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A Midnight Clear

After our first reading of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, my daughter declared that we would read it again in preparation for every future Christmas. Meanwhile, I searched for some contemporary seasonal stories, and found that high-quality holiday-themed fiction for older readers can be elusive. I was delighted to discover that prolific children’s author Katherine Paterson has published two collections of short stories for Christmas, available through my local library. I began with A Midnight Clear: Stories for the Christmas Season. Each of the dozen stories here was written to be read aloud at church on Christmas Eve, and they uplift the hope at the heart of the Christmas story.

Readers encounter an older woman whose loneliness is relieved by a young neighbor; a cynical man who discovers warmth and holiday spirit in the company of a stranger; a young couple who receive hospitality when they need it most. Paterson’s stories are well-crafted and believable, heart-warming and not overstated. I found nothing preachy in these tales, yet each carries the Christmas message of caring for one another, of having hope in the coming Light, of finding peace amidst the confusion of the human condition.

Next I shall sit with Angels and Other Strangers: Family Christmas Stories, which has just arrived at the library. I anticipate a few cozy evenings reading with my daughter, reflecting together on the Light at the heart of this season.

What fiction have you read that draws you closer to the heart of Advent, helping you to wait in hope? Does your family have favorites that are revisited each year?

Disclaimer: This review is based upon a book borrowed from my public library. No fee was received.

Advent with Pax Christi

“God is already here. Through our wanderings, our questions, our encounters with beauty and with pain, the God within us is revealed. Advent is waking up to God in our midst. It is in the wandering that our eyes are open to the deeper truth. So let us not sleep through Advent.” —Simone Campbell, S.S.S.

Each year Pax Christi USA produces an inspiring Advent reflection booklet that carries their witness of Christian nonviolence. Entitled Waking up to God in our Midst, this year’s booklet focuses on the themes of economic and interracial justice and features thought-provoking writing from Sister Simone Campbell, SSS; Adrienne Alexander; Shannen Dee Williams; and Rev. Joseph Nangle, ofm.

Pax Christi USA also has compiled a helpful page of Advent resources.

living with thanksgiving

commissioned by Children’s HopeChest.
created by Elizabeth Ahlem.

In the U.S., we observe a national holiday of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. The day gives an opportunity for families, often geographically scattered, to gather in table fellowship and to share their traditional foods. The time is set aside to be thankful for abundance, and for the company of loved ones.

Certainly this is a simplified description, and I know that many people are on their own, or hungry, or in unhappy homes, or grieving, or worn down by injustice. In the midst of these complexities and challenges, we still can find a spirit of gratitude. We can be thankful for our minds, ready to create a world of equity and peace; for our hearts, that long to give love where it is missing; for our souls, crying out for God’s kingdom to be built here, now, in our midst.

My heart knows that we are meant to give thanks every day, even (perhaps especially) when it it hard. Instead of giving thanks, we let our worry about what is lacking get in the way of seeing the good that is present. Even in hard times, we have gifts that we can use in service of those in need. As we turn to God in gratitude, may our eyes be open to the needs of those around us. When we see injustice, and want to know where God is amidst the pain, may we remember that we each are meant to carry out the vision of building God’s kingdom. Each of us has a part to play in lifting up the lowly, in giving strength to the weak, in granting rest to the weary.

Let us give thanks for courage, and the strength to act on our convictions as we endeavor to build a more just and equitable world. Let us turn our thankfulness into action. We nourish seeds of peace by giving our time and material resources to those who are working to eliminate poverty and injustice.

My thanks to artist Elizabeth Ahlem for permission to share her artwork. This image was commissioned by Children’s HopeChest, which works to serve orphaned and vulnerable children.

A Maryknoll Liturgical Year (B)

As the new church year approaches, with the first Sunday of Advent on November 30, many seek inspiring resources for the coming season. A recommended companion to the lectionary is A Maryknoll Liturgical Year: Reflections on the readings for Year B, published by Orbis Books. The stories from Maryknoll missioners draw upon a way of living in alignment with the teachings of Jesus. Missioners work among those who suffer material poverty and marginalization, learning to love each person as an equal, a potential teacher, and a beloved of God. With this book at hand, readers have many opportunities to remember the call to center our lives on service to others.

The stories remind us to be “open to truth appearing in unlikely places,” and a common theme is that people who are living in material poverty, in ongoing crisis, can open our eyes to the work of God in our midst. We are called to embody God’s love for others, and also to see God in each of our fellow humans.

The poverty and injustice in our world can be very discouraging, and it helps immensely to read witness from people who are working for positive change. Throughout this past year I have received spiritual refreshment and inspiration from Maryknoll’s book for year A, and I look forward to the daily reading of stories in this new volume. As the writer for the first Sunday of Advent asks, “As we pass through our own kind of unending Advent of widespread unemployment and unprecedented economic inequality, are we prepared to see hope and the Spirit’s truth in people and places where we have never looked before?”

Prepare your heart to receive the scripture in newness, and to have your faith refreshed by the testimonies of these Maryknoll missioners.

