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Christmas

A Christmas meditation

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Mary

Warm, soft, vulnerable and alive, this sleeping One in my lap. I caress the tiny forearm, touch the curled, unsure hands. I can’t stop kissing his fast-beating heart, listening to his unpracticed, uneven breath. I touch his soft, dark, baby hair, nuzzling the top of his head with my nose. His little feet, slightly cold- so tiny and perfect- have never yet touched the ground. I hold them in my hands to warm them. I kiss their satiny soles. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” my heart in wonder repeats, repeats. I press him to me, this Lord of mine, with a profound, peaceful, joyful gratitude and love, a protective love. He opens his eyes, still that deep slate gray of the newly arrived human. They hold the newborn’s sage, open gaze; mildly curious, seeming to drink in the powerful love pouring out of the utterly enchanted person looking back at them. He blinks innocently at the tears falling from my eyes into his.

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Jesus in His Sacred Humanity

I am cold, my arms flailing awkwardly and out of my control. I’m confused. I don’t know what’s happening. I need comfort, warmth, nourishment. And then I am warm, pressed soothingly all around. A deep, sweet peace flows into my mouth and through my body as my unruly hands tangle in her hair; Mama, Mama. The only thing I know is this love, this union, this protection and assurance. I relax completely.

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TheBlessed Trinity

I am that I am, Being, Love, Light and Life. I surround my Son, inhabit my Son, I am within my Son, I love my Son, I am my Son.

I have remained what I have been and will be eternally, and I have become what I was not. In my love of humanity, I have finally become fully human, entering the world of time and space in the most profound and humble way. So great is my love, I have been conceived and born into this human cloud of unknowing, emptying Myself, taking the form of a slave, in order to free and divinize my beloved humanity, made of dust, that they might share my Divine Life.

Vulnerable, human, innocent and unknowing, be, oh Christian soul. I have shown you the way to Me: this little Child, this Way, this Truth, this Life, full of humility and trust, gentle, humble, simple, with the need, the open-ness of the newborn. Come to Me, forgetting everything but Love Itself, and be born again. Be little, be free, be loved. Never be afraid, it is I, the Little One, asking for your love.

Answer Me, say from the heart:

Truly, I have set my soul 

In silence and in peace

As the Divine Child has rest in His mother’s arms,

Even so, my soul.

grayscale photo of baby feet with father and mother hands in heart signs
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Sunrise: through the dark faith of Advent to the brightness of Christmas

Traveling through Advent with grief this year has led to me to soul search about what Christmas is, and, in the process, to notice similarities between the journey of Advent into Christmas and the stages of the soul’s progression into the heart of God.  According to Carmelite spirituality,  the soul first travels through and away from outward distractions, into inward beauty, then into the deep pain of the dark night when even these lovely interior gifts are removed and the soul’s perception of them and consequently, of God, is radically changed. This happens so that the true nature of God can be apprehended by naked faith and purified love. In this way, the soul is prepared for union with God, and begins to radiate peace and love through His indwelling presence.

Throughout this journey, the soul finds that the things around God, even things that point to or reflect God, are not God Himself. The soul has to learn to relate to all these other things in a whole new way that has to do with loving God as He is in Himself. This is something which God will begin mysteriously to teach the willing and loving soul, who responds to God, in and through this suffering, with more and more surrender and determination. God will transform that soul, making it able to receive God in pure faith, hope and love.

In a similar way, the journey through Advent prepares us for the very real grace of Christmas, which is beyond all of the outward and even inward trappings that surround Christmas itself. We journey through all these things to the heart of Christmas, and thereby receive its true grace.

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Advent is full of things that are good and point the way to Christmas, but they are not Christmas itself. I can be distracted by the outward show of the season; the lights, the gifts, the traditions, the social interactions. These outward things can be good, used to serve others and remind us of the birth of Jesus. But they are not Christmas itself.

Even the people in our lives, whom we love and enjoy, and/or who cause us a lot of stress at this time of year one way or the other; they point the way to Christmas because they are our school of love, forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice, and communion. They reflect the love of God to us. But people and relationships are not actually Christmas itself.

The events we plan with our families and friends, as good (or as stressful) as they can be, are not Christmas either.

Our feelings, memories and thoughts, so intensified (sometimes painfully, sometimes happily) during this time of the year, are part of our journey. Our expectations, our longing for unity, joy, peace, justice and beauty, are all from God and are holy. They point us to the meaning of the Nativity, and to the joys of Heaven. But even these are not Christmas itself.

Sometimes I am happy about shared love and memories with family and friends. Sometimes I am keenly aware that I am in deep mourning. Some years I have truly felt that I have known Christmas joy. Other years I did not feel it. But it is still Christmas, whatever I think or feel.

