A Christmas Eve Surprise

English: Saint John's Abbey Church, on the cam...

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Usually our Christmas family gatherings are a busy, noisy times, with the house full of people – adults,teens, small children and a dog. On Christmas Eve, we  most often attend our own church, Bethel Christian Reformed Church, for Christmas observance.  But every so often, when  our daughter, her husband and family travel to North Dakota for the holiday, we have a quiet Christmas with only adults at the house, and we visit a different church to share in their Christmas celebration.

It was on  one of these quiet Christmases  that my husband, son and I decided to attend the Christmas Eve Service, often called “Midnight Mass” because of the late hour in which it is held, at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. St John’s Church and Abbey is a 60 mile drive from our home, so I checked on-line to make certain of the time of the service -we wanted to arrive in plenty of  time to find a seat. Reading through the information I saw that there was to be a concert in the church prior to the celebration of the Eucharist. “Wow!”, I thought, “What a great a Christmas gift. We’ll get to hear the amazing  church organ, the St John’s boys’ choir and the Abbey choir perform sacred music before mass, plus the music during the service.” Energized by this news, I  packed up a little basket of Christmas cookies and a thermos of coffee, grabbed our travel mugs, and herded the guys out to the car for the trip Collegeville.

It was a beautiful, clear,cold night. The moon was round and bright, and cast enough light on the snow-covered ground that we could easily see across miles of rolling farm fields as we travelled. When we got to the church, the parking lot was close to full even with an hour to go before the service started. It was wonderful to walk up the steps, open the  huge doors of the church and see and smell the lovely pine boughs throughout the worship space.We were fortunate to find a place to sit close to the back of  the church. I was a little disappointed that we were so far away from the front, but grateful that we arrived in time to find a seat and hear the pre-service concert. I noticed that a young couple with little kids was seated behind us in the very last pew. I groaned inwardly, wondering why parents would bring such young children to church so late at night, and hoped that the kids wouldn’t get tired, cranky and loud during the service.  As I looked toward the front of the church, toward the altar, I was struck again by the simple, profound beauty of St John’s church with its Marcel Breuer design, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Breuer, and pondered the contrast between the modern architecture and the ancient celebration of Christmas. There was certainly an undercurrent of happiness filling the gracious space. The entire setting, the musicians and the people attending all seemed to be filled with excitement.

When the concert ended, all the electrical lights were put out and only candles lit the perimeter of the huge sanctuary.Then a choir of monks began singing the Introit, or introduction, to the mass, which was a Gregorian chant. At the end of this chant, the lights came up in the church and the congregation sang “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” The celebration of the mass included readings from the familiar Bible story of Christ’s humble birth. It was after one of the scripture readings that I heard the cry of the baby from the family behind us; it was definitely a newborn cry, piercing and demanding, but instead of reacting negatively to the plaintive tone, which I was fully prepared to do earlier in the evening, a small miracle occurred: I realized what a meaningful experience it was to hear the same sounds  at  church on Christmas Eve in the 21st century that Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the angels heard on that first Christmas night; not the sounds of a full-throated organ,or Gregorian chant, but the cry of a healthy newborn baby.

The remainder  of the service was truly moving. I was so very glad that we decided to drive the two hours to participate in Christmas Eve at St John’s. Yet as beautiful as it was, the moment I remember most tenderly is the cry of the newborn whose young family was seated behind us. No other part of the service touched my heart more, or brought the Christmas story more clearly into focus than the sound of that baby’s tiny wail. The very noise that I had dreaded to hear during the service had become the source of my deepest happiness that night, and I remember it as a lovely Christmas Eve gift.

Good advice from the Grinch. . .

We are well into the Christmas season now. There are less than 3 weeks  left before Christmas Day. How’s it going for you? Are things falling into place? Is there time enough for you to do all that you need or want to do? Are you winning the spiritual/commercial tug-of-war that always seems to come with the holiday? No? I bet you are not alone.

For many years I ignored Advent – the season in the Christian church  that is intended to  help believers  prepare spiritually for the holy day of Christmas. I chose to ignore it because  it seemed to me that Advent wreathes, candles, prayers,songs or devotions  were too time consuming. Observing Advent was just one more thing to do, one more obligation, one more expectation to jam into the family schedule. I felt I could manage the spiritual side of the Christmas scramble better without trying to get all high church-y. So, ‘Bye bye, Advent’.

