garden, tells of the murder of their son by his older brother (Genesis 3).

Peace no longer dwelt with humanity. There was no peace with God. There was no peace between men.

Yet, in the fields outside of Bethlehem on a dark Christmas night, the angels announced the birth of one who would teach his children to live in peace with one another again. This little baby whose birth brought peace between man and God would also grow up to teach that the love of our neighbors was second only to love of God (Mark 12:30-31). The same child would one day proclaim that those who fed the hungry, quenched the thirst of the parched, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick or imprisoned are the ones on whom His favor truly rests (Matthew 25:31-46). This tiny baby, the one whose birth was celebrated by choirs of angels, came to restore all of the peace that was lost through sin. He came to bring man peace with God through His sacrifice and He came to teach peace between neighbors.

These past few years, though, it has been difficult to believe the angels’ promises of peace. Continued conflicts in the middle east, battles with ISIS, the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the weakening of alliances within the European Union, the fear of Russia all remind us of the fragile state of peace on a global scale.  At home, we have witnessed our leaders fighting with words that are banned from our homes and overlooking violence their peers have done to others for the sake of their own power. We have been forced to face the horrific resurrection of racism that we thought was dead. We have mourned for our brothers and sisters who are being killed on the streets, at concerts, in their schools, and in their places of worship. We have turned our backs on those orphaned and abandoned by addicted parents. We have blamed and neglected our own countrymen who suffer unimaginable losses.  Even nature seems intent on seeking revenge for the years of abuse that we have battered it with and our determination to continue to take it for granted. In short, all too often, we find ourselves forgetting the song of the angels, and instead sing along to the words of Longfellow: “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!'”

Still, as we light our Advent candle this week, we are forced to remember the angels’ songs. We are reminded that Longfellow’s poem did not end in despair. Instead, we must sing along: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail,the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.” As we are comforted by the knowledge that God is not dead and does not sleep and as we begin to hear again the song of the angels who proclaimed the birth of our Savior, we hear Jesus whisper to us, “I am here, Emmanuel, God with you. I have restored your peace with me. Now, go out and bring my peace into the world as I have taught you to do. Advent, the time of preparation has ended. Go now!”

*If you are interested in listening to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poem, “Christmas Bells,” I highly recommend Casting Crown’s version of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” 

Rejoice

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The third week of Advent begins with Gaudete Sunday and is my personal favorite. The word Gaudete means “rejoice” as in “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philipians 4:4). Not surprisingly, the candle that we light on Gaudete Sunday is the Joy Candle or Shepherd’s Candle, which reminds us of the angel’s greeting to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior – yes the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!” So, in the midst of the penitential season of Advent, we are called to joy (hence the contrast between the traditionally pink color of the Gaudete Sunday candle which symbolizes joy and the three other purple candles which symbolize repentance and waiting.

Unlike happiness, the joy that the angel proclaimed is an abiding joy that does not change with the seasons or vary with external circumstances. It is not just a warm, contented feeling. Instead, it is strong, enduring, and (for us who have the benefit of looking back after Jesus’s earthly life ended) rooted in the reality that our Savior has been born, lived, died, and rose again. Because of His life, death and resurrection, we can rejoice knowing that we are rescued from the bondage of our sins and that God is working out the realization of His kingdom in our world today.  We can be filled with joy in the midst of the most difficult circumstances because we know that, ultimately, everything will be alright.

The Bible offers us many examples of joyful people who expressed their joy in a variety of ways.  Miriam and David  danced and sang before God as they thanked Him for His work in their lives (Exodus 15:20-21 and 2 Samuel 6).  Hannah, Zechariah and Mary  sang songs of joy for the the work of God, His compassion, and His care for the poor (1 Samuel 2, Luke 1:46-55 and 68-79). The shepherds that we remember during this week of Advent received the angel’s news of great joy and confirmed it with their own eyes. Then they ran to share their joy with others and returned to their daily work “glorifying and praising God.”(Luke 2:17-20) Later, the disciple Paul learned to be glad even when forced to confront his own weaknesses because he saw God working through them (2 Corinthians 9-10). Amazingly, the Bible even offers us a glimpse of the rejoicing ones that fill Heaven: the angels and other Heavenly beings who “fall before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshiped God” (Revelation 7: 11) and those who, having “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white,” serve God without ceasing as He shelters, feeds, protects, shepherds and comforts them (Revelation 7:14-17).

