baby’s first holy week

Sweet boy, here we are. In the holiest of weeks.

It all started on Palm Sunday. You solemnly gumming the long green palm in your father’s hands. Your brothers waving their palms wildly around the air (bonus points for whacking a sibling in the eye). Me watching all of you, half wondering why we bother to bring you to church, half realizing that the wonder of Holy Week is to see it through a child’s eyes.

We will take you three boys to church three times this week: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. I will prepare for each outing as I prepare for nearly everything as a mom of littles: with low expectations and plenty of snacks. As always, Holy Week will be nothing like what I envision and exactly what I need.

But here is a small secret I will share with you and only you. (Because you are new and mute and thus good at keeping secrets.)

You already know what this week is about. 

. . .

On Holy Thursday we wash feet. You know about this, too.

You know the warm water into which you stretch your wriggling limbs, your eyes darting to bathtub tiles as if you remember this sensation from long-ago, the wet dark warmth of womb. You are slippery in my arms holding you fast over the awkward tub ledge, laughing as your feet dance through clouds of bubbles.

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This holy week, we will slip off shoes and tug off socks and pour warm water over each other’s feet. There is so much of God in this simple truth of washing. How we serve one another in the most basic and bodily ways. How we help to transform dirty into clean. How we bend low to hold what is holy.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Thursday we break bread. You know about this, too.

You know how to lunge for a crust of whatever we’re eating, chasing crumbs around your highchair tray with pudgy fingers. You join us at table now and open your mouth wide for a share of our food. And when you corner a big-enough piece and carefully connect hand to mouth with concentration, satisfaction stretches across your plumpest cheeks.

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This holy week, we will cup our hands to receive the One who came to be bread. There is so much of God in this simple truth of feeding. How we feed the least among us first. How we break ourselves open to become love for each other. How nourished we can be by the smallest taste of the divine.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

 . . .

On Good Friday we kiss what we love. You know about this, too. You are besieged by brotherly affection: kisses smacked on the top of your soft head, arms wrapped fierce around your tender neck, small hands tugging your toes. You erupt in grins when I cuddle your chin and you nuzzle your nose into my shoulder when I kiss you goodnight.

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This holy week, we will wait in line to bend down and venerate a stark wooden cross. There is so much of God in this simple truth of loving. How we lift up what the world overlooks. How we let what is soft meet what is hard. How we give daily thanks for life, even its sacrifices.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we wait. You know about this, too.

You are already resigned to the fate of third children, waiting while someone else’s need is greater or screams are louder. Your wide eyes soak up your surroundings while you wait your turn for attention, quietly filing away whatever you glean from the chaos around you.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of waiting. How we must keep faith through long stretches for a dream to grow. How hope can be the heaviest weight to bear. How love wins despite evidence to the contrary.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Holy Saturday we tell stories. You know this, too. You grab clunky board books at naptime as I whisper well-worn words in your ear. You bat the pages back and forth, and a knowing smile curls across your cheeks as we rock to the rhythm of rhymes I memorized ages ago.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of telling stories. How stories make us who we are. How the divine mystery speaks through holy word. How sharing long-ago tales makes them real again before our eyes.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

On Easter Sunday we sing and we feast. You know about this, too.

You clap your hands for lullabies and Old McDonald, each new verse like an Alleluia of joy. You gulp down sweet peaches and smooth pears, devour messy scrambled eggs and slimy avocado chunks. You delight in music and meals, whatever sweetness is offered to fill you up.

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There is so much of God in this simple truth of singing and feasting. How celebration sets all five senses on fire with joy. How we are an Easter people, hard stones of our hearts rolled away to find an empty tomb echoing promise. How we cannot keep from singing.

Remember this truth you already know. Keep teaching me.

. . .

This is a hard and holy week. This is a hard and holy life.

What a gift to share it again, anew, with you.

we care about the crumbs

In our family’s parish, we eat bread. (This is not a theological discourse on the real presence; this is a simple recipe.)

Each Sunday, instead of the thin white wafers traditional to Catholic communion, our priest breaks brown bread. It is held high in his hands for all of us to see and heaped high on silver plates for all of us to eat. It wasn’t what I was used to as a cradle Catholic. But I have come to love everything about this practice.