Then one year, Christmas Eve came and I realized I hadn’t spent one minute preparing myself or my family to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas – not one. It was shocking. “How did this happen?”, I wondered. It didn’t take long to figure out that I had made a mistake when I eliminated Advent from our family’s life.  I saw that focusing on the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t happen by itself. Over the years I had gotten sucked into the secular culture’s Christmas style: it was becoming just another holiday to our family, rather than being a holy day. I  found I could relate to the discovery of the Grinch in the book by Dr Seuss, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” when the Grinch says,

“It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

I learned my lesson. The following Christmas, and every other Christmas  since, has included the observance of Advent. Now the scripture reading that seemed to be time-consuming has turned into a time of comfort;  the songs that felt like an obligation have become a source of relaxation; the lighting of the advent candle which I thought of as ‘one more thing to do’ has become the one thing that is worth doing.

It’s easy to lose your way in the helter-skelter of the Christmas season. It’s easy to get ‘holy day’ mixed up with ‘holiday’. I know now that making use of the structure which Advent gives to this time of year is a not a rigid ‘high church’ scaling wall, but a matrix of inspiration through which I can filter out the bombardments of distractions coming from every direction. It gives me the freedom to  focus on the whom of the season, not on the what. I think the Christ of Christmas is the ‘little bit more’ that the Grinch is puzzling over, but I also believe Christ is not a little thing, but the main thing. And Advent helps us remember that.

All Saints Day

Russian Icon of the Second Coming used for All...

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Here is a terrific poem featured today, November 1st, 2011, All Saints Day, at  WhiteStone Publishing Blog which is produced by Jeanette Thomason:

The holiday arrives
quietly like phrases
of faint praise
in Braille. Famous
… saints bow at the waist,
then step back, making
room for scores
of unknown saints,
to whom this day
also belongs. Not
a glamorous bunch,
these uncanonized,
unsung ones, shading
their eyes shyly
in the backs of the minds
of the few who knew them.
Hung-over, mute, confused,
hunched, clumsy, blue,
pinched, rigid or fidgety,
unable to look the radioactive,
well-dressed major saints
in the eye, they wonder
terrified: What…
Am I Doing Here? Still
drenched, the tobacco
spitting fisherman who dove
after a dog swept downriver
looks in vain for a towel,
too timid to ask….
What can we offer these reticent saints
who lacked press agents…?
~ AMY GERSTLER in *Jacket 32* (c) November 2008, edited by Elaine Equi
I attended Catholic School for 12 years. At  Catholic school, students do not have to attend class on Holy Days of Obligation (special feast days) but they are obliged to participate in the Mass. November 1st, the day after Halloween, known as All Saints Day, is a Holy Day.  The elementary school my siblings and I went to was called St John’s. As was typical with most Catholic schools in Seattle, the parish church was situated on the same city block as the school. One thing that set St John’s apart from other parochial schools was this: there was a public school of about the same size directly across the street from it, called Greenwood Elementary. Years of experience had taught my brothers and sisters and me one thing about walking to mass on All Saints Day: we knew we were in for some teasing from the public school kids on the playground at Greenwood.
“You have to go to Chu-ur ch, You have to go to Chu-ur ch,” they would sing-song at us as we walked along the sidewalk next to the playground fence. Outwardly we ignored them, but inside, we were hot! “Those ‘publics’ are so stupid,” we whispered to each other, feeling indignant, but also rather holy as we suffered for our faith.
Once safely at church, we dutifully attended Mass, praying for our deceased family members, and calling to mind all of the great, inspiring  saints of church history  by reciting their names from the Litany of the Saints during the service . What we were looking forward to, though, was taunting the Greenwood school kids who were on the playground as we walked home from mass. Then we would get sweet revenge on the ‘publics’  as we sang,”You have to go to scho -oo- ol. You have to go to scho -oo- ol,” while waving our Halloween candy bags at them. Ah, Christian charity! I try to  remember that this mutual animosity between public and Catholic school students happened before the Ecumenical Movement of the church, which began in the 1960’s. Would you bet some of your Halloween candy that students are less belligerent about such things today?  I sure hope so.

Remember to breathe

Empty nest of a White-tailed Eagle, location s...

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There are all kinds of transitions in life; one thing that most of them have in common is that they are difficult. A friend of mine is going through a big one right now, as her youngest child moves far away from home. In thinking about what this means for her, I am reminded of another type of transition – one that occurs during labor and delivery.

Here is a definition of ‘transition’ from http://www.babycenter.com/stages-of-labor:

During active labor, your cervix begins to dilate more rapidly and contractions are longer, stronger, and closer together. People often refer to the last part of active labor as “transition.”


