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Where Are the Shepherds? A guest post from Shannon O’Donnell

Where Are the Shepherds? A guest post from Shannon O’Donnell

On Advent Sundays this year, I pondered the shepherds. At a funeral we sang, “Shepherd Me, O God. A homilist repeated the pope’s admonition that pastors should be shepherds who smell like their sheep. Our inner city parish is far from any sheep’s pasture, but I sit in the pew and I ponder shepherds.

donation-box-foodAs the gifts are prepared, young children converge on the basket before the altar. In their hands are peanut butter, soup, mac and cheese, packages of rice and noodles,. All of it goes into the basket, headed for the food bank.

Todd, a tall lanky dad, carries his not-yet-walking son on his shoulders. Connor tosses in a juice box with glee.

Food Collection basket_2Four-year-old Sean pulls his younger sister along. Together they stand before the basket. He’s holding a multipack of ramen noodles. Lily doesn’t want to let go of the box of crackers. He places the noodles in the basket, then steps back and points. She frowns. Sean pokes her shoulder. Lily leans over and at the very last moment, she lets go of the box. She raises her hands. Victory! They skip back to their parents on the sidelines.

Some approach like old-timers, well-practiced in the art of giving. Others need a guiding hand or verbal urging (“Come ON!”)

Later, lines for Commuion form and move.

sign-of-peace-600-400-300x200Brian shakes hands with every person he sees until his wife runs gentle interference. His Alzheimer’s is more pronounced these days. Jeanne and her mother gather up the grandchildren. Susan gets her mother’s walker in place. Michael’s mom wheels her laughing son forward. One of the L’Arche assistants leads Sherry from a pew, a familiar dance between them.

Where are the shepherds? They are all among us, watching their flocks, smelling like their sheep.

**************************************************

1474562_10202284427985779_1840724417_nShannon O’Donnell is an author from Tacoma, WA. Her book, Save The Bones, is a deeply moving account about memory, Alzheimer’s disease, and her (now recently deceased) mother Marie Cain. Shannon also blogs about life as a Catholic jail chaplain at Finding Grace Within. It is an honor to welcome Shannon’s work to the blog today.

This post may have you scratching your head and wondering what it has to do with the Christmas season, and even more specifically, with the Holy Family. Shannon is looking back at Advent and wondering where the shepherds are now. When I read it, I thought about the less-than-perfect holy family that we all are when we are church together. And what better reminder is needed today and always?

This unimaginable being “with-us-ness”

o-come-o-come-emmanuel-snippitWe sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with an almost mindless grace, an unconscious awareness, but not always true comprehension. We may not be purposefully arrogant about it, but may be too distracted to be fully in the mystery.

baby-jesus-bluebirdEmmanuel. God with us. We like to gaze down at the infant, “so tender and mild” in the Creche; we smile, our heart warms. And then, how we love to leave God in that Creche, in the Church, and in our Bibles, as we carry on. God in those places appears to be very manageable, fitting in with our plans and priorities.

fontanini_masterpiece_colle_lgGod was not aiming at sweetness during the Incarnation. This is not meant to be a moment of pious nicety. Jesus was sent to transform us through an unimaginable being “with-us-ness” that transcends our antiseptic images of nativity sets, singing angels, and a well-coiffed Mary, reliable Joseph, and the cute Baby Jesus. These images are not bad images, but if we stop there, what do we miss?

This “with-us-ness” reminds me of Duns Scotus’ concept of haecceity, or “this-ness,” rather than “what-ness.” And it is in that vein that the highly unimaginable being “with-us-ness” of the Incarnation comes to light.

imagesBeautiful and perfect Nativity scenes, may imply a sense of “what-ness.” The Christ child born in the world is different, He is the “this-ness,” the “with-us-ness,” that is barely imaginable, yet real. This is something beyond beautiful, pious, or sweet in any way. The birth of the Christ child transforms our relationship with God! God did not come to be something to be admired, or even feared; God came to be one-with-us in an unimaginable way, never before known.

baby-jesusTonight when you see the Baby Jesus placed in the manager at mass, or if he is already there when you arrive later, or tomorrow, please don’t just smile. Forget the beautiful images that the Creche offers, although those images are important. This is not just a pretty moment to gaze upon, but an invitation from God. God did not just happen to stop by, to be a beautiful baby. God was born, to be with you – yes, you – in a deeply intimate and complete way. God was born for all of us in this way, not some holy few, but for all who will welcome him as such. Can we do that?