I love that the simple bread is baked each week by members of our parish. It tastes like loving service.

I love how our priests have to take time to break the wide flat circles into hundred of tiny squares. It tastes like holy transformation. 

I love that the Eucharistic ministers need the help of altar servers to hold the plates while they offer the Body of Christ. It tastes like living community. 

Most of all, I love what real bread requires of those of us who eat it.

You have to hold it carefully in your hands so you don’t drop whatever small square you’ve given.

You have to chew it carefully and consider what it means to consume the Body of Christ.

And you have to care for the crumbs.

. . .

Since Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (ok, there is theological discourse here after all), we pay particular reverence to the bread-turned-body and the wine-turned-blood.

Watch the next time you’re at a Mass, and you’ll see this. The patient wiping of plates after communion. The careful consuming of every last drop from the chalices. And the watchful care for every last crumb.

Cut back to adolescence. I’d see communion ministers scurry to snatch up a dropped host or rush to daub a spill from the cup, and I’d roll my eyes. Honestly, what’s the point. Is Jesus really in that little speck of a broken wafer? Do we really have to go through all these theatrics? Can’t God take care of himself?

Now flash-forward to present. I’m in a pew with three little children. Three messy, noisy, squirmy children. Three small people often scorned by society as a pesky inconvenience (e.g., a distraction from their parents’ professional pursuits) or reviled as an utter burden (e.g., a constraint of freedom, a drain of finances, a strain on resources).

They are crumbs in the world’s eyes.

And I love that I am part of a church that cares for these crumbs. A church where children are seen and blessed. A church where children are called by name. A church where all parts of the Body of Christ are welcomed, regardless of appearance or ability.

. . .

Every Sunday at Mass I watch the Eucharistic ministers. Whenever their plate is empty and the last person in line has been fed, they look down carefully. They look all around them. They stop and stoop to pick up any crumb they see.

We do not act like this anywhere else. We do not care for the crumbs.

The dirty homeless man with the cardboard sign, the pudgy teenager with Down syndrome, the elderly woman hunched over her walker, the immigrant family speaking a strange language, the drooling adult in the wheelchair – we would rather rush by them all, avert our eyes, busy ourselves with our phones or our conversation, hurry on to anything more important.

We miss the crumbs. And He is there. 

Christ had time for crumbs. Children, women, poor, sick, lepers, outcasts, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, strangers, thieves, criminals. People who were pushed to society’s margins, dumped to the dirty streets, shoved to the dark and desperate corners.

He had all the time in the world for them.

I want to be a part of a church that echoes this truth each time we break bread. That we don’t just celebrate what is whole and beautiful.

We care about the crumbs, too.

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lent: what we need is here

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

– from “The Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry

Deep breath. Eyes closed. Flying leap.

Each new Lent feels like this. Jumping into the unknown. Flinging ourselves into the arms of the divine. Wondering where on earth we will end up.

We know it ends at the cross and the empty tomb. But the deeper journey into these 40 days? It can wind into unexpected places. Darkest corners and lightest hopes.

If we take the journey, we will be led. This is always Lent’s promise.

What we need is here.

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Ash Wednesday starts out this season of surprises.

Churches are packed even though there’s no obligation. Long lines wind down the aisles. Strangers smudge dirt on each other’s foreheads. We tell small children they are mortal dust.

Each year I write about Ash Wednesday. A mother’s prayer to mark the day. A reflection on motherhood and mortality. Thoughts on tragedies global and local that cross Lent’s path.

It is a mysterious and moving day of the year for me. Maybe you feel it, too. The shifting ground beneath our feet. The uncertainty that shudders when we let go of comfort and clinging old ways. I resist change; I need it more than ever.

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Last night at dinner we talked with our kids about subjects rarely broached at supper with young ones. Prayer and penance and poverty. Why we make sacrifices. Why God asks us to share with those in need.

I looked around the table and realized that these are my companions on Lent’s journey: a kindergartener, a preschooler, and a bouncing baby. My life is not a monastery. This is exactly where I’m meant to be.

Right here in our daily chaos, this is my prayer this year: to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear.

