The Lord said, “Sing for joy, people of Jerusalem! I am coming to live among you!” Zechariah 2: 10
We sing “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” in anticipation of celebrating the birth of Jesus. Immanuel means God is with us, fulfilled in Jesus’ birth. From “Silent Night” to “Joy to the World,” we sing carols to celebrate our savior’s coming to be with us as one of us.
But Jesus’ birth is just the beginning of our reason to rejoice. He not only came to live with us, he gave up his life to save us from our sins. More than that, when he rose again and returned to his Father, he did not stop living among us. He promised his disciples that he wouldn’t leave us alone, that he would send his Spirit and would be with us until the end of time. Jesus kept that promise when the disciples received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And he keeps that promise as we receive the Holy Spirit now through the sacraments.
Our God didn’t just come to live with us, he came to stay with us. Immanuel. Our God is with us. That is reason to sing for joy.
Prayer: Immanuel, come and make your home in our hearts.
Reflection: What difference does it make in your life today that God has come to live among us?
I will lead my blind people by roads they have never traveled. I will turn their darkness into light… Isaiah 42: 16
I don’t like being a beginner. I begrudge myself a learning curve. Because I prefer what I’m already good at, I have a tendency to polish what’s already shiny. Unfortunately, that’s not where the light is needed.
Jesus wasn’t afraid of the dark. He went where the light was needed and met people in their physical blindness or spiritual darkness. It’s safe to face our shadows and expose them to the light of God’s love.
I have a pretty quick mind and I often run with it—until I’m shivering in the shadow of a problem bigger than I am. When I can’t see my way out of a problem, I’m forced to acknowledge my limited resources. That’s when I remember to turn to God.
Groping to find our way in the darkness slows us down. In my case, that’s a good thing because then, in the stillness, something happens deep within the kernel of my heart. I become aware of options or connections I could not have devised on my brain power alone. When my brain wrestles with options and I can’t see whether A or B is the better choice, from somewhere I can’t put my finger on, comes the awareness, “Do K.” K wasn’t even on my radar until God shined through the darkness of my confusion. When I’ve followed a path that God has shined his light on, I’ve never been sorry.
Prayer: Lord, I open my heart to your light.
Reflection: What shadows can you expose to the light of God’s love today?
I am always aware of the Lord’s presence; he is near, and nothing can shake me. And so I am thankful and glad, and I feel completely secure… Psalm 16: 8-9
What if we don’t feel completely secure? What if our relationships with loved ones are strained this year? What if we—or those we care about—are facing health challenges? Or financial problems? Or any number of other difficulties? Can we still be thankful and glad?We can-when we’re aware of God’s presence.
Every blessing I’ve every enjoyed—relationships, career, health, and more—have been lost to me at one time or another. At times I’ve felt like no one could help me or even truly understand what I was going through. I’ve felt far away from God. I’ve felt hopeless. It’s also true that when my heart was breaking I was sometimes blessed with the sweetest consolations. Graced moments have nourished my heart and eased my mind with the simple awareness that I was not alone, that I would never be alone, and that—in spite of appearances to the contrary—God had everything under control.
Everything and everyone in this world can let us down. Fortunately, our security is not based on anything less than the presence of God—who will never let us down. Whatever we have or don’t have in the way of relationships, career, health, we can be assured of God’s love. We can be grateful for the strength and willingness to put one foot in front of the other to get through the toughest day. We can be grateful that the toughest day has only 24 hours. We can be grateful that God is as close as our next breath, whether we feel his presence or not, since, after all, we don’t create the air we breathe. We receive a constant supply without even thinking about it.
It’s wonderful to be mindful of and grateful for the good things we enjoy in our lives, but pleasant circumstances are not where our well-being lies. So when you count your blessings, along with your joys, you might want to consider the challenges you’ve been brought through.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for your presence in all circumstances.
Reflection: How have you experienced God’s blessings in your challenges?
As Jesus sat near the Temple treasury, he watched the people as they dropped in their money. Many rich people dropped in a lot of money; then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a penny. He called his disciples together and said to them, “I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had—she gave all she had to live on.” Mark 12: 41-44
While Jesus was eating, a woman came in with an alabaster jar full of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head. Some of the people there became angry and said to one another, “What was the use of wasting the perfume? It could have been sold for more than three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor!” And they criticized her harshly.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! …She has done a fine and beautiful thing for me…She did what she could…” Mark 14: 3-6
Money is no object. At least, that’s how it seems according to these gospel stories. The widow gave what she had. Her gift of a penny was more than enough, and valued by Jesus. The woman who anointed Jesus gave what she had, too. Her expensive gift was not deemed extravagant, but also valued by Jesus.