This year, if you can, try to shift into that more challenging “with-us-ness” of Christ, not simply the “what-ness” of the Creche. Trust me, I have no clue how to do this, I’m just trying this myself. And with all things that are of Christ, they are never meant to be done alone. Let’s do this and be this “with-us-ness” together, one in the heart of Christ this christmas_painting_holy_family_nativity_scene_original_oil_and_winner__ed44aa76aeba1f73ddb22a1c29a3ea7eChristmas.

ἐπιφάνεια – Epiphany

ἐπιφάνεια

I keep trying to find something to say about this video and song, about the Epiphany we celebrate today, but no words come. The music speaks for itself. May your Epiphany be obvious, yet not obvious, likely, yet unlikely, clear, yet filled with mystery, fully human and fully divine, filled with spirit and yet incarnate, full of flesh.

Mary Mother of God

Mary, Mother of God – January 1, 2013
(This homily was written for and first published in the book, Hungry and You Fed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C.)

Many years ago, I befriended a woman with whom I had nothing in common. In fact, we were far apart in many ways. She was one of the “cool people” that a self-professed nerd like me might never get to know. However, academic circumstances brought us together, and we became good friends. What struck me the most about her, when we first became more closely acquainted, was how “human” she turned out to be. From my original point of view, this woman seemed to have it all; she appeared completely self-confident and self-possessed, she was remarkably beautiful, and she maintained an aura of perfection that seemed unattainable to us mere mortals.

Over time we got to know one another, and a real friendship began to develop. This woman began to reveal just how challenging things were for her. First of all, she was not perfect, although I found that hard to believe. At that age, I believed that we were all socially divided into some “have/have not scheme” when it came to perfection. To that end, I was Continue reading

Monday Musing – Christmas Eve Edition

730541-NO-ROOM-AT-THE-INN-CARDTypically these posts are done ahead of time and I have them on a scheduler that uses a timer.  But today I woke up really early, after going to bed pretty early, and while I was praying I read something that got me thinking. Now I can’t shake the thought – how often have I communicated that there is “no room at the inn?”

As you can imagine, things have been busy in the parish office. Regrettably, sometimes I let it get the better of me. Someone called on Friday afternoon when I was trying to finish up and get home. Add to that, three phones were ringing at once and I let them get the better of me too. The third call was from a familiar parishioner and I was harried and probably very rude to her.

Today I am reminded, as we all are, that all guests should be welcomed as Christ. (See Chapter 35 in the Rule of St. Benedict for a direct quotation.) I take that pretty seriously in the parish office – and in life, I hope. Sometimes I fall short and Friday was one of those days.

2000 years ago, give or take, an innkeeper, very harried on a busy and overcrowded night, told some prospective guests that there was no room for them at his inn.  We see how that worked out! Now his busy brush-off may not have been intentional. And goodness knows when things are full, they are full…. right?

All of this is a reminder that we must stop, look, and listen. (The link takes you to a beautiful post by my friend Michelle Francl-Donnay, on paying attention to radiant dawn and other things.) We must be attentive and we must be responsive in the context of our attentiveness. For me, that might mean letting one phone ring and go to voicemail, knowing that God is taking of everything, and pay attention to the person I am speaking with. For me, that is very hard to do – and in my good intention of trying to take care of everyone at once, I take care of no one.

So what can we do to welcome the Child who is about to be born? The Child who is born in us, over and over again? Perhaps those three things that Michelle reminded me of in her post, those words from my childhood, to “stop, look and listen.

If I stop, I might be more centered and more attentive, more aware, and more welcoming. If I look, I may see who is before me at all times, no matter how I feel – and then be more welcoming. And if I listen, I will hear the call, the call that should bring me to attention and not to frustration – and then be more welcoming.

Perhaps today we are all the innkeeper, in our various ways. What innkeeper will we be – the welcoming one or the the one who shuts the door?

Saturday Bonus – Who Are We Eating With?

The following is the text of an essay that I wrote in The Evangelist this week. In a rare moment of non-self promotion, I had not put it on the blog on Thursday when it was published. Even though today we usually just have our Saturday Song, posted below, I decided to put it up as a bonus post, in light of today’s Gospel from Mark.

In the two days since this was published, I have gotten a fair amount of feedback about the essay. That feedback has been largely complimentary. Yet more than one person Continue reading

Saturday Song(s)

Oh – so you thought Christmas was over? Not until Sunday! We celebrate Epiphany this weekend and with that I present you with a few songs.

As some of you know, I love Sufjan Stevens. He is not to everyone’s liking, but the simplicity and clarity of his work really calls to me.

