This year I went all in for the Holidays. It began with baking and decorating Christmas cookies with our granddaughter, Ada. She’s four now, old enough to help out. Her excitement and joy were infectious and fueled my desire to see this whole season through to the end. I sent out Christmas cards, made candy, decorated the house (including a tree we brought home from the Gila National Forest), strung lights, and entertained a host of family and friends. It was weeks of preparation that culminated in a wonderful Christmas.
This season has also been a time for reflection on faith and a profound connection with Jesus and Mary. Being Catholic, I followed the Advent schedule of readings from the Old and New Testaments. I attended Mass, and on Christmas Eve was fortunate enough to hear a wonderful homily from a wise priest, a brilliant theologian who is a no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to the bible. Part of his sermon included a story many of us have heard before.
On Christmas Eve 1914 British lieutenant Charles Brewer stood knee deep in mud in the trenches along the Western Front. It was only months into WWI, but the soldiers were cold and scared. Sometime during the night, Brewer heard a soldier sing Stille Nacht, “Silent Night” in German. The song broke the tension and soon it could be heard above the trenches in English and French. During that night and through Christmas Day sworn enemies met on the battlefield to exchange stories of family and small gifts of rations and cigarettes. It was dubbed the Christmas Truce and news of it spread across the world. Such healing power in something as simple as a song.
I studied theology in college but changed my major to education when I learned there was no money in becoming a theologian. Anyone living on a teacher’s salary can see the irony in my decision. I bring this up because over the Holidays I heard two things I often hear when I mention I’m Catholic or that I studied theology. The first was from someone who said Catholics are not Christians. The second was from a friend who said he doesn’t believe in organized religion. I don’t know where the assumption that Catholics are not Christian originated or why, but the Catholic Church was the first church of Christ’s teachings. Some scholars say Jesus appointed the apostle Peter as the first pope. While others say the Catholic Church was simply a continuation of Jesus’ teachings. In any case, for those who may be curious, the Catholic faith is based on the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ our Savior.
The latter decree is puzzling to me. If you do not believe in organized religion, then what is it you believe in? And is the word believe really necessary? Perhaps it is better to say that you do not participate in any religion or that you do not follow religious practices because by definition, all religion is organized. Whether you follow canons of Jewish prophets, Jesus, Mohamad, Buddah, John Smith, or a myriad of Native American teachers, chances are you are indoctrinated into some kind of system that involves rituals, customs, and moral codes that govern your life to some degree and that these doctrines are founded in religious principles.
As a kid I was under the illusion that Catholicism was old-fashioned, boring, and full of nonsense. I met some cool kids in catechism class, and we had a youth pastor that took us on a retreat, but past that, I couldn’t wait to get confirmation over with. I finally left the church for good after I got my first part-time job at KFC citing scheduling conflicts as an excuse.
This new found freedom opened up a whole world to me. I soon forgot about my religious obligations and spiraled headfirst out of control. Drinking, smoking, sneaking out, lying, these things became easy because God was no longer looking over my shoulder. Jesus didn’t seem to mind that I skipped my nightly prayers. In short order, I’d adopted a teenager’s sensibility regarding religion and held fast to it until at twenty-five a decision I made left me broken and desperate. Unsure of my future, I enrolled at Mount Mary University, a women’s Catholic school in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. What I expected to find there at the time, I still have no idea, but I had an inkling that something inside those walls would help me heal. Over the next four years I found my voice and the confidence to move through my grief. I read everything I could get my hands on about faith and our universal need for it. Slowly I shed my teenage rebellion against my Catholic upbringing and began a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A mature relationship that continues to be the foundation of my daily life.
I’m not an evangelist. I don’t own any cute mugs, shirts, or wall art professing my belief in Jesus Christ. But what I do have is my faith. We are living in precarious times of fake news, hate speech, fear, and divisiveness. A time when religion, rather than being the cornerstone that unites us, is the rock being flung to hurt those we perceive as different from us. It’s a lot to think about during the Holidays. And I for one am ready to unplug the lights and box up the ornaments to settle in for a long winter’s nap. But before I do, I want to wish you a Happy New Year. I will be praying for peace. Join me if you would like. It is never too late.