I was making my annual Advent retreat at St. Edmund’s Retreat House on tiny Enders Island, Connecticut, when the winter storm developed.
The clouds were ominous, the daylight had faded, 30-40 mph winds buffeted the house and the rain, driven sideways, pelted the windows. The waves of the ocean, whipped into frenzy, pounded over the high walls surrounding the gardens of the retreat house. As I watched the storm at sea from my third floor window, I was both fascinated and frightened.
At one point during the height of the storm, I spotted a single sea gull drifting nonchalantly, apparently effortlessly, over the water. I wondered how the tiny sea bird could navigate the fierce wind and rain without being blown off course or forced into the sea below. Watching more closely, though, I noticed that the gull instinctively used its two wings, ever so cleverly and subtly, to navigate the winds and stay afloat. That simple image provided a little Christmas parable for me.
A side note – the next morning, after the storm had subsided, these words appeared in the Gospel of morning Mass: “Everyone who listens to these words of mind and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been solidly set on rock.” (Cf: Mt 7: 24-27) Suddenly those words had new meaning for me!
But back to the Christmas parable.
One of the things I’ve pondered during the Advent season was the reaction of our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, to God’s special intervention in her life. I wonder . . .when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God, that God was about to perform some miraculous deeds in her life . . . what emotions filled Mary’s heart? In her quiet moments what did she really feel and think? What did she say to her family and friends about her predicament?
Mary had good reason to be confused. After all, her life now was completely changed. Her future was unclear and her dreams of marrying Joseph and settling into a comfortable, quiet life in Nazareth would never be fulfilled. Could she even begin to understand the significance of her unique role in salvation history? Did she have any understanding of things we now believe as items of faith – her perfect sanctity, the virgin birth, her eventual assumption into heaven?
I suspect that Mary – like the tiny gull caught in the eye of the storm – could navigate this storm in her life only on the wings of faith and trust. It was Mary’s faith in God – her belief in God’s power and mighty deeds – that predisposed her to accept God’s will and welcome the Word into her heart and soul. And it was Mary’s trust in God – the confidence that God would always take care of her – that allowed her to participate in God’s plan with some measure of serenity.
The example of the sea gull, and more, the example of our Blessed Mother, can be instructive for you and me. It begins with our belief that Jesus is Emmanuel – “God with us.”
Perhaps you’re dealing with a serious illness . . . or mourning the recent death of a loved one . . . or struggling with a perplexing marriage problem or family problem . . . or facing the stark reality of unemployment and financial insecurity . . . or fighting with the demons of addiction or abuse . . . or wrestling with a tenacious moral problem . . . or just generally depressed with the state of the world . . .
Whatever it is, you shouldn’t fear the future. The birth of Jesus Christ, the nearness of God, should encourage you. Your faith in God’s presence and power, and your trust in His personal care for you, are the twin virtues that allow you to navigate successfully the distressing storms of life.
In his beautiful encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict used these words to describe how a Christian faces the future: “Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future; it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness . . . The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” (#2)
During this holy Christmas Season, in churches and homes around the world, people will stop and gaze upon the familiar Christmas scene – Jesus, Mary and Joseph, huddled in the manger, shepherds and wise men in attendance, the angels filling the heavens with the praises of the newborn king. We need to find there, though, much more than a quaint, heartwarming Christmas card. The presepio is the classroom of the Divine Teacher where we find the revelation of God’s love, where we learn from the humble virgin the power of faith and trust.
I extend to you, dear reader, and all the members of our Catholic Family, and our friends and neighbors in the community, my prayers and blessings. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!