Sunday, November 29, 2015


"O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
Bethlehem was small. In spite of being both the birth place of King David and the place he was crowned king, its status among the surrounding clans of Judah was apparently rather insignificant. The prophet Micah foretold to Bethlehem, however, that in spite of its littleness, it would be the place from which an everlasting king for God would come.

Bethlehem as a city still exists today. But when I think of Bethlehem, likely because I am influenced by the Bible stories I've read and the songs I've heard, I think of a quiet, simple, dusty town -- jaded, yearning, and restless. I think of figures such as the innkeeper and David's family, who lived there -- simple people belonging to a simple time and a simple town.

But, whatever we think about Bethlehem -- whatever we project onto it from our interpretations of Scripture and Christmas carols -- whether we think it was truly dreamless, quiet, darkened, still -- we know of one thing for certain:

Bethlehem hadn't the slightest idea about what was going on inside its own walls.

And so, when I think of Bethlehem, I think of myself. Occupied and busy with the mundane things of life which suck my soul dry and leave me stubborn and selfish and starved. I hear the Christmas carol that tells the story of Bethlehem and its deep and dreamless sleep and I hear the story of my life, with the exception that I am hardly ever still and have trouble sleeping. I have strange and vivid dreams at night, but when I'm awake I don't think much about the future because it stresses me out. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I have no dreams, and what dreams I do have, I keep to myself for fear of exposing them to the hostile world around me.

And yet, even in the monotony of daily living, when I'm distracted by myself or my work, when I'm not paying attention, and when I've shut the world out from my eyes closed tight, Jesus comes to me here. Even if at first I don't recognize him and tell him I don't have a place for him, Jesus comes to me here. Even if all I have to offer him is scraps and straw and the bitter cold of a winter night, Jesus comes to meet me here. All my hopes and all my fears are met in this tiny, fragile baby -- and especially, in a tiny, fragile host. "Bethlehem" means "house of bread," and the Eucharist which first took his place in a tabernacle of hay and rags now takes his place in my life by the kiss of the Holy Mass.

And even when I miss him, even when I'm not paying attention, even when I reject him, Jesus is working for me in my life. He is quiet and slow and patient, not wanting to disturb me or what I consider more important than him in a given moment. But even while he is not waking me from my distraction or shaking me from my selfishness, the impact of his simple presence in my life is dramatically reshaping my entire destiny -- just as he changed the whole world that first Christmas in Bethlehem.

This God who went from riches to rags by a deliberate act of the will condescends to find a bed made for him in a feed trough by his impoverished mother and her betrothed; she wraps him in rags and holds him tight against her own shivering humanity. He is greeted by shepherds straight from the field, with dirty hands and faces, with their animals in tow. He is guarded by a carpenter, a man who only days before packed up the family God commanded him to take for himself and traveled to this Bethlehem, where he found no place to house his family besides a stable in a cave.

Surrounded by all this -- by animals and their feces and dust and straw and wood and rock and rags and the cold and the stench and the strangers -- this baby changes the world. He emerges from the womb and for the first time God is naked and cold and vulnerable. He opens his eyes and for the first time God's gaze is met by the gaze of a human. He cries and for the first time God's voice pierces the ears of those unprepared to hear. His mother feeds him and for the first time we see God dependent on a human being for sustenance. The Unmoved Mover squirms. The Uncaused Cause is born.

This Christ, this anointed of God, is greeted by angels' songs in a town that doesn't notice. In this sleeping town, God takes hold of the world in order to conquer it, with ten little fingers and ten little toes. Years will pass before this baby becomes a man strong enough to carry the cross, and with it the weight of the world's sin. In the meantime, the uncreated Son of God rests in the arms of his mother. And for the first time, God is rocked to sleep.

"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given as God imparts to human hearts the blessings of all his heavens. No ear can hears his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Hope of the Cross

The only thing that has ever helped me make sense of suffering and tragedy is the image of Christ crucified.

There is something in the idea that stops the proverbial bleeding in my heart when I consider that God condescended to wear our suffering and death so close to his heart that his heart burst. And it is from his open heart that blood and water gushed -- the life of God poured out on the dirt and sin and agony of all the world.