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. No fee was received.

Advent resources

With a sense of expectancy, I am beginning to prepare my heart for the season of waiting. Advent, the beginning of the new church year, will arrive on November 30. We can take this time to reflect and see where God is present in our lives, and how we ca be present for one another. During this season, when many people are choosing to be in a rush, we can intentionally seek more prayer time, a more contemplative rhythm. In this we might discover the roots of true joy.

Over the coming weeks I will re-read one of my favorite Advent books, Silence & Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro. In this book readers are invited to reflect on the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We see how longing, waiting, and faithfulness were experienced in their lives, and how our lives, too, are full of this hunger for God. Elizabeth and Zechariah give us examples of the mysterious ways that God works in our lives, giving us hopeful joy that we can anticipate God coming into our hearts, if only we prepare room. I encourage you to read my previously posted review, and to have this book as a companion during your prayer times this season.

For prayers by an Advent wreath, I highly recommend O Radiant Dawn by Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com. Read my previously posted review for details on how this booklet can benefit your prayer time, whether you will be praying alone or with children.

I enjoyed the focus on on the O Antiphons in O Radiant Dawn, and I encourage you to explore this liturgical tradition. One collection of resources, including brief daily prayers, can be found through the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, which is Sr. Joan Chittister’s order. If you are drawn to listen and contemplate the O Antiphons, there also are beautiful recordings available online, via youtube.

Over at The Art of Simple there is a wonderful collection of resources aimed at keeping the Advent season both joy-filled and simple. You might begin with Tsh’s brief and encouraging post from last year.

What are your favorite books and traditions for a prayerful Advent? I invite you to share in the comments below.

May you be filled with joyful expectancy that this season holds as you make room in your heart for the coming of peace and hope.

Ordinary Miracles

Nourishing spirituality in everyday life allows one to be aware of God, and aware of abundant blessings. By cultivating attentiveness one can notice God’s work in all aspects of life, far beyond formal prayer time. Parenting, where a person receives the gift of caring for a child, can be full of awareness of God’s presence. Yet it also can be work that makes one tired to the bone. A parent can feel grateful and blessed, while at the same time wishing for a bit of breathing room and momentary peace. Parents will find an understanding companion in Rachel S. Gerber, author of Ordinary Miracles: Awakening to the holy work of parenting.

Rachel Gerber writes with honesty. She does not pretend that parenting is easy, or that finding God amidst a pile of laundry is easy, or that giving thanks from an exhausted heart is easy. She allows readers to travel with her, to experiment with a spirit of attentive thanksgiving. By sharing stories from her mothering experience, she opens a door to seeing God’s presence throughout the tasks of caregiving.

Ordinary Miracles carries a guiding story from Luke 24 in the gospels, when two followers encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. At first they do not recognize Jesus; rather, they are full of sorrow at his recent death, and see only a stranger. Later, when they eat together, the followers realize that Jesus had been present all along. As Rachel Gerber writes, “Love is present in our darkest hour of greatest disorientation, in our most mundane days, and in moments of exhilaration of joy and beauty when we finally awaken to the blessings of life. God surprises.”

If you have a book-loving new parent in your life, Ordinary Miracles would make a fine gift. The chapters are not long, and the book can be picked up readily in between the duties of caring for a young child. This book would make a wonderful discussion for a church parent’s group, or a mothers’ book club. There are discussion questions at the end of the book to help guide conversations.

I urge you to pick up a copy of this encouraging book, where you can read this heartfelt reminder:
You are loved just as you are, wherever you are, because you are enough. And this: You have people to love.”
Even though we cannot see the whole picture, we can see and love the person in front of us. God’s love and grace will meet us where we are, and will carry us.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.

Loving Our Enemies

In a world full of broken relationships, religion must lead us toward healing. Religion can help to decrease pain and to bridge the divisions created by fear. Jesus of Nazareth is one of the principal guides we have for this healing process. Whether you view Jesus as a prophet, a gifted rabbi, or the one messiah, his teachings on love could bring about a positive revolution in our homes, in our communities, in our nations.

Author Jim Forest brings readers into a deeper understanding of the central teachings of Jesus in his latest book, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the hardest commandment. This is one of the most inspiring, practical, and urgently needed books that I have read.

In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly teaches that love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. We are called to break bread with one another, and to see each person we encounter as one of God’s precious creations. Jim Forest highlights the Gospel message and elaborates with historical examples of people who bravely lived the teachings of Jesus, setting aside fear and acting out of love.

Followers of Jesus should always remember that even while dying, Jesus prayed for forgiveness of his persecutors. For me, one of the most personally helpful sections of this book included reflections on the need to pray for our “enemies,” those who cause us anger, fear, or hurt. As Forest writes, “Even the smallest act of caring that prayer involves is a major step toward love, an act of participating in God’s love for that person.” Prayer for others can be where we start loving them, because prayer can change our own hearts.

I highly recommend Loving Our Enemies for individual reading, as well as for book discussion groups in religious communities.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.

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