In God’s economy, it’s not about how much or how little we have to give, but the love and sincerity behind the gift that counts. That goes for the talents we’ve been gifted with, too. We don’t need to worry that our abilities aren’t good enough. We don’t need to worry that we’d be showing off by putting them to use. When we offer ourselves and our abilities to God, we don’t need to worry about other people’s opinions or comments. We don’t even have to worry about the results. Neither the widow’s penny nor the lavish perfume made a huge difference in the worldly scheme of things. But both were precious and appreciated by the Lord.
Every time we overcome shyness, or feelings of inadequacy, or fear that people will think we’re trying to show off to share what we’ve been given, we are doing “a fine and beautiful thing”.
Prayer: Lord, help me recognize my gifts and share them.
Reflection: What are your gifts? Who can you share them with today?
Then Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him. “If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.” Mark 8: 34
- Forget: How does one forget oneself? How does one forget anything? Having studied French for five years in school, I used to be able to read and write it fairly well. Now, I only remember a few phrases. How did I forget all that French? Disuse. The knowledge was there, but I stopped acting on it. Maybe it’s like that with forgetting our “selves”. If you’re like me, self-will often makes demands. We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t, but we don’t have act on those demands, either. Self-indulgence makes them stronger. If we don’t pay attention to them, they’ll probably atrophy from disuse. Then we can better discern how to meet our legitimate needs and wants.
- Carry: If we stop acting on all the demands of our self-will, our inner resources are available to determine which crosses are ours. We have a better chance of discerning what God is asking us to do—or stop doing. We’ll be better able to recognize and accept whatever our cross happens to look like on any given day. Without ego in charge, it’s easier to recognize our limitations and our need for his help in carrying whatever that cross might be. Sometimes our biggest cross might be developing the courage and humility to ask for help.
- Follow: Freedom from self-centeredness makes it easier to keep our eyes on the Lord. We can’t follow him if we don’t look at him. How else will we know where he’s going? If we’re self-absorbed, we’ll miss the guidance and promptings of his Spirit. If we’re pre-occupied with our agendas, we won’t have room for his directions.
It’s our choice. If, as Jesus said, we want to join him, we need to leave behind our pre-occupation with self, accept the challenges we face, and move, however falteringly, in his direction. We can trust that his grace, not our own strength, will empower us. It’s not all about us anymore.
Prayer: Lord, help me forget myself as I focus on you.
Reflection: Do you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to join him? If so, what will you forget? What will you carry? Where is he asking you to follow him today?
For God in his wisdom made it impossible for people to know him by means of their own wisdom. Instead, by means of the so-called “foolish” message we preach, God decided to save those who believe. 1 Corinthians 1: 21
We don’t have to pass an IQ test to get into God’s kingdom. We don’t have to get straight A’s in CCD. We don’t have to perform mental or spiritual gymnastics. What matters is faith.
No matter how much or how little brain power we’ve been blessed with, we are all invited into God’s kingdom. That’s as level a playing field as you can get. All we have to do is accept the invitation. In order to accept it, we need to believe the promise of God’s love, demonstrated by the loving sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross.
There’s no hierarchy of privileged characters in God’s kingdom, because we’re all privileged to be invited. Our inclusion in God’s family is because of His grace, not our worthiness. There are no VIPs, because we’re all VIPs. The Good News sounds too good to be true, but it is true. All we have to do is believe it.
Prayer: Lord, increase my faith in your love.
Reflection: Can you accept God’s unconditional love for you?
Help others and you will be helped. Proverbs 11: 25b
We can’t help others without helping ourselves. Helping others gives us a sense of purpose. It makes us feel useful, maybe even important. Reaching out to others generates good will. Even when others don’t—or can’t—reciprocate, we can feel good about the kinds of choices we’ve made. Maybe we feel gratified at the chance to “pay it forward” in return for a kindness we’ve received.
We all need help at times. It’s reassuring to participate in creating the kind of mutually supportive community we’d like to believe is possible.
Unfortunately, sometimes what we call “helping” is an attempt to interfere and/or control other people or situations. It’s a mistake to do for others what they can and should be doing for themselves. We might think we’re helping, but instead be sending the message that we’re more competent than they are. We may be preventing others from standing on their own two feet. We may be depriving them of the opportunity to develop the sense of self-esteem that comes from working through a challenge or the chance to learn from their mistakes. In these cases, although our egos might feel gratified, we haven’t truly helped others or ourselves.
Prayer: Lord, give me the wisdom to know when and how to help.
Reflection: When has helping someone else helped you? When has being “helpful” backfired?
But they were amazed and afraid, and said to one another, “Who is this man? He gives orders to the winds and waves, and they obey him! Luke 8:25
While crossing a lake with his disciples, Jesus fell asleep in the boat. A storm hit. Some of the disciples were sea-faring fishermen, but even they were terrified and convinced they were going to die. No wonder they woke Jesus up.
