It’s crunch time, folks, only five more days until Christmas. Many of us have so many more things to do before we are ready for the holiday it almost feels as if a truck is bearing down on us to run us over. If we allow ourselves to get too caught up in trying to make this a perfect Christmas, we can end up hating this season that is supposed to be filled with joy and happiness.
Over these Advent weeks, I’ve been preaching that the antidote for our frustration this time of year is to practice gratitude. Ungratefulness is a trap for us, and it is incompatible with happiness. Psychology study after psychology study and our own life experiences prove that showing gratitude makes us happier people. I recently read how Oprah Winfrey swears her life changed for the better once she started practicing gratitude. Who doesn’t want to be happy?
If it is in our best interest to show gratitude, how do we grow in gratitude? The steps are simple but not easy ones. We start by recognizing the simple things we often take for granted but make life more satisfying. Four weeks ago, I encouraged you to begin a daily log and list five things you are grateful for each day. If we don’t take the time to look for occasions for gratitude, we can’t find and appreciate them.
I’ve been doing that myself. Some days I find it hard to think of five occasions for gratitude, and all I think of are seemingly minor things that reoccur almost every day. Well, that isn’t so bad, I suppose. Life’s small pleasures like a sunny day, a faithful pet, and a vocation you enjoy can bring us great happiness. None of us have that many unique happenings every day anyway. It can be the most common instance that brings us gratitude, and we need to appreciate them.
It can be hard to feel gratitude when we face problems, though. Our problems can be aggravations and the concerns of daily living or significant crises like unemployment, severe medical issues, fractured relationships, or financial worries. These concerns make it hard to feel grateful when things get rough in life. However, when people look back at turbulent times, they often say facing these challenges made them stronger people, and they feel grateful for the challenge they had to deal with and overcome.
Next, we need to turn to the giver of every good gift. Turning to God, the giver of every good thing to give thanks, helps us grow in generosity. Our relationship with God deepens when we recognize our dependence on God for our lives and all the good we experience. We learn to desire more grace, which helps our generosity grow.
The third way to grow in generosity is to practice it. Deacon Joe Mador was on his way home from his family Thanksgiving celebration in New Hampshire last month. When he got to one of the toll booths, the collector told him he didn’t need to pay because the previous patron had paid his toll. Paying it forward in different ways helps us to grow in generosity. Over the summer and this Christmas season, we have learned the value of typical politeness. Basic please and thank yous can be acts of charity and do so much to overcome hassles and brighten a person’s day.
The two characters in today’s gospel story, Mary and Elizabeth, are great examples of people who lived generosity in their lives. Previous to today’s gospel scene, we call the Visitation of Mary was the episode called the Annunciation. In that incident, Luke wrote that the angel Gabriel came to Mary with the message that Mary would become pregnant with a baby boy who would be the Messiah. It is a very troubling notification for Mary because while she is betrothed to be married, she is not yet the wife of Joesph, and she has never had relations with him or any other man.
Luke tells us that Mary was greatly concerned by Gabriel’s message of God’s incredible plans for her. She will face many consequences if she agrees to it. Some are pretty troubling, and Mary will possibly face harsh treatment from her community for saying yes to God. Mary will have to embrace both joy and sadness if she agrees. Because she has a generous heart formed by her faithfulness to God and her charitable spirit, she dares to give her yes to God’s plan.
We would not blame Mary if she sought to process her decision in her mind, and it would not seem self-centered for Mary to want to take time alone to contemplate what was in store for her. But no, when the angel reveals to Mary that her aged relation Elizabeth is pregnant even though she seemed too old to conceive, Mary makes a long journey to visit Elizabeth. She shows her gratitude by heading off to support and comfort her.
In today’s gospel, Luke wrote how grateful Elizabeth felt when Mary came to her. He wrote:
Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Elizabeth is so grateful for Mary’s decision to be the Mother of God she can’t contain her joy. She feels overcome with joy at Mary’s yes. To be in the presence of the vessel that will bring the Savior of the world to us brings John the Baptist, still in the womb, to jump for joy.
This week I ask you to be thankful for the people who brought Jesus into your life. Who introduced you to Jesus? Was it a parent, teacher, religious sister, someone at church or school? Any chance it was a priest?
For me, it was both my parents. I vividly remember being introduced to Jesus by my mother. I was about four, I presume, because my brother and I had just moved out of the crib and into a real bed. One day my mother nailed a crucifix to the wall above the bed. She explained it depicted Jesus and that he had died on the cross because of his love for us. That afternoon when I should have been taking my nap, I knelt on the bed, looking at the crucifix. I thought Jesus looked very sad, but I felt happy that he loved me so much. I believe it was the beginning of my relationship with Jesus.
My father’s influence wasn’t so evident, and I don’t have a similar incident where he was as impactful. My father’s influence was more as an example. I remember seeing him on his knees beside the bed, saying morning and evening prayers. To witness this strong man who I felt had the power of life or death over me being so humble stuck with me. Today pray for the person or people who introduced you to God. Your relationship with God didn’t just happen. It came about because God worked through someone important in your life. Show them gratitude today.
This Christmas, make plans to introduce someone to Jesus by inviting them to church for Mass. Is there a family member, friend, or neighbor who has stopped coming to church or has never even been to church? Invite them to join you this year. Imitate Mary and be the person who is the vessel to bring Jesus to them.
On Wednesday evening at the Woman’s Club Christmas Dinner, a parishioner told me she liked the postcard invitation to Christmas Masses the parish sent in the mail. She joked she would shame her nephew into coming to Christmas Mass with her. If that works fine, but when Mass is over, tell them how your relationship with Jesus has made you a more grateful person. Tell them of the joy it brings you and that Jesus wants a relationship with them too.
We often describe Mary as the proto-Christian. That means she is the perfect disciple of Jesus, who allowed her body to bring Christ into our world. As you go about your last-minute Christmas preparations, especially your Christmas gatherings, consciously bring Jesus with you. Witness to Christ by your grateful spirit. Invest in people you meet who do not know Jesus. Make his presence evident by your kindness, charity, and joy. By showing you live a life of gratitude, be a Christ-bearer this Christmas.