What we need is here.

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As I make my plans for Lent, I’m reminded of my own advice to lower expectations, make small time for short prayer, get creative in easy ways. 

One of my favorite Lenten posts is running this week at Call Her Happy – How to Live Lent as A Busy Mom. I’m grateful that Jenna gave me the chance to remember this season is lived within the contours of our own lives.

I try to let go of the expectation that I can pray like a monk in an abbey with all the time, space, and place set neatly before him. That’s not my life. Nor is it my call.

Instead, I can pray like a busy mother. 

I can take two minutes to greet the day with a whispered word of thanks. I can share a short morning prayer with my kids when they wake up. I can bless our food at meals and remember those who will go without today. I can pray with my kids on the drive to school and in the quiet of their rooms before bed. I can slow down in the day’s whirlwind to give thanks for the gifts in my life.

I don’t have an hour to meditate, but I have hours with many small moments I can fill with a word of blessing, praise, or petition. In this season of my life, that is what I have to give.

And I think God, who cares for us all like a loving parent, understands and blesses that truth.

(Click over to Call Her Happy to read more…)

Lent will give us what we need, if we let it. This is the holy, humbling truth.

Deep breath. Head bowed. Ashes traced. Prayers whispered.

What we need is here. 

what the presentation means for parents

We have to let go.

We knew that, right? People told us from the beginning. The years fly by so fast and before you know it, they’ll be grown and enjoy this time before it’s gone.

We smiled and looked down at the baby in our arms. We knew they were right but we couldn’t imagine not holding this child.

We knew they would grow up one day, theoretically. They would push us away, they would slam the bedroom door, they would refuse to talk to us. They would probably tell us they hated us one day. (We knew because we did all those things to our parents, too.)

But we still couldn’t imagine what it would really feel like. To let them go.

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So we practice letting go a thousand times.

We let go of their chubby hand for a split second while they take their first toddling step towards the couch.

We slip away for a date night while grandma waves goodbye from the front door.

We walk back alone to the car when the teacher promises they will be fine.

Each time our instinct is to reach out and pull them back to us. Each time our heart and mind are divided between need and want, us and them, now and later. Each time there is no script for when or how. Only the bittersweet truth of time and growth.

And the nagging knowledge that they are not ours to keep forever.

They were never ours alone.

. . .

Today’s Feast of the Presentation is this same practice for the Holy Family.

Here are Mary and Joseph: brand-new, bewildered parents. Here are Anna and Simeon: expectant elders. Here is Jesus: newborn and newly named.

They are all letting go. Mary and Joseph hand over their child into the hands of strangers. These prophets hand over their expectations of what their savior would look like.

And God lets go, too. Lets the Son of Love be brought to the temple, hinting at the heartbreak that will happen one day when Jesus comes back to Jerusalem.

Simeon whispers this terrifying truth to Mary, tries to warn her that you yourself a sword will pierce. But his mother can’t grasp what this will mean for her child. For herself. None of us could.

We can only practice letting go in small ways.

We can only trust that we’ll be given strength for what’s to come. 

. . .

Last year on the Feast of Presentation, I wrote about letting go of another baby, sending my book off to be published and wondering where it would go. For those of you whose hands have now held it, I am humbled. Thank you for reading. 

And to the stranger who wrote these words, you took my breath away. You are the one I wrote it for. There is so much light trying to get in. What a gift when we help each other clear away the grime.

and mary kept all these things

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Originally ran last year at FaithND on today’s Feast of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God:

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.

(Luke 2:16-21)

She must have heard so many cruel words, slurs muttered under breath as she passed, pregnant before marriage. Maybe she was strong enough to let the lies roll off her back. Or maybe each insult wounded deeper than the last, her cheeks burning from shame and a mystery she could not explain.

But here, finally, were words of wonder and hope—from the mouths of people just like her. Here were shepherds who stopped their daily work to bring her stories of angels singing glory. Here were strangers who asked to see her baby and marveled at what his birth might mean.

Of course she treasured their words, turning them over and over in her heart, wondering what they might mean. While she learned to care for her child, as squalling and sleepless and hungry as any newborn, she gathered strength from their promise.