Cultural expressions of the season, social events, our relationships,  and even our inmost feelings, all these things, painful or joyful as these may be, are not Christmas. These are things that surround Christmas, that reflect its light.

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What is Christmas? Is it just a remembering of the birth of Jesus? I think it is that, but what else is it?

Does something actually happen at Christmas?

I think Christmas is a remembering by us, the Church, that makes present and re-presents an eternal reality. With this remembering, I believe, Heaven cooperates whole heartedly.

I believe that at Christmas, by a special grace, there is a sunrise that bathes every face, a release of extra love and light coming through the heart of the Church, Christ’s Body, that shines on everyone.

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The Church prays for it: “Grant….that the the coming solemnity of [the Nativity of ] your Son may bestow healing upon us in this present life.” ~ from the Liturgy of the Hours Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Jesus has come into the world and continues to be with us.

Christmas is true no matter what happens with events outside or inside myself, or how I perceive them.

Christmas is real, and that sunrise is there.  It’s coming.

The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

-The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

To give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory that appears on the face of Christ.

-He has shown in our hearts.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.~Responsory from Morning Prayer from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours, Feast of St. John of the Cross.

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  • I originally wrote this piece in Advent of 2015

Monastery Christmas

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During Advent, I asked Friars, Priests, Nuns and Sisters what they do for Christmas in their communities. I called a cloistered Carmelite convent and asked what the nuns do for Christmas. I read accounts in articles and on web sites of Christmas at monasteries. I didn’t really know why I was doing it, or where I was going with it.

I was surprised by some of the responses I got to my question, especially by the fact that there is sometimes loneliness or emotional distance in religious communities at Christmas.

I heard about Christmas nights with everyone exhausted from ministry work.

Some Christmas Days are spent, anti-climactically, with each member in his own room after all the masses are over.

Some Christmases are difficult or disappointing, just as some of ours are.

I don’t know what I expected to hear. Of course they have problems, too.

Some described happy Christmases among brothers as the norm.

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Other accounts had a gentle simplicity and sense of the sacred we could work harder to imitate or be more in touch with if we wanted to.

…Advent can be a quiet but intense time. The days are getting shorter and darker. It is a period in which nature and the liturgy can harmonize in a way that naturally draws a monk or nun more into a reflective and prayerful mood. When the great day of the Lord’s birth arrives, it is as if a great light had burst on the scene. The dramatic turning point is Midnight Mass, something Trappists do in a very distinctive way. The liturgy is simple but majestic. We are often joined by dozens or as many as a hundred of our friends and neighbors with their children.

On Christmas day, we are allowed to sleep in a little longer. Breakfast will often feature delicious pastries made by a Trappist brother or sister or one of our neighbors. We do not exchange gifts, but we receive many cards and goodies from people far and wide who appreciate our silent witness as contemplatives. We are permitted to call our families and catch up on news from home. All of these are means for really enjoying and celebrating Christmas. But, perhaps, what a Trappist monk or nun most cherishes about Christmas day are the free periods given us to spend time in the chapel or walk in nature and enter into the mystery of Christmas in silence and solitude.
http://trappists.org/newcomers/social-life/holidays-and-celebrations

This  response from my friend, Sister Lynn, was particularly joyful:

“ We have a special Vespers service on Christmas Eve where we sing the portions of Isaiah that speak of the Emmanuel. We usually sing Christmas carols in Chapel before Mass as people are arriving. Since we are located in a very rural area we don’t usually have a lot of guests at Mass; perhaps a dozen or so on Sundays. But Christmas Eve is the one Mass where we get a huge turnout of people – usually around 100. After Mass we visit with our guests a bit as they leave.

Christmas morning we have Morning Prayer. We have Christmas Day Mass with our elder sisters in the infirmary. Then the sister cooks get to work preparing our Christmas dinner. Easter and Christmas we splurge … this year we are having steak! Different sisters sign up to do parts of the meal – I am on for vegetarian main dish (we’re having specially seasoned Boca burgers and cauliflower steaks) and also salad.

In the afternoon we have some rest time. The

evening is my favorite part of the day – we have our community Christmas party. We have fun finger foods, open gifts that have been given to the community – usually there is a small gift for each sister (something like an Amazon gift card or gift of an extra retreat day). It’s only community – no guests, we put on our jammies and just have fun being together.

~ Sr. Lynn, O.S.B.

Sister Lynn and two of her Sisters

The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.

