Hope and Possibility

Early on the morning of December 13, I sat beneath Christmas lights in my dimly-lit living room, editing one of my final papers. My phone was beside me so I could instantly check any updates about my sister-in-law, who was going to give birth to my niece at any moment.

Shortly after 6 a.m., we got word that a baby girl had been born. Despite the early hour, the messages of joy and congratulations came pouring into the group message. No one had been allowed to wait in the hospital to congratulate them in person, but like Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives in today’s Gospel, we all rejoiced with them from afar, eagerly waiting to see a picture and learn the baby’s name.

The birth of John the Baptist brought about even more mystery and anticipation. Upon hearing his non-traditional name and witnessing the miraculous restoration of Zechariah’s speech, “fear came upon all their neighbors.” In the face of the unknown, what had started with rejoicing became tempered with confusion and anxiety, as everyone wondered, “What, then, will this child be?”

I have become well accustomed to these types of mood swings this year. My weeks can be punctuated with some of my highest highs and some of my lowest lows. In the face of the unknown, I also often jump to fear and anxiety, rather than holding onto hope and joy.

Yet, in the midst of their fear, the people in today’s Gospel believed, “surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” They didn’t know who John would grow up to be, but they believed in the Lord’s activity in his life.

As we prepare for Christmas in two short days, we don’t know what the next year will bring. I pray that these accounts of miraculous and confusing births – John the Baptist and Jesus – will remind us to look first toward hope and possibility, rather than to fear and anxiety. And in the moments when fear does take hold of us, I pray we know that even then, the Lord is present and active in our midst.

I originally wrote this reflection for the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry’s Advent series, “Maranatha: God With Us, As We Are”

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Preparing for Christmas in a Pandemic

Advent has long been my favorite liturgical season. Something about the colder weather, the imagery of light shining in darkness, and the joy that accompanies preparation for Christmas has always made it a little bit easier for me to sense God’s presence in this time.

But this year, like with many things, Advent feels different. I feel unsure how to prepare for a Christmas that I can’t predict. I have not yet decided whether I will be going to see my parents or staying in Boston. I don’t know if I need to mail Christmas presents or not. I don’t know if I will be going to Mass on Christmas. There is so much unknown in the next month that it feels a little overwhelming.

So how do we prepare for a Christmas like this, with so much uncertainty? As I was reflecting on this question, it occurred to me that in some ways, it might be the most authentic type of Advent possible.

Read the rest on the STM blog!

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This summer, the United States lost a great hero. When John Lewis, a civil rights leader and long time congressman, died in July, many people were moved by reading his article, Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” In his writing, he tells us that in his last hours the people of the United States inspired him with their commitment to demanding justice for Black Americans.

I reread this article recently for class, and I was struck by the first three words of the title, “Together, you can…”

In the first word, “together,” Lewis is reminding us that each of us are only doing a small part of the work of building what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “the Beloved Community.” No one of us is going to single handedly “save the soul of our nation,” and the weight of the work ahead will be too heavy if we try to carry it alone. Lewis clearly learned this through his experience of working together with others during the Civil Rights movement and in his career in Congress, and as he wrote, we can learn from the lessons of those who have gone ahead of us.

The second word that struck me was “you.” Lewis was recognizing that it is no longer, “Together, we.” The work he engaged in so closely with so many others – the “togetherness” that he had learned – is in the past. In the word “you” alone, he is passing the torch to a new generation. My generation needs to know that this country is now our responsibility, and we can no longer simply look to others to make the changes we want to see. I imagine this could have been painful for Lewis, but I feel consolation in knowing that we did inspire him in his last days, which hopefully made it a little less difficult to do.

Finally, the word “can.” In East of Eden by John Steinbeck, one of the main characters has a lengthy discussion of the translation of the word Timshel in the Bible. He studies the translation of the Hebrew word in the story of Cain and Abel, when God is telling Cain that he can rule over sin (Genesis 4:7). In one translation, it was phrased as an order to rule over sin. In another, it was phrased as a promise that he would rule over sin. Yet, the original Hebrew actually means “though mayest” rule over sin.

I think John Lewis was making a similarly intentional choice with his wording – he was not ordering us to redeem the soul of our nation. He was also not promising us that we will. He is simply saying that we can do it if we are willing to do the work of building peace and justice. Over and over again, we must choose love of neighbor over self-interest, understanding over ignorance, and speaking up over staying quiet.

Together, we can.