Even in the midst of our everyday lives, we see glimpses of those who live life with an abiding joy. We see it in the elderly woman at church who can say “it is well with my soul” in the midst of great loss. We see it in those who have been rescued from addiction and live each day in gratitude to the One who saved them. We see it in writers, speakers, priests and pastors. We see it in all who attest to the truth that Christ has come into our world and is at work in our lives. And when we pause to consider that truth – that Christ has, indeed come and that He is working out each aspect of our lives for good – we can see joy in ourselves, no matter what our circumstances may be. The question is, once we have glimpsed this joy, will we keep it buried deep inside or will we, like the shepherds on that Christmas night so long ago, hurry to share the good news with others and allow our joy to permeate our lives, even as we go back out into the fields and resume the everyday tasks involved in tending our flocks?

“Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ. While fields and floods,
rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy!”

 

*Dedicated to my daughter, Marienka Joy Sroubek -wanted child and sorrow that God will turn to joy.

Preparations

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“Uh-oh!” I thought as I listened to my preschooler say, “I have to be really good now because Christmas is coming and I want to get all of my presents, but it’s so hard to be good!” Last year she asked us if Santa was “really real” and because she was in the midst of learning that Heaven is “really real,” and that her sister is alive there, we told her the truth. I was surprised, therefore, that she thought that Mommy and Daddy would give her coal if she was naughty.

“You know,” I said, “I want you to be good because you want to be good, but you don’t need to be good to get Christmas presents. We can never be good enough to receive the gift of Jesus, but He came anyway, right? Mommy and Daddy give you presents because we love you (not because you deserve them), just like God sent us Jesus because He loves us and not because we deserve Him.”

As we prepare ourselves for Christmas during Advent, it is easy to focus on the many ways that we are not ready to stand in Jesus’s presence. Since it is a season of penance, we rightly examine the state of our souls, but we can become preoccupied with our sins and feelings of unworthiness. We forget that our failure to measure up is the very reason that Christmas is such an unbelievable gift: Jesus came into our world in the midst of all of its unworthiness because He loves us. He doesn’t love us “if we do something.” He doesn’t love us “if we don’t do something.” He just loves us.

It is in response to this love that we should begin to prepare ourselves for His coming and to set out on our journey towards becoming the people who He intends for us to be. It is because He loves us that we should persevere through hardship and do the work that He has set before us to do. It is due to His love that we should be willing to go where He leads us. It is only ever in response to His love that we prepare for His coming and never to obtain His love, for it cannot be obtained.

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

“…his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22)

Waiting in Darkness

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Over the next few weeks, mysustaininggrace.com will be posting reflections for the coming week of Advent. Each reflection will focus on the theme of the advent candle for the corresponding week. The first candle, which we will light on December 3rd, is the Prophet’s Candle or the Candle of Hope. 

“Once upon a time…”

Every child knows that a good story begins with, “Once upon a time” and ends with a  “happily ever after.” In between those two points, however, lies unknown dangers, struggles, sorrows and heartaches. Perhaps this story format is so appealing to us because it mirrors that of the Great Storyteller who began His tale “Once upon a time” in a perfect garden and will end it “happily ever after” in a flawless Heaven. Although the festive Christmas season may prevent us from seeing it, the season of Advent reminds of us of our existence between these two glorious endpoints in God’s story.

During Advent, we are asked to remember the long wait for a Messiah, the hope fostered by the prophets, and the thousands of years worth of prayers for deliverance that flooded the gates of Heaven. We are called to recall a time when hope was just a tiny flicker in the midst of darkness, when the people waiting in darkness had yet to see a great light. At the same time, we are challenged to reflect on our own sin-stained souls and to renew our deep longing for salvation. We are forced to acknowledge that the whole of creation “waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”(Romans 8:19-21) We are required to listen to our spirits as we “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23).

This spiritual longing for Christ’s coming and salvation is a deep, natural one that rises up from the core of our being and permeates every part of us. It is profound and powerful and all of creation echoes our soul’s groaning. It is like a bereaved mother whose longing for her child is so strong that her arms become painful, heavy and restless as they reach out into empty darkness, waiting to be filled and receiving only the reply of “not yet.”

Advent also reminds us, though, that in the midst of that darkness, there is a flicker of light. Through the spoken words of the prophets, the written words of the Bible, the gaze of Christ looking tenderly out from a portrait, the loving actions of a neighbor, we are reminded that Christ is coming. We feel a shimmer of excitement shiver through us as it whispers, “The arrival is coming!” We hear the swipe of a match and see the tiny blaze of a single candle burning in the black of night. We smell the smoke and feel its slight warmth. Though we can scarcely believe it, it is there. A candle of hope that reminds us that He is coming.

 

Heart Scars

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As many women do, I have scars from both of my daughters. In both cases, the wounds that turned to scars were the result of urgent to emergent situations and I had little warning that they would occur. As a result, when my skin was first cut, I couldn’t bear to look at it. It was gross. It was painful. It looked horrible. In fact, one of them was so ugly that my obstetrician said, “Wow, you can tell that (the surgeons) were in a hurry.” Over time, however, I grew to view my scars as cherished reminders of my children and the physical manifestations of my mother-love for them. This is especially true of the scar I bear from the daughter who died because it is one of the few physical reminders that I have of her.