St. Nicholas, Friend of Children and of the Poor, Master of Sneaky Good Deeds

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I wanted Santa to be real to my daughters forever, not only when they were small, but always. I accomplished this by teaching them about the original Santa Klaus, St. Nicholas, Friend of Children and of the Poor, Master of Sneaky Good Deeds.

As a Saint he is forever accessible to us who believe. Very useful in this Santa catechesis was the little movie, Nicholas, the Boy Who Became Santa.* My girls loved it and they watched it over and over and so did the neighborhood kids who were always at our house. The movie shows the boy Nicholas giving away his things to the poor, buying slaves their freedom, sneaking food and gifts to children and the poor in the middle of the night, always remaining anonymous.

St. Nicholas, who had an intense devotion to the Christ Child and a special love for children, became a bishop in what is now Turkey. He was persecuted by the Romans who burned down his church and arrested him. He spent years in prison, even sharing his bread and water with his fellow prisoners who weren’t particularly nice to him. Eventually he was set free and was able to re-join his fellow Christians.

I incorporated devotion to St. Nicholas into our family celebration of Advent and Christmas, having the girls write him a letter on his feast day, Dec. 6 ( a letter in return for which, he always left some simple treats, some change,and possibly some glitter.) They would write to St. Nicholas about what they wanted him to pray for them about in their lives. I always had them include three virtues they wanted him to obtain from God for them. (This is where The Family Virtues Guide came in handy.)** Some of these letters the girls wrote were very beautiful and of course some were hilarious!

Shawn and Kids
Shawn and Kids 12/00

During the course of Advent and the Christmas season, we would attempt to imitate St. Nicholas by doing sneaky good deeds as much as we could. One year I remember we put a bunch of Christmas roses in our red wagon and stayed up late, going out to leave roses and glitter or some toys for the kids at each house on our street. As people did in honor of St. Nicholas after his death, we sometimes left a note that said, “St. Nicholas.” As you can imagine, this was great fun.

Of particularly fond memory is a Christmas we drove around to houses

where people struggled with poverty. I remember how we silently giggled as we sprinkled glitter all over porches, leaving presents and food and red rose petals. We laughed about it on the way home in the car.

The girls understood that in this way we were being helpers of St. Nicholas just like anybody is when they give sneaky gifts in honor of Jesus’ birthday the way St. Nicholas did. So my kids transitioned slowly to understanding that the adults in their family did this same thing for them each Christmas… as helpers of St. Nicholas who loved the Christ child, loved children and the poor. So that’s how it all worked! However he stayed real to them as a Saint and a friend. The legend could grow up with the kids.

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This was a very good way to learn what Christmas gifts are about, and who Santa really is. Sometimes there were challenges, however.

One Christmas morning, my wide eyed little girls ran in the back door yelling, “MAMA! St. Nicolas SMOKES! And he DRINKS, TOO!”

My dad and brother had been over in the middle of the night, helping St. Nicholas with a trampoline in the back yard for the girls. Apparently they had left cigarette butts and a few beer bottles around as well.

Looking at my daughters, I tried not to laugh. No laughing. I had to think.

I thought of several possible answers in the midst of their shocked clamor.

It was the helpers? Should I bring elves into this? It’s Christmas, give Santa a break? It was Uncle Mark and Grandaddy? (No, not that, not yet.)

I looked down at their horrified little faces and shrugged.

“Well! Now we know what to leave St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve from now on instead of the hot coco and cookies. Next time we will leave him cigarettes and a beer!”

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Advent Activity: Go out and do a sneaky good deed in honor of St. Nicholas and of the Christ Child. Cigarettes and beer are entirely optional.

*https://www.cccofamerica.com/?portfolio=nicholas-the-boy-who-became-santa

** http://www.virtuesproject.com/family.html

Christmas Shopping with Jesus

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“When Black Friday comes,
I’m gonna dig myself a hole,
I’m gonna lay down in it ‘till I satisfy my soul.”
-Steely Dan

The Advent Season is at the same time as the Shopping Season. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish, when December comes, that I could spend my Advent and Christmas as a hermit  instead.

I would probably miss my brother though.

I told Jesus how much this time of year stresses me out.

There is so much to do and the whole soundtrack of Advent is Christmas music when it isn’t Christmas. They play and play those Christmas songs everywhere you go, and by the time Christmas comes I don’t even want to hear Joy to the World  ever again.

I hate shopping, even on line.

I am prone to mall nausea.

Jesus listened in silence. He is good at that.

He has been helping me pack, since I am in the middle of moving.

“Can’t we just trick all the stores by moving Christmas to some other time?”

He sat back on his heels, smiling at me. “Let’s go shopping.”

“What, right now?”

But he was already putting on his shoes. Which means I had to put on mine, too.

