the third light: wonder
One December a few years ago, during my lunch break, I decided to visit a beautiful Adoration chapel close to work. It being the most wonderful and busy! time of the year, I found myself having great difficulty finding focus. Lists of things ran through my head, from last-minute shopping, to incomplete tasks left behind at the office, to memories of Christmases past and how I would miss being in Michigan with my family that year.
The altar at the St Isaac Jogues’s Adoration Chapel has a wonderful stained glass wall behind it that depicts Jesus on the cross, with Mary and John at his feet. I’ve spent countless hours in that chapel, my eyes noticing every detail in the glass. But this day, I noticed that the image of the cross seems to float within a wonderful depiction of the tree of life. The dark wood of the cross has leaves in beautiful shades of green swirling around it. The image of Jesus’s cross juxtaposed on the tree of life was enough to get me to take a few deep breaths and settle into prayer. As I was drawn deeper into this link between the tree of life and the cross of the crucifixion, I was struck with another connection. I’ve always loved a wonderful little book about Mary and Jesus by Caryl Houselander called The Reed of God. In it, Houselander says, “The description of Jesus’ birth in the gospel does not say that [Mary] held him up in her arms but that she ‘wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.’ As if her first act was to lay him on the cross.” In the midst of the season’s hustle and bustle, as I sat and prayed with this new, found image of the tree of life, and its wood as the manger AND the cross, I was drawn into the silence of the chapel, and the beauty of the connections that God had made for me. This moment in prayer was, for me, a lovely moment of grace.
As I sat there in prayer and contemplation, I began to realize that a woman had walked into the chapel. She had a tiny baby in her arms. She, too, seemed to be in a hurry that day, and she, too, seemed to need a little nudge from God to find focus. I watched as she walked right up in front of the monstrance and held the infant’s face up where he could see. This mother, her baby in her arms, then knelt before the monstrance for a few moments, her head bowed, all the while making sure her child was facing Jesus. It was if she was saying, “Behold! Do not be afraid!”
In this moment of grace, it was as if God was saying it to me. “Behold!” I sensed God telling me to notice the infant… Notice the way this mother helps her child see Jesus… God seemed to be whispering, “This is all you need to know this Christmas.” This young mother was a stunningly beautiful reminder to me to take in and celebrate moments of wonder.
The invitation here, for me, was the beautiful awareness of Advent as a season of awe and wonder, even (and perhaps especially) in the middle of a busy workweek right before Christmas. For all of us, the invitation during Advent is to remember the baby. To be vulnerable. To open our hands and hearts to the infant. And to grace ourselves with the peaceful moments that bring our focus where we know it belongs.
I return again to that quote: “Grace happens when life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so I pray: May your efforts to go deeper be moments of grace and transformation.
[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]