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Friday, January 15, 2010

“Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, I too have decided to write an orderly account.” (Luke 1:1, 3)

“SOUL-SURFING” – January 24, 2010
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

Last year’s Thanksgiving week couldn’t have come soon enough! I’d scheduled a five-day retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts, and as the much-anticipated respite approached, I slogged through my days at the hospital hanging by my fingernails, figuratively speaking, of course. I was emotionally pooped, and the busy holiday season lay just ahead.

I first began going to the abbey for Thanksgiving week retreat in 1990, and I hadn’t missed a Thanksgiving with the monks since then. Even before that year, I’d learned a truth about hospital ministry: the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is especially difficult for the sick, their families and their caretakers. With the media jubilantly proclaiming this month to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” it is, in fact, often the most miserable time of the year for those deprived of health, happiness, family and all else that brings a smile to the face. Indeed, my yearly Thanksgiving week retreat would provide rest before the “most wonderful time of the year” began its assault.

The week with the monks, though, was far more than the proverbial calm before the storm. It had also become the week when I took stock of my blessings, especially the people who had sustained me, the people who, I believe, God had sent as flesh and blood embodiments of his care. And so this annual Thanksgiving week at the abbey had become the time when I wrote Christmas cards, prayerfully remembering those many who had borne me blessing.

Sitting in the darkened church with the monks at 6 AM on that first morning of retreat, the cast of long shadows on the walls caught my attention. While the monks chanted the psalms of Morning Prayer, my eyes took in the multitude of shadows painting the walls and high arched ceiling. With light enough only to see the prayer books in our hands, darkness and shadow were prominent participants in every abbey church service.

Yet, while shadows more often suggest something sinister, this Thanksgiving week they took on a lightsome character, inviting me to reflect not so much on the shadows themselves but on what had cast them. And it was the monks who did this; holy men chanting sacred texts lit by focused beams threw long shadows on the church walls. These ghostly silhouettes were surely not sinister. No, they were evidence of heavenly light shining through holy figures to touch a darkened world. I quietly chuckled during the monks’ solemn prayers as I considered the many likewise holy figures whose shadows had touched my life, shadows cast by light no less heavenly than that so quietly vibrant in this dark abbey church.

With renewed energy I returned to writing Christmas cards after Mass and breakfast that morning. Now this stack of cards was so much more than a holiday project; it was a prayer of thankfulness. With each envelope addressed and card signed, I considered the shadow cast across my life by someone who had been sent from above. With each envelope addressed and card signed, I considered one uniquely holy life sent by God to bring light to mine. Indeed, each card was the acknowledgement of the ongoing story of God-made-flesh touching the world with grace.

The gospel passage we hear today reminds us that, once we have been touched by God, we are compelled to bear witness to his living presence among us. Thus, St. Luke’s gospel begins, “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, I too have decided to write an orderly account.” (Luke 1:1, 3) Yes, touched by God, Luke cannot but give testimony to what he has seen, heard and believed.

So it is with us. Once we realize that God has touched us, we are compelled to acknowledge his abiding presence. Indeed, the saving work of Jesus continues in our world as Christians tell the stories of heaven touching earth in their own lives. The last verse of the last gospel, St. John’s, speaks of this truth. “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) Surely, we are those books, living documents of the Good News of God come to live among us, to love us, to save us.

Christmas cards sent to family and friends are the acknowledgement that the saving work of Jesus continues among us. At least, that’s what Christmas cards ought to be about. Perhaps I missed the mark this recent Christmas with my choice of card, a 14th century Madonna and Child by the Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. I confess that I bought the cards at a post-holiday sale from the Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago. So reasonable seemed the price that I bought hundreds of them! I further confess that I was more taken in by the price than the image on the card. So, piles of these cards were mailed after my retreat with the monks. A last confession: I was feeling quite proud of my productivity. Bubbles always burst, though.

A week before Christmas, while having coffee with my sister and 12 year-old nephew, the insolent child boldly proclaimed my card the ugliest of the 93 they’d received so far. As my sister’s face reddened and she tried to bury it in the coffee mug before her, her son shamelessly continued, “Yep, your card won hands down!” This being the time for truth-telling, I responded, “Well, I got them on sale, and I have about 400 left, so you’ll be getting the same card for the next few years. Brace yourself.” He laughed, then my sister, then me.

The gospel story continues in our own lives, the written accounts in the Bible but the beginning of what God has done. Let us this new year open wide our hearts and minds to his coming; then let us open wide our mouths to proclaim his wonders. And may the Christmas cards we write 10 months from now, even the ugliest ones, speak of the love of God binding us one to another.

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