He wanted to go to Wal-mart. I hate that place. But I drove him there.

There was a lot of traffic, and some people were not driving in their right minds. I growled at them, but I said, “God bless you, have a nice day,” because what else can you say with that guy around?

When we arrived, he wanted to sit in the parking lot and hold my hand for a while.

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So we held hands sitting in the car.  I looked at him sometimes, and sometimes I watched the people going by. So many of them were smiling, though many seemed pre-occupied. People handed each other carts, stepped aside for the elderly, grinned conspiratorially at the children, many of whom were skipping or jumping up and down. Parents looked at each other over their children’s heads and laughed.

I thought about how even in the midst of the over commercialization of the season, it is true that people seem to treat each other with a little more kindness. Maybe there is something to the magic of the season after all. It’s Jesus coming out in people at his special time of year.

Jesus said his mom always took him shopping when she went, that he loved going with her.

I thought about that.

We always think of Mary’s pregnancy during Advent. She was filled with Jesus. She took him everywhere. From what Elizabeth said at the Visitation, his presence could be felt in her. I imagined Mary, very big and pregnant, doing the shopping, smiling, knowing.

Jesus squeezed my hand. “Let’s go.”

At the front doors, he made sure I donated to the Salvation Army, and reminded me to thank the bell ringer for being out there.

He drew me into conversation with some little boys who were raising money for their team, prompting me to ask questions that seemed to please them.

We walked through the tinseled Wal-Mart, noticing people and blessing them. He pointed out to me the ones who were tired or worried or sad, and had me pray for them. He showed me examples of people being kind to one another across the usual social boundaries we rarely think about and seldom disregard. I began to kind of almost like Wal-mart.

I bought some dog food and we silently blessed all the people in the check out line; especially the young mother with the crying baby and  fussy toddler, the cashier who looked as if she had worked a double, and the old man who counted his change out so slowly and then did it again.

I felt happy.

But then Jesus said that the mall was next.

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Bother.

Yep, there was that Christmas music. He smiled, I noticed. He said he likes Christmas music all the time.

It was crowded in the mall and I was almost instantly over stimulated. He patted me on the back.

He thought I should try smiling from the heart at everyone I saw.

This simple exercise had an amazing curative effect on my nerves.

I started seeing possible gifts my daughters might like a lot. I even started to feel a little excited. I walked a little faster. I thought how easy to please both my daughters are, and how much I love them.

As we made our way through the mall, Jesus reminded me to say a kind word to everyone I interacted with, even to go out of my way to compliment people. I was surprised how much this little effort brightened people’s faces, and mine, too.

He wanted to go into a store that looked really glitzy to me. I dislike places like that. They make me feel ridiculous.

Sure enough when we stepped across the threshold, I noticed the hole in the toe of my shoe, became conscious of the eccentric bent and general sloppiness of my clothes, the fact that I have not worn make up in years.

Looking at all those expensive beauty products on mirrored surfaces, all those swanky clothes, the fashion show music, the fast pace, being surrounded by the fashionable and well dressed, made me unusually self conscious. Then I was annoyed at myself for caring.

Jesus pinched me. Because in my self absorption, I had not noticed a teenaged girl whose bag had come open on the bottom. Her items fell and rolled across the slick, polished aisle and under clothes racks, scattering hopelessly. People stepped over her things, or avoided her or stared at her, but nobody was helping her and she was embarrassed, as teens tend to be.

I helped her find everything, even getting on my hands and knees and crawling under hanging coats, smiling because it reminded me of hiding from my mom in stores as a kid.

All her things restored to her, and a new bag procured, the embarrassed teen was on her way, hopefully feeling a little better, and thinking of what was for dinner.

On our way out, Jesus and I passed one of those triple mirrors that help you see your new outfit from every angle. As I walked by, I saw an unexpected flash of color and retraced my last two steps. I saw myself in a golden dress with bracelets on my arms, rings on my fingers, and gold sandals on my feet, a small crown on my head. I laughed as the vision faded, and the voice in my ear said, “This is how you look, to ME.” I closed my eyes in sheer joy.

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When I opened my eyes, he had slipped away.  He must have gone to help someone else so I got into the car alone, knowing he had his own ride home.

At a very busy intersection I saw him standing on a corner holding one of those signs saying that he was hungry, and would someone please help.

I hate when he stands on a corner where I can’t get to him unless I go to the next exit and turn around and almost get in a wreck trying to help him. But I did it anyway. I even gave him a hug along with the money. He patted me and said, “God bless you.”

Back in my car, I turned on the radio. Matt Maher was singing “Alive Again” and it made me cry a little bit.

