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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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)

Advent Series 2017

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Beginning on Friday, December 1st, myssutaininggrace.com will be celebrating advent with a series of reflections. Every Friday throughout Advent, a reflection that corresponds with the candle meanings for the coming week will be posted. May you have a joyful and reflective Advent season this year!

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.

Being Desired

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Our family theme this month has been being wanted vs. rejection. The summer weather has brought along some tearful playground moments when the other kids haven’t wanted to play with my daughter (or have yet to realize that they really can have more than one friend a day) and I would venture to guess that I am not the only mom whose own early childhood rejections come surging to mind as she watches her child walking across the wood chips with a quivering lip. Add to that the fact that writing (or more accurately, publishing) is an exercise in rejection and we’ve spent a lot of energy on being unwanted lately.

However, being wanted and accepted has also been something we’ve been experiencing a lot of. We still love trips to the playground because, more often than not, my daughter leaves with a great big hug from a new friend. On my part, being the mother of a young child has allowed me to make more friends than I have ever had and to develop those “I’ve got your back” kind of relationships that, until relatively recently, have been few and far between. And, as an exciting change of pace, I even had a break through in the writing rejection process recently!

So we’ve been learning about how it feels to be desired and how it feels to be discarded.

Interestingly, I’ve also been reading a new Bible study by Heather Holleman that just came out last month called Included in Christ. The main premise of the study is that we all have a story that we tell about ourselves and who we are. Many of us tell stories that define our lives based on painful experiences that we have had and, as I have read some of these stories, I am amazed by how many of us let our “not good enough,” “they didn’t pick me,” and “I’m so awkward and defective!” experiences dictate how we see ourselves. These stories of rejection literally zap our lives of many of the blessings that God wants to bestow on us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, we can let the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about our lives be centered on the reality that the God of the universe thought us up, created us, and desires to spend our lives here on earth (and even our eternities) with us. I wonder what would happen if we held our earthly experiences a little more loosely and, instead, defined ourselves by how God sees His people: “The Lord will hold you in his hand for all to see – a splendid crown in the hand of God. Never again will you be called the ‘Forsaken City’ or ‘The Desolate Land.’ Your new name will be ‘The City of God’s Delight’ and ‘The Bride of God,’ for the Lord delights in you and will claim you as his bride.” (Isaiah 62:3-4). If our life stories reflected the truth that God delights in us rather than that people have rejected us, how would our lives change? How would our relationships change?  How would the way we treat even the least among us change? I suspect that the world would be a much more joyful, fulfilling and gentle place to live.

Special Announcement

 

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Dear readers,

I very much appreciate your taking the time to read my posts and so I wanted to give you a heads-up about my summer publishing schedule. Starting in June, I will post only on the first Friday of each month. This change will allow me to spend time focusing on two other projects that I am working on and to prepare to teach my daughter’s first year of kindergarten in the fall.

I know that some of you are faithful readers, so if you are looking for a way to nourish your relationship with God on those weeks when I will not be posting, I have a few great books/websites that I highly recommend for you!

For grief related reading:

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

-Grieving the Loss of a Loved One – A Devotional of Hope by Kathe Wunnenberg

Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff

For general reading:

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning

Confessions by St. Augustine

Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard

-Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman

The Jesus I Never Knew by Phillip Yancey

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

For biographical information about the Saints and men and women of great faith:

End of the Spear by Steve Saint

Louis Martin: An Ideal Father by Louis and Marjorie Wust

-The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

-www.saintgianna.org

-www.mariagoretti.com

For thought provoking, faith-based writing on current topics and life issues:

Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean

Letters to Gabriel by Karen Santorum

The Love Dare by Stephen and Alex Kendrick

I look forward to continuing this journey with all of you and hope that each of you has a wonderful summer.

~Ariane

Mother’s Sorrow

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“How long was she conscious?” I asked as the tears filled my eyes and spilled onto my cheeks.

“Are you asking did your baby suffer?” responded my perceptive obstetrician.

I thought of all the questions pounding on my heart: Was the last emotion she knew the panic of suffocation? As her body became bruised and beaten by frantic attempts at CPR, was she aware of it? Did she feel tubes pierce her sides, punching between bones and flesh? Did she wonder where I was and why I was not there to hold her? Did she ask why she was alone, why she was forsaken?

As I nodded my head, my obstetrician gently said, “No, I do not believe that she suffered.” Relief flooded through me.