From the cross, Jesus drank bitterness. From the cross, Jesus' sweat and blood soaked his nearly shredded flesh. From the cross, Jesus felt within his being the agony of being apart from God, so deeply that it brought him to cry out in yearning and questioning.

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" I've said it so many times in my life. I've said it about myself and about others whose suffering I can't myself process.

But there is an odd comfort in knowing that Jesus himself said it for me. What he felt from the cross was the weight of my death, and what he cried from the cross was the cry of my heart.

It is almost an unspoken intercourse between the Creator and his creation. God saw the depths of our sorrow and desperation, and elected that he would not see us suffer for no reason, even though the death and sadness which entered the world were through sin and not through his decision. He determined that he would bring us, as he intended from our creation, to the heights of his glory, his joy, his goodness, and his beauty.

But he knew that in order for us to share in his majesty, he would himself have to share in our agony.

The cross is where our misery collides with God's mercy. The cross is the mark on our infinite plains of suffering where God has set himself as a sign of hope and resurrection.

We can try to process our suffering apart from it, to move forward away from it, but if that were possible -- truly possible -- God would not have had to die.

My hope is founded in Christ alone, because of his cross. And because of his resurrection, I can know that even death and suffering will not have the final say.

Friday, November 6, 2015


It is difficult to explain the experience of a High Mass prayed in an old church with ceilings stretching toward heaven and walls lined with reminders of the beauty and richness of our faith. It is especially difficult to explain it as a relatively new experience -- as one I'm not yet quite familiar with, having only been twice to a High Mass, one of those times being an especially confusing Palm Sunday service.

For starters, I don't know any Latin. Well, I know a little. By which I mean that I know enough to chant myself through the Tantum Ergo and remember vaguely what each line means. But as far as Latin Masses go, I'm lost, even with the aid of the booklets provided. Additionally, I'm unfamiliar with this form of the Mass; I can attend a Novus Ordo in any language and know what's going on, but at a Latin High Mass, my guess is as good as the guess of a random passerby on the sidewalk outside.

But nonetheless, the experience is one of a deep and reverent pause. Time taken away from the ways of the world and given to something greater than myself; something perhaps confusing, even frustrating, but invigorating all the same.

The exact details of the High Mass are all but foreign to me, but the feelings of uncertainty and frustration in prayer are two things I am fluent in. Just as the high ceilings stretched toward heaven can't help but retain and send back the chants and prayers as echoes against the great stone walls, the heights of my stone heart -- and thus, my prayers -- can only reach so far. My existence is a cracked, old, dusty piece of human desperation; every act of praise and lamentation extends only so far as the steeple of my mind, caught up and trapped in the great hollow ceiling of my thoughts. The walls of my body are covered with scars reminiscent of the Way of the Cross, and the Saints who assist me on my journey take their stationary places inside my world where they keep idle watch over my soul.

I sit and hunger and listen and yearn and close my eyes and try to focus on the things I can't interpret anyway.

And He sings over me. (Zephaniah 3:17)

Just as the priest offers prayers for my soul before the tabernacle in a language I don't know, in a quiet voice which I can't quite hear, God in heaven sings a song especially for love of me. Where my praises are trapped and my heart is stoic and my life and faith a mystery to those outside my walls, God's song for me finds flesh in a tiny wafer of bread; what I try to complicate, God has made simple.

The Catechism says that "Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely." (CCC 102) How true this is, also, of the Mass. This one Word, this singular Utterance of the Father -- Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate -- is himself a language I have yet to understand, but the effectiveness of his grace does not depend on any of my capacities. It depends only on him and his being sung, taking his place in the heart of my heart and resounding through the echo chambers of my failing human condition.

My silent shouts are met here with the eternal whisper which shaped the cosmos. I am made whole without knowing it; new without feeling it. God takes his repose in the uncertain chaos of my being.

And here he remains, singing his inaudible song, echoing silently against the limits I place and the walls I build, proclaiming peace to a heart which only speaks unrest.