In addition to my external scars, my second daughter’s death also left scars on my heart. In the month after Noemi died, I took the above picture because I believed that, just as God had turned a scarred and broken city landscape into a place of peace and beauty,  He would take my wounds and turn them into something beautiful.  A year later, I am beginning to see that transformation. I will always have sadness – we were made for eternity, not death – but because of eternity, I am increasingly aware of the gift that my daughter’s short life here on earth is.

In light of this, I should not have been surprised that, while I dreaded the first anniversary of Noemi’s death, it was truly a blessing. In fact, I had so much joy on that day that I woke up the next morning and wished I could live it all over again. Rather than making myself visit her grave, look at her pictures, rummage through her hospital box, and remember every detail of the hour of her death, I spent the day with my family and friends. We taught kids, had an adventure, and went out to dinner. Certainly, I remembered and celebrated both Noemi’s earthly and heavenly birthday, but I also felt a strong conviction that I was not supposed to spend the day picking at my heart scars and trying to feel their sting. Instead, I felt that I was meant to behold the peaceful beauty of those scars in the light of Heaven. I believed that I was meant to hear Jesus speaking the words he spoke to Mary, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you’re looking for?” (John 20:15) and to know the power of His resurrection that makes my heart scars precious beyond anything I could have imagined.

SOS

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“You rule the swelling of the sea; when its waves rise, You still them.” – Psalm 89:9

I’ve often wondered what I would do in a real emergency. While I wanted to believe that I would prioritize my daughter’s safety above my own, I was not entirely sure and I worried that, in a moment of crisis, I would become irrational and focused only on my own survival. After all, while I love being a mom and want to be a good one, each day I engage in countless selfish acts. I worried that, since I respond selfishly when I want “just one more minute of peace,” I would respond much more selfishly when my life was in danger. Sure, I had heard about a mother’s instinct to protect her children, but that instinctive selflessness to protect offspring from danger seems to be one of the ways that we were made in God’s image and I worried that this part of who God created me to be had been marred by sin. Last Sunday, however, I was grateful to find that part of God’s image at the core of my being.

Our family had gone on a boat trip to a large lake that we only visit once every few years. While we know the lake to some extent, we are not completely comfortable on it. The day was sunny with a nice breeze and we decided to spend some extra time in the less familiar lake before returning to more familiar waters. After a middle-of-the-lake picnic, we began heading towards a more sheltered area for a swim and, as we steered towards shore, the wind and waves picked up. We were warned by three splashes of spray that hit our faces in rapid succession and then the bow of the boat suddenly plunged under water and I found myself standing on the downward moving deck of the boat in waist deep water. As I looked around me, I saw that my preschool aged daughter’s life vest had pulled her feet from the floor of the boat and she was floating towards the open water.

It was at that moment, that I knew God had kept part of His image intact within me: in the midst of the chaos around me, the only thing I cared about was my daughter’s safety. Yes, I wanted to stay alive, but, honestly, the only reason that I cared about my survival was that I knew my daughter would need me to help her survive.

I grabbed my daughter’s life preserver, pulled her with me to where the water was shallow enough for her to stand, and helped her run up the sloping deck to the back of the boat where the rest of our family was gathered. By the grace of God, the bow of the boat then surfaced and the water flowed to the back where it was able to easily flow off into the churning water beneath us. After a terrifying few hours, we made it safely home with a renewed thankfulness for God’s provision and gratitude for each other.

I share this story, not because I want to boast about my “Momma Bear” instinct. After all, I did not lift a car off of my child with my bare hands like some mothers reportedly do. In fact, if I am honest, I was the least courageous of the adults on the boat (which my tears during our torturous journey to shore soon revealed). Instead, I share this story because it was a moment that showed me something profound about God and about the depth of His love for us.

You see, because of sin, God’s children have also been on a sinking ship. The eternal life that they were created to share with their Father in paradise was lost and they faced destruction. Yet, God loved His children so much that, when they were drowning in sin, He sacrificed Himself to make sure that they survived. In the past, I had always assumed that this was a rational decision that God made but, having felt the all encompassing desire to save my own child, I now I suspect it wasn’t a decision at all, but a natural result of who He is at His core and how deeply He loves us.

So no matter what is happening in your life today, please know that you have a Father with a fierce “Papa Bear” instinct whose whole being was so focused on saving you that He willingly sacrificed Himself to do so. Having done that, He’ll be right by your side as He steers you safely to shore.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.” – Isaiah 49:15