In the next video, Ella Fitzgerald offers us the same song.

And finally, an instrumental version, played on a pipe organ.

For Epiphany – T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

We will celebrate Epiphany at liturgy this Sunday, but today is the actual day. With that in mind, I present you with a poem from T.S. Eliot called, Journey of the Magi. Eliot converted to Christianity, he became an Anglican; this poem was written after his conversion. H/T to friend of the blog, Ginny Kubitz Moyer, (author of Mary and Me) for reminding me of this poem today. Her blog,  Random Acts of Momness is a must-read site for me.

Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

– T.S. Eliot

(You can listen to Eliot read his own poem here. Thanks again to Ginny for this link too!)

So What Happened Next – An After Christmas Story by Sean Caron

**Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa – Sean sent this to me 3 days ago and I thought I had published it, but I had not. My apologies in the delay! Do not delay in reading Sean’s fine work!** – editor

In A Gospel of Christmas according to St Luke I talked about the period from the Annunciation to Mary through the birth of Our Lord in the stable of Bethlehem, and the arrival of the boisterous shepherds. As my friend Fran Rossi Szpylczyn reminded us in her Christmas blog post Dependent Small and Powerless , Jesus, tho certainly still God, was completely dependent on His earthly caregivers for protection and care.

And the first item of that care was an important one. As the Gospel of Luke reminds us,

at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

One line. But how much is behind that! In one act, Jesus, who is the Law Giver, is placed under the Law. He who presented the Law to Moses on Sinai is now subject to it! And, in becoming subject to it is shed the first of His blood for a sinful world. He receives the Holy Name given to Him by Gabriel, “Jesus” – which in Hebrew means “God Saves”. It is a name, and it is also Him. It is a sign, that effects what it signifies. In modern times we celebrate the Feast of Mary the Mother of God on that eight day, which is New Years Day. But in the past, that feast was also rightly called the Feast of the Circumcision, and the Feast of the Holy Name.

Now we must talk of Herod. Herod the Great was the Roman-installed (and maintained) King of Judea. He was not a Hebrew, but rather an Edomite, one of the descendants of Esau, brother of Jacob – a traditional enemy of the Jewish people. As such, he was proud of the title “King of the Jews” – given to him by the Roman Senate. And very jealous of that title. He is called “the Great” primarily for the extensive building campaign he completed during his reign – no one who knew him or had to live with or near him would ever call him “great” because of his actions. He was insanely jealous of his title and position, and killed all who got near that power – including his wife and his own sons.

And Herod was beginning to be concerned. First, there was a wild tale of an old temple priest, performing his duties in the Holy of Holies, who had reportedly conversed with an angel of God and was struck deaf and dumb. Then this same old man had reportedly fathered a child, and recovered his speech, setting the hill country of Judea ablaze with rumors. He had attempted to capture the man and his son, but the son had been taken directly into the desert after his birth, and had eluded his spies.

Then the news from Bethlehem – a new, bright star over the town, and more angels! There had been no angels, no prophets, no divine communication in Judea for nearly five hundred years! And worse yet was the message – a King and Savior! This was a direct threat to his power.

Next, news from the Temple itself – his Temple, into which he had poured the wealth of his kingdom. Spies there had reported that two old prophets had declared that a child – was to be “The downfall and rise of many in Jerusalem”!

And lastly, the appearance of visitors from the East in his court – specifically looking for “the new born King of the Jews” – his very title! And even these visitors had given him the slip – not returning with the information he desperately needed to stamp out this threat.

Ever a man of direct and violent action, Herod orders the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, in one last-ditch effort to remove the threat. All children under the age of two are put to the sword in Bethlehem. But as we know, Herod is unsuccessful. Once more an angel comes to Joseph in a dream, and the Boy and His Mother are taken away from danger, into Egypt.

There is an interesting post-script to the story. Shortly after this, Herod dies – a particularly horrible death. He is buried in a large, opulent tomb. In 2007, Israeli archeologists discovered this tomb, right where the first century historian Josephus said it was. And from this tomb, across the valley about five miles away, is clearly visible the Church of the Nativity, which covers the Cave of Bethlehem.

Monday Musing 2 – The Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr

There is already a Monday Musing up; it is an essay that I wrote for the Christmas bulletin. However, I woke up and was praying and was struck by the full force of what this day, the feast of St. Stephen, is about.

We have journeyed through Advent with all of its peaceful images – watching, waiting, hoping. We see the darkness encroaching as the days grow shorter, colder. Then, as one of the readings for Christmas Eve, from Isaiah, proclaims: Continue reading

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