I’ve been engaged in some delightfully creative work for my mother lately — although it’s been far from easy. After my Dad went to be with the Lord a few years ago, my parents’ house pretty much remained as it had looked for the last twenty years, except for the gradual acquisition of even more family photos and mementos as the children and grandchildren got older and lives changed. When Mom decided to remodel the house last fall, the task of emptying shelves and readying the walls for painting made her realize just how many items had accumulated. That’s where I came in.
My threefold mission was this: help Mom sort through the items that were most important to display, purge those things to which she had no lasting emotional ties, and incorporate her selections in such a way that they complemented the home’s new décor and color scheme. Simple? Hardly. Although I tried to repurpose as much as possible the things she already owned, I still found myself making numerous shopping trips to buy new picture frames.
I was most apprehensive about what I called “The Farm Wall”: an 8x4 foot space previously decorated with a magazine cover and a jumble of photos about our farming family’s history — varied in size, brilliantly colored or faded black and white, some recent, some old—most of which were not framed at all or which sported dented metal frames that were probably picked up in a dime store some 30 years ago. They may have been related thematically, but visually the photos had little connection with each other. I decided that an overhaul was in order. Mom was adamant about not taking up precious wall space with more frames; I convinced her to trust me while I juxtaposed photos that belonged together, omitted or cropped some, supplemented with a few new ones, and found a frame for every single one, arranging everything into one large grouping that told a story. The final effect was a pleasant surprise, even to me. The photos hadn’t changed at all — but the new frames had done their magic.
The jumble now made sense and the story, once easily missed, came alive again.
The seasons of Advent and Christmas are sort of like that — a jumble — if we’re really honest with ourselves. No matter many years I’ve vowed to slow down the pace of Christmas preparations, celebrate Advent properly, and enter prayerfully into the mystery of Christ’s birth and its significance for my life personally, it always rushes by in a blur. I leave up my holiday decorations until the end of January, joking that I’m resisting the secular cultural tendency to have Christmas over and done with, when it’s really because I simply haven’t had the time to retrieve the boxes from storage and put things away (but of course, that’s just me!). I needed to reframe the whole Christmas thing, and I think I’ve discovered how to do it. I call it taking the “long view” of Christmas.
The past few years I’ve been doing more group Bible studies from a Catholic perspective, and the more I ponder the Old Testament, the more I realize that the four weeks of Advent compress liturgically the experience of hundreds of years of waiting for a Messiah. Those beautiful, hope-filled passages from the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms all tell the story of human longing for deliverance from the ravages of sin and death, and it’s my story, a narrative that continues long after the Baby Jesus is packed away in tissue paper.
And what about those feasts that come after December 25? In different Christian churches, the Christmas season might end on January 6 (the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany), or it might last until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (traditionally eight days or the Sunday after Epiphany), or might even culminate on February 2 (the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, forty days after December 25). Tucked in during that week we call the “Octave of Christmas” are the Feast of the Holy Family and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (known by many as a day for nursing a hangover, watching football, and eating black-eyed peas). Truthfully, except for the familiar story of the three Magi bringing gifts to the Christ Child, those feasts barely receive our attention (except at Mass), so quickly are they overtaken by New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl parties and Valentine’s Day merchandise in the stores. What’s the “long view” of those? How do I reframe stories I’ve heard so many times that I don’t really grasp their beautiful connection to each other and to my own life today?
For me, the first step is to read the Gospels for those feasts — I mean, really read them—with new eyes, and to hear their proclamation with new ears. The story of the Holy Family is my story, the account of a newborn King whose parents must flee those who wish to thwart his mission before it even begins. How often do I vow to fully trust the Lord in a situation, only to take back control of my life before He even has an opportunity to work things out for his glory and my highest good?
Jesus’ mother Mary, whose title “Mother of God” was decreed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 because her Son’s two natures, both fully human and fully divine, are united in one person — is my mother, too. She is the mother of all who receive “second birth” through water and the Spirit. She will always be our mother “in the order of grace,” according to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (#61). So why did I all but ignore her maternal role in my life for so many years? If Jesus saw fit to bestow his mother to each of us from the Cross, why did I not try to get to know her as personally as I tried to know her Son? (I’m happy to relate that my relationship with Mary, and her Son, is deepening dramatically as I’ve consecrated myself to her care in recent months).
The feasts of the Epiphany, the Baptism, and the Presentation of the Lord are really about the importance of seeking Him with all my heart and honoring Him with all I have, to see beyond mere appearances and to discover that Jesus is nearer to me than I ever imagined. They’re about taking seriously the promises of my own Baptism. Many of Isaiah’s descendants didn’t recognize Him when He came — maybe because they stopped looking? — and I’m reminded that too often I’m either looking in all the wrong places, or in my self-righteous conceit I’ve simply stopped looking for Him altogether.
Taking the “long view” of Christmas isn’t merely about prolonging the season on the calendar. That’s the easy part. It’s the recognition that these ancient stories, dusted off, reframed, and considered together, are powerfully connected, timelessly fresh, and relevant not only for me but for all those who came before and those who will come after me. And they’re your story, too.
I’ve been engaged in some delightfully creative work for my mother lately — although it’s been far from easy. After my Dad went to be with the Lord a few years ago, my parents’ house pretty much remained as it had looked for the last twenty years, except for the gradual acquisition of even more family photos and mementos as the children and grandchildren got older and lives changed.