–              –              –

I’ve never felt particularly close to Saint Mary. In fact, of all the Saints, I tend to be most detached from Mary. There are probably several reasons for this. First, as someone who was raised Protestant, I am wary of any honor that borders on idolatry and there is no other Saint whose veneration often teeters so close to the brink of worship. Second, pride has always wormed its way into my life by disguising itself as a tendency to dislike whatever everybody else likes (think insisting on dresses and leggings when everyone else switched to jeans during elementary school and being disgusted by Titanic when every other girl in my middle school class was swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio). Unfortunately for me, if there is one Saint who everyone loves to love, its Mary which means that I instinctively want to avoid her just because everyone else loves her. Third, I believe that the way that Mary is depicted in art makes it challenging for me to identify with her. For example, it is hard to connect with a woman who looks completely clean, put together, unswollen and calm after giving birth (without pain medication) in a place where they kept animals. Suffice it to say, I gave birth in a clean, animal-free environment with about a dozen doctors and nurses standing by and a nicely placed epidural in my back, yet I don’t have a single picture of me looking clean, put together, unswollen or calm after my children were born. Exhausted but not calm.

However, I recently realized that there was a more fundamental reason that I did not connect with Saint Mary: to really identify with Mary I would have to be willing to be drenched with her sorrows and they are sorrows that my humanness wants to avoid at all costs. Nonetheless, this week I overcame this aversion when I discovered the Catholic practice of meditating on Mary’s Seven Sorrows.  As I pondered the last four Sorrows, I felt that I had been introduced to the amazing Mother of Jesus for the first time. Here was a woman who knew my own pain intimately. In fact, her own pain greatly exceeded my own because, unlike my daughter, her Son absolutely suffered.

Good Friday is an ideal time for all Christians to reflect on the last four of St. Mary’s Sorrows in particular, because it was her Son’s death that caused her so much pain. Consequently, I share my own reflections on these sorrows below.

The Fourth Sorrow is when Mary met Jesus carrying His cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Even as a mother who has begged God to change His mind and restore life to my lifeless child, I can only begin to imagine the desperation and confusion Mary must have felt as she watched her Son carrying the horrible instrument of His own death on His back. How unbelievably awful it must have been to realize that crowds of people hated her Son enough to kill Him. She must have burned with longing to do something, anything, to help Him. She must have been filled with a desire to tear the crown of thorns from His head, to dress His wounds and to clean the lacerations on His back. She must have begged God for His help and intervention, for the protection of her Child. The Stabat Mater describes the scene thus: “Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender Child, all with bloody scourges rent. Can the human heart refrain, from partaking in her pain, in that Mother’s pain untold?”

The Fifth Sorrow is when Mary watched as Jesus was crucified and died. Her heart must have shattered as they pierced his hands with crude nails, punching between bones and flesh. I could not see my daughter as she died. In fact,I struggling with my own physical responses to surgery, I did not even know that she was dying. However, my husband watched as the doctors tried to save her and, having talked with him, I can only imagine Mary’s agony as she gazed upon her child’s body, so bruised and beaten. How she must have longed to run to Him, to hold Him as he cried out to His father, “Why have you forsaken me?” She must have wished that she could use her physical touch to show Him that He was not forsaken and to comfort Him. What horror did she know as she gazed up at her son’s face, that was contorted by the pain and terror of His last, gasping breath, unable to do anything at all except to bear witness to His sacrifice? What questions did she ask her God who silently allowed her world and the One in whom she placed her faith to be destroyed?

The Sixth Sorrow is when Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross and laid in His mother’s arms. Now, finally, I truly know her heart break for I have shared it with her. I know how anxious she was to wrap her arms around her Son’s broken, bruised body, to bathe His face with her tears, to cover Him with her kisses. I know the way she explored her Child, touched His wounds and tenderly kissed them, trying in vain to make them better. I know how good His weight felt in her arms and how she thought that she would never be able to let go. I know the cruelty of time which slowly marched forward, stealing the warmth, color, and softness from the limbs and the face of her precious Child. And I know the resignation of the moment when she realized that it was time to let go of her Son’s body because the physical changes convinced her that He was no longer there and that it was truly finished.

The Seventh and final Sorrow is when Jesus was buried. There are no words to describe the torment of a parent who is forced to bury their child. Even if Mary was experiencing shock and numbness, she no doubt felt the horror of her loss. While she must have trusted that God would raise her Son as He had promised, as she gazed at the stone rolled across the tomb, she must have also felt the excruciating absence of her Son. Did she, like me, feel that her heart was weeping blood? Did she wish she could catch all of her precious tears in a bottle and save them as tangible reminders of her Son that could sustain her until the day when she met Him again? Did she feel that she was dragging mountains behind her as she turned and walked away from the place where her Child’s body lay? Did she wake during that first night, thinking she heard her Son calling for her or shaking her shoulder, only to discover that she was all alone in the darkness? And how horrible those first moments must have been for her when she woke on Saturday morning and realized anew that her Son was gone and that she had to rise and live another day of torment without her Child!

This Sorrow, this suffocating Mother’s Sorrow, all the result of my sin, of your sin, of the sins of our world.