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Rebuild My Church

This morning I walked by a church about a block away from our house that I’ve passed many times before. It is no longer in use, with a few windows missing and birds flying in and out. But this time there was a new addition to the familiar sight – an orange cone, temporary fencing, and signs saying “DANGER: Do Not Enter.”

The sight struck me as tragically poetic – though churches have begun to reopen, there were months during which all churches really had been closed because of the impending danger of the coronavirus. I still have not gone back to Mass for fear of accidentally spreading the virus to others.

But as I kept walking, I realized there is an even deeper poetic tragedy to it. This empty church is a casualty of the crisis of faith that happened in Boston in the early 2000s after the Boston Globe revealed the coverup of sexual abuse among clergy. People stopped going to Mass and lost their faith because they quite literally did not feel safe walking inside the building, or allowing their children to do so. Not because of a crumbling structure, or a highly contagious virus, but because of the very people who are supposed to be representatives of Christ to us.

And still, this only scratches the surface of the reasons why people may not feel safe entering a Catholic Church. Like the rest of society, the Church needs to do some serious reflection on its racial climate. Even if we no longer require Black people to sit in the back of the church and receive communion last, the Church as a whole has a lot of work to do in figuring out how to honor, welcome, and raise up the voices of our Black brothers and sisters. They should not have to fear prejudice, discrimination, or the need to constantly explain themselves or justify their righteous anger.

There are so many reasons why people might not feel safe entering a Catholic church: we have often focused on imposing shame more than mercy, offered families with noisy children angry stares rather than helping hands, and failed to make our spaces fully accessible and inclusive to those with disabilities. The list goes on.

So why am I still here? Why haven’t I listened to the “danger“ sign and turned away?

Because, despite it all, I still believe that there is truth, beauty and goodness at the core. I have read the Gospels where I see Jesus being radically hospitable to those He encounters, especially those on the margins of society. I have heard the stories of early Christians who radically shared their possessions and took the sick and dying into their care. I have learned about Catholic Social Teaching and seen how true it is when applied to our world. I have experienced the love of God through the faithful people I have met, and through quiet moments of prayer in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is through my faith that I have been empowered to become a more loving, more authentic version of myself, and continue to be challenged to do so.

So, as I think about deteriorating church and “danger” sign, I am reminded of the words that God spoke to St. Francis: rebuild my church. But just as God wasn’t literally asking St. Francis to build a church one stone at a time, I think God is calling us to focus on rebuilding our Church one person at a time, starting with ourselves.

A crumbling church building is a sad thing to see, and I do hope that church gets repaired and someday is full again. But the more tragic thing to see is the crumbling of faith caused by the failings of the Body of Christ – myself included. This time has reminded us all of the importance of community, and as we slowly but surely (someday!) return to worship together in person, I hope we can rebuild into a stronger, more hospitable community of faith than we were before the pandemic.

The classrooms I sit in at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (or, did sit in pre-COVID) are the same spaces where the Archdiocese of Boston used to have offices that engaged in the coverup of sexual abuse that is detailed in the movie Spotlight. In our orientation liturgy a year ago, my classmates and I stood in a chapel in that same building and sang “All Are Welcome,” and I felt hope that together, we could in fact build a more safe, more welcoming Church, true to the loving God we all believe in.

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A Prayer for Grappling with Privilege

Like many, over the past month I have been immersed In the news and the constant stream of social media posts about the death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed. I’ve been reading and watching and listening and thinking and talking and praying, and trying to figure out what to do. For many of us, deciding what to do in the face of the injustice that faces Black Americans begins with acknowledging our own white privilege.

I don’t have much to say, other than to affirm that Black Lives Matter. Most of my energy is going into the project of learning as much as I can about systemic racism in our country and reflecting on my own part in it. I plan to continue to spend more of my time learning and reflecting, and less of my time speaking or writing. But I recently re-read a personal reflection I wrote a few months ago about this process of grappling with my own privilege, and out of it came this prayer.

Acknowledging our privilege is hard. In some ways, it feels ungrateful. It feels sad to see so much of our lives tinged with a sin we didn’t see before. But it is necessary work, because we can’t change anything if we don’t see the problems to begin with. I need courage to do it, and I know courage comes from God. I hope this prayer might be helpful to others doing this same work.