“You called and You shouted
Broke through my deafness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again

You shattered my darkness
Washed away my blindness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again”

I understand. The spirit of Advent, Lord, is in listening to you, noticing you, and spending time with you in the ways you lead me to, loving in all the ways the world around me offers… even in shopping and going to Wal-Mart and the mall.

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  • I originally wrote this in 2014. It appeared on ATX Catholic and also in my newspaper column at Bryan Eagle.  🙂

What are you waiting for this Advent?

What are you waiting for this Advent?

Since my conversion* I have seen Advent as a time of waiting for Christmas, or as commemorating the waiting of humanity, the waiting of Israel, the waiting of Mary and Joseph for the Messiah to come.

I have thought of it as an entrance into the mystery of that expectation both a memory of humanity and something that makes  it present.  Also, as the Church teaches, I know Advent as our renewed expectation of the Parousia, the return of the Lord.

Something else is happening with me this year. I find myself sensing that God is about to act in my life in a mighty way, a way I will be conscious of. I feel it like a rising tide, steady and slow, but sure.

God is coming. And He will set things right. Even if setting things right means I become free to accept and walk away from some painful and deep running, long term injustices I have been coming to terms with. Even if that is what is happening, I am happy.

“Lift up your heads, for your redemption is at hand.” (Luke 21:28)

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However, I have a feeling that change is coming. Clarity is coming. An unravelling of seemingly impossible knots is already starting to happen. Justice is rising gently, truly.

I believe it.

Something about it is not just personal to me, but also universal.

Advent, in a very real way, is a special time of grace.

I hope this is happening for you, too.

I hope it is happening for our country, and for the world.

Let us prepare the way of the Lord. (Isaiah 40:3) 

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His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. (see Isaiah 58: 8-9) 

Of course that is so.

But this year, as we wait for the Lord, and we make way in our lives,

let’s really expect Him…

In our houses, for real…

In our lives.

God entered into time in a mighty way by the Incarnation and Nativity of the Lord.

Let it happen now to us.

Let there be a star.

See it.

Because it’s all true.

I don’t know about you,

But I think I will celebrate Christmas this year with my front door open.

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* I was baptized a Catholic October 23, 1990, at the age of 22. 🙂

 

 

 

The little One : a meditation for Christmas

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Warm, soft, vulnerable and alive, this sleeping One in my lap. I caress the tiny forearm, touch the curled, unsure hands. I can’t stop kissing his fast-beating heart, listening to his unpracticed, uneven breath. I touch his soft, dark, baby hair, nuzzling the top of his head with my nose. His little feet, slightly cold- so tiny and perfect- have never yet touched the ground. I hold them in my hands to warm them. I kiss their satiny soles. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” my heart in wonder repeats, repeats. I press him to me, this Lord of mine, with a profound, peaceful, joyful gratitude and love, a protective love. He opens his eyes, still that deep slate gray of the newly arrived human. They hold the newborn’s sage, open gaze; mildly curious, seeming to drink in the powerful love pouring out of the utterly enchanted person looking back at them. He blinks innocently at the tears falling from my eyes into his.

 

I am cold, my arms flailing awkwardly and out of my control. I’m confused. I don’t know what’s happening. I need comfort, warmth, nourishment. And then I am warm, pressed soothingly all around. A deep, sweet peace flows into my mouth and through my body as my unruly hands tangle in her hair, Mama, Mama. The only thing I know is this love, this union, this protection and assurance. I relax completely.

I am that I am, Being, Love, Light and Life. I surround my Son, inhabit my Son, I am within my Son, I love my Son, I am my Son. I have remained what I have been and will be eternally, and I have become what I was not. In my love of humanity, I have finally become fully human, entering the world of time and space in the most profound and humble way. So great is my love, I have been conceived and born into this human cloud of unknowing, emptying Myself, taking the form of a slave, in order to free and divinize my beloved humanity, made of dust, that they might share my Divine Life.

Vulnerable, human, innocent and unknowing, be, oh Christian soul. I have shown you the way to Me: this little Child, this Way, this Truth, this Life, full of humility and trust, gentle, humble, simple, with the need, the open-ness of the newborn. Come to Me, forgetting everything but Love Itself, and be born again. Be little, be free, be loved. Never be afraid, it is I, the Little One, asking for your love.

Answer Me, say from the heart:

Truly, I have set my soul 

In silence and in peace

As the Divine Child has rest in His mother’s arms,

Even so, my soul.

Children of God,

Hope in the Lord forever. (a variation on Psalm 131)

On this Holy Night, take time to be little, humble, simple, trusting, and close to God, like a child.

 

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