The world kept buzzing with the busyness of life with a new baby—the long nights and the blurry days and the naming and the rituals and the settling in as a new family once all the visitors finally went home. But contemplative as she was, she kept wondering.

What did their words mean? Who was this child? How would her life unfold?

Perhaps this prayer practice was what sustained her as a mother: to treasure and to ponder. To remember, as parents try to do amidst the endless work of raising children, why she started on this path in the first place: to serve the God she loved, to give of herself that life might be born and be forever changed.

And as she pondered, she became transformed by the gift she held: a treasure of words that would glimmer hope for centuries, an angel’s song that echoed long after the shepherds left.

What words do we treasure? What gifts do we ponder? What practice will sustain us as a new year dawns?

a bouquet of incarnations for mother’s day

First, gather the flowers. 

At Mass a few weeks ago, my oldest boy leaned into my side while we stood to say the creed together. I recited the words on the projector screen, still prompting us with the new translation of the prayer after decades of The Version We Used To Say.

Absent-mindedly, I stumbled as happens so often, tripping over clumsy words that once were clear:

“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was born – dah! was incarnate! – of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

Without thinking, I rubbed the basketball of my belly in that unconscious instinct of expectant mothers. I thought about birth and babies and started to grumble about why we didn’t say “born” anymore, why the abstract theological was deemed better than the concrete physical.

Then I felt baby’s quick jab to my right side, sharp enough to make me wince. And I felt my son’s tired lean into my left side, heavy enough to make me shift my footing.

And I realized. Maybe incarnate was a truer truth.

. . .

Second, arrange the stems. 

Here’s the fact I forgot about incarnation: it was not a one-shot, abracadabra magical minute. Not the mysterious instant of the Spirit making a virgin Mary pregnant. Not the painful moment of pushing the baby into the world of cold and air.

If incarnation means God becoming fully human, that process took time.

Days and days of dark growth in the womb. Weeks and weeks of babyhood in his parents’ arms. Months and months of toddling steps and babbling words and bubbling emotions. Years and years of learning childhood’s lessons, adolescence’s growth, and adulthood’s maturity.

And she was helping to incarnate him through all of that.

Of course I understand theologically what we’re claiming in the creed. That the second Mary said yes and the divine light that was Jesus sparked within her, his life was fully human. I remember learning all the councils and heresies and theologians that fought to argue passionately for Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. I know why it’s essential Christian doctrine.

Yet I can’t help but think we lose sight of incarnation’s depth if we confine it to an angelic visitation or a virgin birth. I believe it was longer and messier and more exhausting. The lifelong journey that a mother’s love sticks around to see through to the end.

All the way to the cross.

. . .

Third, set in sunshine and water. 

How long does it take to raise our babies?

Is it the nine months we carry them within us, or the years we spend waiting for the phone call that will bring them to our door?

Is it the eighteen years of childhood that society (and sarcastic jokes) dictate we’re in charge of their upbringing?

I think of all the parents I know with adult children, how they still lose sleep worrying at night. How they still hope they’ll check in after a long trip. How they still pray for their safety and dream of their success.

If it takes us a lifetime to become fully human – to try and grasp the beauty and the pain of this mysterious, fragile existence – then maybe bringing our babies to the fullness of life takes years, too.

Maybe “incarnate” is a better word than “born” to wrestle our arms around what it meant for Mary to give her daring yes to a life that she never imagined. To a life that would change our own.

. . .

Fourth, drink in the blooms. 

If my boys ever offer me the chance to pick the book for naptime or bedtime (which rarely happens), I always reach for the same favorite.

mama saysMama says be good,

Mama says be kind,

Mama says the rain will come,

But still the sun will shine.

I found the book in our college bookstore when my first baby was brand-new, and of course I cried as I flipped through the pages. Mothers from cultures around the world teaching their sons life’s essential lessons.

Mama says be loving,

Mama says be caring,

Mama says you’ve done God’s will

every time you’re sharing.

To be blessed with one, then two boys to pull onto my lap and share this story – of course it feels like pure gift. There is so much suffering in the world, so many couples crying for a child, so many children who know too much pain. That I can sit in a sunlit corner and rock these small, safe boys in my arms means all my jumbled heart can pray is thanks.