A Litany for Grappling with Privilege

From the instinct to turn away from what is hard

Deliver me, Jesus

From the fear of saying the wrong thing

Deliver me, Jesus

From the desire to be accepted above all else

Deliver me, Jesus

From the impatience of expecting immediate solutions

Deliver me, Jesus

From the biases I have that uphold white supremacy

Deliver me, Jesus

From my desire to hold on to the privilege I have

Deliver me, Jesus

From the pride of thinking I can do any of this without you

Deliver me, Jesus

To choose solidarity over safety.

Holy Spirit, grant me courage.

To choose knowledge over ignorance.

Holy Spirit, grant me courage.

To choose discomfort over ease.

Holy Spirit, grant me courage.

To choose dialogue over silence.

Holy Spirit, grant me courage.

To choose intentionality over the status quo.

Holy Spirit, grant me courage.

To choose simplicity over wealth.

Holy Spirit, grant me courage.

To choose service over power.

Holy Spirit, grant me courage.

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What nature can teach us about interconnectedness

This week is “Laudato Si Week”, and Pope Francis is inviting Catholics around the world to join together to pray and prepare to build a more just and sustainable world. The theme is “everything is connected,” and now more than ever, this connectedness that Pope Francis speaks of is visible.

We see how a virus that began with one person has spread globally, and how that has affected our collective health, economy, and environment. Because of how we have slowed down, we see pictures of clear water in Venice, a lack of smog near the Himalayas, and increased activity among wildlife.

Within our immediate communities, we are hyper-aware of how much touching a surface could potentially affect everyone else who touches that surface in the same day. Every time we pass someone on the sidewalk, we are vigilant in a new way. We see how reliant we are on our health care workers, our grocery store workers, and our government leaders. We see how much responsibility we bear for the most vulnerable among us, and how they are often the ones who feel the effects of our actions first.  Read the rest on the STM blog, Encounter.

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Reflections for an Unusual Lent

This Lent has been a particularly heavy one. For me, it began with a trip to the El Paso/Juárez Border with a group of 13 people from the School of Theology and Ministry. There, we learned about the legal, economic, and humanitarian sides of the border crisis, and met some incredibly strong people who are there supporting their communities. When we returned, it was only a few days before we learned that our classes would be online for the rest of the semester, and joined the rest of the world in watching as the coronavirus situation worsened. We had just begun to process our experience at the border when it seemed like every day added on something new for us to adjust to. We were already missing the community that we had formed there when we found out we would have to separate ourselves from any sort of community for an indefinite amount of time.

All of this has deeply impacted the way in which I have experienced this season of Lent. We have all had to sacrifice much more than we initially intended, and the sufferings of both migrants at the border and all those who are sick or have loved ones who are sick have been weighing heavy on my heart. But I know I am not alone in this. One of the unexpected graces of this time has been having the opportunity to read daily reflections from my classmates as one of the ways in which we have been trying to maintain community while at a distance. In addition to that, I was able to participate in writing two different Stations of the Cross: one reflecting on our experience at the border, and one reflecting on the Way of the Cross during COVID-19.

I had been planning on writing something weaving together all of these things I’ve been processing, but I still don’t have all of the words to do so. Maybe at some point I will, but for now, I am grateful that those around me have helped to find words through their reflections. Both my experience at the border and the coronavirus have taught me how deeply interdependent we all are, so it feels appropriate that I need other people to help me process.

I wish I could share all of the reflections written by my classmates. I highly recommend watching the entire Stations of the Cross reflection made by my group that traveled to the border, because like I said, I don’t have all of the words. But here is a compilation of those words that I have been able to find in a few short reflections:

For the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord
On the first day of our Border Encounter trip, we met two Sisters of Charity who run a clinic for children with special needs on the outskirts of Juárez. They had originally moved to the area for a different ministry, but after seeing the lack of resources there for families with children who have special needs, they decided to change course and open the clinic, which they named “Santo Niño” (The Child Jesus). As they told us their story, they explained that their motto is to “do what presents itself,” and to not turn away from it because of “fear or repugnance.”

The phrase “do what presents itself” has been on my mind ever since that day, and I am particularly reminded of those women as I reflect on the Blessed Mother’s fiat. Like them, Mary had a plan for her life that was disrupted when Gabriel showed up to announce that she would give birth to the Son of God. Although she was “greatly troubled,” Mary did not turn away because of fear. Instead, she welcomed the angel and her son, choosing to say “yes” to what God was asking of her. There was no way for her to know everything that would lie ahead – the social ridicule, the need to flee persecution, the confusion in raising the son of God, or the agony in seeing him suffer and die. But she had the courage to say, “May it be done to me according to your word” without having all of the answers.