Jesus gave an order to the wind and waves and immediately there was a great calm. Luke doesn’t say the disciples were happy or even relieved. He says they were “amazed and afraid.” (GNT, NRSV)
No matter how good things may be, it is scary to feel our powerlessness. Although it’s easy to forget when things are running smoothly, there are plenty of circumstances beyond our control. We are not in charge of the universe.
We’re not at the mercy of chaos, either. The good news is that God, the Creator of the universe, is in control, even when it doesn’t look like it.
God is all-powerful. Yes, He loves us intimately. Yes, He’s slow to anger and rich in kindness. Yes, His grace is amazing…but so is His power.
The word awesome has become trivialized by overuse. The word awful has a negative connotation. What word can we use to describe the mind-blowing, knee-shaking power and authority of the God who made the planets and stars and yet numbers the hairs on our head? To be known and loved by such a God is enough to amaze and frighten anyone.
Prayer: Glory and Praise to our Mighty God!
Reflection: When have you felt both amazed and afraid? How does it feel to see God’s power and know you are loved by that same power?
Why did the Israelites refuse to enter the Promised Land? They were afraid. They didn’t trust God to keep his promise.
When we reject the good God offers us, it’s probably for the same reason. When we sin by rejecting God’s loving plan for us, fear is probably involved in some way.
Let’s look at the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth.
Pride is giving self-will priority over God’s will. If we believe God is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving, why would we ever choose our way instead of his? On some level, we must be afraid that God won’t do as good a job as we could or that his plan is not as good as ours, so we use manipulation or force to get our way.
Greed probably involves fear that we won’t have enough or get enough or keep enough of whatever we feel greedy about: money, things, approval, attention. We grab for or hoard more than we need because we don’t trust God to provide for our needs.
Envy might include fear that we aren’t good enough, or that we aren’t as good as others. What they have, whether material possessions or personal attributes, fuels our feelings of inadequacy. We don’t trust God’s love for us and the value we have simply because he loved us into existence.
Anger, chances are, often involves thwarted self-will. Maybe someone or something threatened our fragile self-esteem, or we didn’t get our way. This may tie in with pride. When our illusions of control are shattered, we get angry. When things don’t go the way we think they should, we don’t trust that things can still turn out just fine, because God has it all under control.
Lust, at least in part, may include the fear that we are unlovable or perhaps the fear of true intimacy and the mutual surrender involved in sharing love on a level that goes so much deeper than the physical plane.
Gluttony might be connected to fear of discomfort. It might also involve trying to fill our emptiness in a self-defeating way because we fear that God’s love and his plan aren’t enough to sustain us or that his allotment for us of our daily bread won’t fill the gaping hole within us.
Sloth, laziness, procrastination, might be a disguise for the fear that what we do won’t be good enough. We’d rather not try at all, than try and fail. Underneath may lurk a fear that neither God nor anyone else could love us as we are, that we’ll be rejected unless we’re perfect or successful in the way the world defines success.
In all these options, we short-change ourselves. We deny ourselves the joy that comes from abandoning ourselves to God’s loving care and protective power, of risking that he does love us, that he does know what he’s doing, that his plans are to build us up and to give us the future we hope for (Jeremiah 29:11), and that he will keep his promise.
Prayer: Lord, lead me to the Promised Land you have in mind for me.
Reflection: How is fear blocking you from the joy God has in mind for you?
The apostles came back and told Jesus everything they had done. He took them with him, and they went off by themselves to a town named Bethsaida. When the crowds heard about it, they followed him. He welcomed them, spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and healed those who needed it. Luke 9: 10-11
Jesus welcomed the crowds when they interrupted his private meeting with his apostles.
When I’m interrupted, I’m a lot crankier. If unexpected events frustrate my plans, I usually have to work through my exasperation before I get to acceptance.
Why is that? Because I forget that my agenda is not God’s agenda. I forget that I was created to know, love, and serve God, as my grade school Baltimore catechism told me. I forget that serving God does not mean flawlessly executing my itinerary, however noble my intentions. I forget that God’s definition of success is not my own—or the world’s—definition of success.
If Jesus is my role model, success is welcoming others warmly when they interrupt me. It’s sharing God’s love with them—by offering encouragement, listening, or just not snapping at them for getting in my way.
Someone—I wish I could remember who—once prayed, “Lord, may I take every interruption as coming from you.” What a powerful thought! Interruptions might be sent by God to jar me out of my prideful, narrow focus. I know that God’s plan is better than mine, but sometimes I need reminding. How about you?
Prayer: Lord, help me welcome the people and events you send my way today.
Reflection: When we call on Jesus, he’s never too busy to welcome us warmly. Who can we welcome warmly today?