I wrote this on December 12th, just two days before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’ve decided to now post it for two reasons. Firstly, it has reminded me of the importance of family and friends not just during the holidays, but everyday. Life is so precious & our time together should never be taken for granted. Secondly, I think it relates to my post on “Culture” in that we do tend to lose our focus on what’s important & what we value in life. Reflecting on the tragic deaths of last week has helped me put things in proper perspective. It was a difficult week trying to keep my focus on my students when I can so easily imagine being in that situation. (Our school called a Code Yellow Lockdown Thursday morning because of a dangerous domestic problem across the street.) I am happy to say that the Christmas Pageant went well, and the kids did a terrific job! I beamed with pride at the beautiful children in my care! I mourn with Newtown, Connecticut for the children who will never be a part of school & family traditions like this.
Christmas can be a dreaded time of year for those of us involved in liturgy, choir, or schools; especially elementary education. I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by a “to-do” list with a December 24th deadline, but when did my religion become just another series of deadlines and due dates? I think it’s because I keep losing my focus and I take my responsibilities and myself way too seriously.
Although I have responsibilities at school and at my parish during these hectic liturgical seasons, no one will be scarred for life if half the shepherds and Zechariah run out of the Christmas Pageant practice early to play in their basketball tournament. Practice will go on even if Mary had to leave after lunch for an orthodontist appointment. While some may indeed be scarred by the annual “dueling angels” in the auditorium as they choreograph their heavenly dance routine, life will go on! I’m quite sure of it. I’m still here to tell the tales and laugh about them!
Liturgical responsibilities can become a “cross” I carry around for all to see, or they can become my quiet gift to Jesus. If I am to live each day of Advent getting ready for the celebration of the birth of our Savior, I need to put myself in perspective. I am not the focus; the people I’ve been asked to serve are!
Each mini-crisis can become an opportunity to find a grace-filled moment and live in it. Each mini-crisis is yet another opportunity to check my privilege and focus on what is truly important. In keeping Jesus in focus, I can become less stressed, more joyful, and more present to Him, my students, my co-workers, and (miraculously) to myself. When I take myself & my job too seriously I lose my focus, and thus the joy of the season.
Holidays rooted in religious traditions should always be about alms giving, service, spiritual renewal, family and food. Yes, food! Everything in life that is worth remembering or being a part of involves food, family and community. My students know by now that I always associate art with food. I can’t help myself! For me food and family are just at the heart of good culture. From this point everything in life flows and grows exponentially, in a good way, not in that “bad-for-the-planet-unsustainable” way.
So, what does all of this sentimental soul searching have to do with peace, social justice or sustainable living? Everything!
Years ago I began talking about letting go of doing all of the things that our society calls “X-mas” traditions. Nobody seemed to listen, take it seriously, or change the pattern of over-doing and overspending at Christmas. And, I’m quite sure, behind every bumper sticker I saw that said “Put CHRIST back in Christmas”, there was a trunk full of crap for everybody on their all-inclusive Christmas list of family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, the neighbor’s dog, and the boss’ spouse! I soon began to realize that I needed to change my habits. It’s the dilemma that individuals, political parties, and nations face every day. It’s what quite possibly inspired Gandhi to say, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
I think my brother & sister-in-law actually did it first, but soon I found myself “casually” mentioning that I wasn’t buying anything for anybody, instead I was going to be making my gifts, as was traditionally the custom. When I finally earned my degree and got a promotion I started buying “gifts of service” in the names of family members. Heifer, Amnesty International, SERRV, SEVA, Made By Survivors, and Food for the Poor are some of my favourite charities to support. Last year I made coil-baskets & filled them with homemade cookies and local, organic, and Fair Trade items. (Pictured below is the one I made for my mom!)
I highly recommend this approach to the holidays! At first I felt like I was forgetting to do something as the final week of Advent approached. I recall having a similar feeling years ago when our TV broke down, and was in the shop for two weeks. The kids thought they would have nothing to “do”, but it’s amazing what happens when creativity is allowed to take over and fill our lives in a much more meaningful way. Beauty, productivity, compassion and peace enter in when the clutter and stuff is cleared away.
I still feel overwhelmed sometimes, but not because of shopping. Eliminating that stressor from my Christmas “to-do” list frees me up in many pleasant and unexpected ways!
Happy Advent & Merry Christmas!