Because motherhood is the work of incarnation. Of daring to partner with God in helping these children become fully human.

A truth which one short line of our creed speaks each Sunday, easy to skip over if you miss it:

“…he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

And a truth which one children’s book states clear as a bell at its end:

Mama says help others, 

And be the best you can.

I listened to what Mama said,

And now I am a man.

labor’s stages: a triduum

A journey of four days, each unique.

Holy Week reveals itself in new shades every year, shadows of dark and light. It pushes through the broken, cold dirt of Lent’s long winter with a fresh green curl of hope.

With only a few short weeks to go before baby’s birth, I see these feasts through a new slant. Each like its own stage of labor, particular and progressing. Anticipated but still unexpected.

The gentle beginning.

The increased pain.

The powerful transition.

The final push.

The question is how to journey through all four, patient and present, without wanting to skip over all that comes between.

. . .

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When you know you’re in labor, call me, she says, a steady confidence behind her steely grey eyes that have seen thousands of babies birthed into the world. We’ll meet you outside the hospital so we can walk and talk and decide when you want to go in.

And we’ll go get you some food first, she adds, turning to pick up the Doppler to check my baby’s heartbeat. You’ll need to keep up your strength for what comes next.

Thursday is washing and feeding. Prepare your body: eat and drink. Let your feet be washed. Bend your own knees to serve others. Try to steel yourself for what comes next, the sacrifice and the suffering.

Except you can never ready yourself for what Friday will bring. It will catapult you back into the arms of God.

. . .

IMG_6136An empty due date comes and goes. I am the only one who notices.

Alone that night, I light a small candle. Another baby kicks and squirms inside me. Is it worth mourning when my body is rounded and ripe again? Of course. The heart once wounded never heals the same.

I remember how it broke me open, the birth-that-was-not-birth. When I walked into the hospital a month ago for routine tests, my whole body tensed at the memory.

I worry that contractions will trigger the fear and grief again. I worry that we could lose, again.

Friday is suffering and sacrifice. Step into a bare church, stripped stark of its presence. Listen to stories of hearts and bodies breaking. Remember the physical pain of love.

But do not forget that Saturday still waits. Dawn’s first hints that despair and loss will be overshadowed by strange new hope.

. . .

Baptism has many symbols, he explains, ticking them off on his fingers while the couple in front of me fuss over their newborn in the car seat carrier.

Water. Light. Oil. A white garment. And one more in our church that you won’t find anywhere else. Can you guess what it is?

IMG_6137My head snaps back to attention, lulled into laziness by baptism classes before and graduate studies before that. I wonder what our deacon means.

The tomb. Next time you walk by our baptismal font, take a look at its shape. It looks like a tomb. Or a coffin. Because we are baptized into Christ’s death before we rise with him to new life.

And we want our wriggling newborn to be plunged into precisely that, I think. Could anything sound crazier? Starkest darkness before the light.

Saturday is waiting and transition. Pause for a moment between death and life. Sit in the tension between agony and delight. Hold a candle to welcome the newest Christians, the ones who shape their lives to a tomb filled in sorrow and opened in surprise.

So do not give up when you fear you cannot make it through. Transition means the joy is almost within your grasp.

. . .

Do you know what you’re having?

Again and again, perfect strangers pose the question. I have to bite back the sarcastic reply before it slips past my tongue – I think it’s a baby – and respond with a kinder smile. We’re keeping it a surprise.

After Easter Mass the gathering space swells with people swarming into pews or spilling out into the parking lot. The grandmother of the family who often sit behind our motley crew reaches out to grab my elbow as I pass.

Remind me, are your boys getting a brother or a sister?

We’ll have to wait and see, I tell her. Not much longer!

She nods, satisfied. And turning to go, she adds, It will be a blessing for your family no matter what.

SIMG_6139unday is rising and revelation. The miracle bursting forth. What seemed impossible is now before our eyes in flesh and blood. Letting loose an Alleluia we have waited long to hear.

But still we hold traces of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in our Sunday grasp.

To remind us how the journey that brought joy was a winding road through mystery and death. This year, as in every other year. This birth, as in every other birth.