A definition is one thing – living out the experience of the definition is another. I would guess most women who go through labor remember something about  transition. Here’s what I recall:

It’s hard work; it’s painful. Emotions run high; there may be outbursts of tears and words; there are great fears about being able to make it through; strongly worded prayers and questions are directed at God. It is easy to forget all the lessons learned about breathing correctly through labor –  you know you should listen to your breathing coach, but the pain is escalating.  I think that if there were an easier way through transition, most of us would take it (caudal anesthesia, anyone?).  Whether anesthesia is used or not, the truth is there is no going back once the stage of transition begins. A chain of events has been set in motion that cannot be reversed. Eventually transition ends for the mother and the baby; the start of a new life is the hoped for joyful end. Once the work is finished, the worst of the struggle and pain is forgotten; our perspective is changed and there is an entirely new world before us and our child.

I see many similarities between the work of transition that occurs during labor and the one that happens as the last child leaves home.  The transition from a home with kids to one without is difficult and painful. Emotions run high; there may be outbursts of tears and words; there are great fears about being able to make it through; strongly worded prayers and questions are directed at God.   I think that if there were an easier way through this transition, most of us would take it – but there isn’t. For all of those involved, a chain of events has been set in motion that cannot be reversed. Eventually, this transition time ends for the parents and child; the start of a new life is the hoped for joyful end. Once the work of transitioning out the parents’ home is finished and everyone can catch their breath, the worst of the pain and struggle is forgotten; those involved have a change of perspective and there is an entirely new world ahead.

Today my friend whose youngest child is moving away from home is on my mind and heart, and in my prayers. I know she will make it through this transition, but it will be painful, and it will take time. I hope we can spend some of that time together. Maybe we will practice our breathing.

Not exactly a fashion statement

A old fracture with nonunion of the fracture f...

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Six weeks is the average time it takes to heal a
fractured bone, so I was expecting to be footloose and fancy free by eight
weeks status post fractures, but nope. Do you think things are taking longer to
heal because two bones were broken? Or perhaps it is the locations of the
fractures (foot and ankle)? Or maybe it’s because I am, ahem, a mature person
and therefore slower to become fleet-footed again?  No complaints,
you understand, just curious. I am very thankful to be upright and ambulating
without walker or crutches, only having to use a walking boot to get from point
A to point B. But I am just a little disappointed that even though the all-
clear has been given to work fulltime without The Boot, that I probably will not be able to actually do it. I have been experimenting at
home, trying to participate fully in daily activities for several hours sans The Boot  – it hasn’t gone so well.

On Monday, the work day will be started wearing two
standard, matching, everyday work-world shoes, but The Boot will be close by;  a
sort of security boot, if you know what I mean. By the way, if you don’t know what
a walking boot looks like, you can get an idea here:http://www.nationalbraceandsplint.com/Cam-Walker-Boots_c_14.html

At some point in the future this whole episode involving
broken bones, and learning compassion for those whose lives are temporarily, and
sometimes permanently altered by such injuries, will be over. In the meantime,
I’ll do what needs to be done to stay an active bi-ped. But someday soon I hope
to give The Boot the boot.

Speaking of footloose, the re-make of the movie, Footloose, is going to be released in theaters soon. Here’s a link  to the trailer:


What’s that say???

Flower motif in contemporary nakshi kantha

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Many years ago I was active in several quilters’ groups. At one of the quilt shows I bought a large metal pin that said “I am a QUILT lover.” The next day when I wore it several men and women were aghast as they read it. One thought it said, “I am a QUIET lover”; one thought it said, “I am QUITE a lover”, and one thought it said, “I am a GUILTY lover.” I took it off as soon as I got home from church and never wore it again. True story.

Looks pretty wet out there

Child enjoys a puddle in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

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My younger sister, Claudia, has a big family, and had
the knack of delighting in her children as they passed through each stage of
development. Even though I was older, and my children were older than hers, she
was always teaching me something valuable about rearing kids. For example:

I was visiting one
day when her son Nick, who turned 30 this year, was 5yrs old; he was invited to
play at the neighbor’s house across the street. It was raining, so Claudia
found a jacket with a hood and some rain boots for him to wear for his walk. It was a quiet neighborhood, and both Moms would be watching as Nick crossed the street. Claudia kissed Nick and said, “Now walk straight over and look out for puddles,” then sent him on his way. She said to me, “Come and watch.”
I stood next to her at the window where we saw Nick find a puddle and jump in
with both feet and laugh, and then find another puddle, jump in it and laugh
again. Claudia and I both laughed as well, enjoying the experience almost as
much as Nick. I turned to Claudia and asked if she felt a little sad to see
that Nick was disobeying her. “He’s not,” she said, “I didn’t tell
him to STAY out of the puddles, I told him to LOOK out for puddles. He looked
out for them, found them, and did what every child should do – jump in!”
Another lesson learned.