In these days, we are faced with our own opportunities to “do what presents itself” in the midst of fear and uncertainty. None of us expected to be quarantined this semester, and it seems like each day we are being asked to say “yes” to one more sacrifice without knowing where the finish line is. Each day, we awake to a new opportunity to say “yes” to finding hope in the face of increasing monotony; “yes” to the social responsibility of slowing the spread of the virus; “yes” to reaching out to those who we think feel most isolated; and “yes” to finding new ways to commune with ourselves and with God. Though we don’t know what new sacrifices may lay ahead, we do know God is with us saying, “Do not be afraid.”

The Fourth Station: Jesus Meets His Mother

Mary did not have to be at the cross. She could have stayed home because it was too painful, or she could have fled out of fear, like many of the Apostles did. But Mary’s love for her son is not a weak love. It is a love that leans into hurt and suffering; that shows up even stronger when things get tough.

As Mary watched her son walk toward His death, I imagine she wished she could go through it all for Him. And as Jesus looked at the heartbroken face of the woman who had been by His side as He learned to walk, to pray, and to begin His ministry, I imagine He wanted to linger a bit longer and somehow find the words to make it okay.

Real love compels us toward each other even in the darkest moments. A heart-wrenching part of our current reality is that when every true and good instinct is telling us to be near each other, we must stay at a distance.

As the death rates from COVID-19 continue to increase, more families are being deprived of the ability to be physically present to their loved ones in their suffering. Many ICUs have made policies that do not allow visitors; therefore, at a time when many people feel compelled to be at the foot of the cross with the person they love, they cannot be. Patients are dying without the benefit of the loving face or tender touch that Mary provided to Jesus in His last hours.

We are being asked to do things that go against every instinct we have about Christian love. However, even when love means staying at a physical distance, we remain in our hearts with those who are suffering in solitude, as do Mary and Jesus, who know how hard it is to say goodbye to those we love.

Mary, as we face the reality of being unable to be near those we love in this time of suffering, please pray for us, that we may find new ways to express our care and solidarity.

Lord, please be near those who are suffering from COVID-19 and help them to know that they are not alone as they carry their cross.

The Tenth Station: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments

Jesus – who has undergone scourging, thorns digging into his skull, and a cross weighing heavily upon his back – is now faced with one last act of humiliation before being nailed to the cross. Covered with blood and sweat and exhausted from the journey, Jesus is stripped of his garments and mocked by those around him in this moment of vulnerability.

Like Jesus, who appeared garment-less with his wounds exposed before the crowd, people arrive at our country’s doorstep with their energy, money, possessions, and sometimes even family members, taken from them. They stand on our soil, vulnerable, waiting to hear their fate. 

Unfortunately, our laws now send migrants arriving at the El Paso border back to Mexico, stripping them of the opportunity to wait for their asylum court date safely with family members already in the United States. While in Juarez, we met several women and children who were in this situation, and in many ways had been stripped of control over their lives. Yet, like Jesus, who persevered until the end, they retained incredible strength, finding ways to support themselves and their children. We, as a nation, may have stripped them of opportunities, but we cannot strip them of their inherent dignity.

Jesus, help us to see your face in the people who arrive at our borders, stripped of their garments. Help us not to follow the way of the soldiers, who mocked you in your moment of vulnerability, but to show the same compassion that you did to all whom you encountered.

The Thirteenth Station: The Body of Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross

After the drama of the crucifixion, the crowd left, and Jesus’s limp body was lowered from the cross. In the silence, Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body, to properly wrap it in linen and place it in a tomb, presumably forever. Suddenly, it was finished: Jesus’s ministry, his journey to the cross, his life.

At Sr. Betty and Fr. Peter’s house, we remembered the people who had died in the journey of migration. One by one, we wrote down their names. We prayed for them: men and women, children and adults, coming from different places. But someday, their names will fade, and new names will be written. Their lives, vibrant and significant, especially to the people whom they loved, were ended too soon.

How do we, like Joseph of Arimathea, honor these people? We cannot physically hold their bodies and wrap them in linen, but how do we hold their stories, their lives, in our hearts? How are we going to live our lives differently for having held them?

Jesus, help us to hold with love those who have died as a result of the harsh realities of migration. The enormity of the situation feels heavy, but please grant us the strength to do the lifting together, as your body, as we work toward a more just world.

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