Oh, that final verse!

Drive down the road on December 26 and beyond, and you’ll see a bunch of denuded Christmas trees kicked to the curb because their owners think Christmas is now over. They may have sung Christmas songs at their house, but they haven’t listened to the final verse.

And that final verse is vital. Take, for instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Would I Were Nigh”:*

This is my favorite kind of Christmas carol: gentle, tender, and spare, with enough details to make the scene human, but also eliciting a sense of wonder.

You can see on the sheet music that the choir director wanted the singers to perform the first verse, to skip verses 3-5 for brevity, and to end with the final verse. And that final verse is there for a reason.

The first five verses express a subjunctive longing to have been present at the actual birth of Our Lord – to see “the oxen lie beside Him” – to watch Joseph keep “a watchful eye for danger” while the baby sleeps — to see the shepherds “lend ragged coats to hide Him.”

But the final verse is even more reflective: “Would I were there . . .” he says, “Yet everywhere, I too can beg His blessing; Then go my way, by night or day, safe through a world distressing.” And that one thought deftly rescues the entire song from any hint of fantasy or sentimentalism: we don’t have to daydream or wish, because no matter who, where, or when we are, the scene is real. The Incarnation of our Lord is present to us. The luminous child lights the way through every era.

I haven’t thrown out our Christmas tree. Our decorations are still up, and we’re still lighting our Advent wreath throughout the Octave of Christmas, singing Christmas songs instead of Advent ones. We’re still feasting, still pressing ourselves to treat each other with extra care and tenderness, because Christmas isn’t over. And yet I woke up in the middle of the night in distress, feeling like I missed the mark this year. Our Christmas was too busy, too secular, too focused on externals and not enough on the Christ Child. Somehow, I hadn’t seen Christmas through to its end.

Well, of course I hadn’t.

Just as with the folks who toss out their trees on December 26th, I make a mistake if I pin all my hopes for peace and joy and love on Christmas day, or really on any single day. If I do make this mistake, it’s because I haven’t listened to the song all the way through. I’m leaving off the final verse, and that one is vital.

The final verse, not only in the song but in anything that God is trying to tell us, says: “This story, your story, doesn’t end with death.” If we’re not getting everything we need in this world, if we don’t feel satisfied, if we feel adrift and alone and incomplete, if we feel that we’re always missing the mark, that’s because we haven’t gotten to the end of the song yet. We haven’t yet gotten to the final verse, which rescues all the others from fantasy.

The most accurate “final verse” we can sing is the one the Church teaches us: We wait in joyful hope, and that includes joyful hope for our own salvation through Christ’s efforts, not through our own. Don’t skip that verse.

The light of the Christ child is not meant be contained in a single day. It stretches from that night in Bethlehem to our present day, and it also stretches out ahead of us, into the future, as we wait for Him to come again and set all things right, in our own lives and in the “world distressing.”

So if this season feels all too distressing to you – if you are alone, or if you are suffering, or if bad memories seep through and make this time of year awful, or even if we ourselves are the cause of that distress — remember that we’re all still in that subjunctive phase.

There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel incomplete. We are incomplete. The final verse is yet to come. Oh, that final verse! It’s worth waiting for.

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*from An Irish Carol Book (McLaughlin and Reilly) compiled by Fr. John Fennelly, arranged by Fr. Fennelley and  J. Gerald Phillips, my sister’s choir director in college. I can’t find a recording anywhere, so here is the music (thanks to Sam Schmitt for hunting down and sharing the sheet music!)

A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2015.

Give up your pride. Only God saves.

The central problem the fellow was grappling with wasn’t lust, it was pride. There’s no such thing as protecting your wife by sinning. The only way out of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum is to take yourself out of the center altogether, to admit defeat, to seek personal repentance, and to let God work out how to bring salvation out of that humility. The fellow couldn’t make any progress with his sexual compulsions because he was trying very hard to make sure he was still in charge — not only of his own behavior and his own soul, but his wife’s soul, as well.

Read the rest of my latest from The Catholic Weekly.
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Image: Daniel R. Blume via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Can we endure the light?

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There was a man who could read people’s souls, and he would sometimes deliver messages from God.

It sounds fishy, but if you saw his face, especially his eyes, you’d believe it. For some reason, he visited my house when I was a teenager. When I came in the room, his dark eyes pooled with pity, and he asked, “Is there anything you would like to ask?” There wasn’t. I was on an ugly, dire path, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to turn around yet. So I walked out of the room. Fled, really. I could see that he was very close to God, and I couldn’t stand being that close to him.

It is not enough, you see, to recognize the presence of God. You can identify holiness, but it won’t do you any good if you’ve been living in a way that doesn’t prepare you to endure it.

Herod, for instance, recognized the Christ. Or at least he was well-versed enough in scripture to know that something big was coming, something that could change the world. But when he found Him, his whole thought was to extinguish that light, because it was a threat. Not to be endured.

Herod was a brilliant, powerful, and exceptionally brutal tyrant, who protected his throne by killing everyone who might someday threaten it, including his wife, two of his sons, his wife’s grandfather, her brother, and her mother. You cannot live that way and then suddenly rejoice when your savior comes. You don’t want a savior, when you live that way. It’s not that you don’t recognize salvation; it’s that you hate it.

The magi, on the other hand, also found and identified the Child Jesus, and had (what an understatement!) a different response. Before they ever appeared in the Gospel, they had spent years studying scripture and anticipating the arrival of the Savior. But their studies clearly brought them beyond some academic knowledge of the coming king. Isaiah spoke of glory and brilliance, a “Hero God” — and yet when the magi found Him in Bethlehem, just another poor baby Jew, they still knew who He was — and they rejoiced, and adored, and gloried in His light.

It’s not enough to identify God when you find Him. It won’t do you any good unless you’ve been living in a way that makes you ready to want salvation.

Several years ago, I had a little glimpse of Jesus. He was in the form of another man, someone who served God with every moment of his life. When I walked into the room, he was on his knees on the floor, binding the ankle of a boy who had hurt his foot. The boy was not grateful, not at all. He sulked and pitied himself, but the man radiated love. His posture was a living expression of love. The room shone.

This time, when I saw holiness, I didn’t run away. I stayed and watched, because the light of charity that shone in that room had something to say to me: “Be like this.”

In the first reading at the Mass of the Epiphany, Isaiah says:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

This is a light that may reveal all kinds of things. It’s not enough for those “nations” (and we are the nations) to recognize and identify God. It’s not enough to be able to realize what holiness is when we see it.

How are we preparing, before that light appears? The magi knew it was coming, and they prepared themselves to welcome and adore it. Herod knew it was coming, and he made plans to extinguish it. Herod acted like exactly like Herod when His savior appeared, and so will we act exactly like ourselves when we meet God.

Just being in His light will not be enough. If we live like Herod, we will respond to Him like Herod, with fear, with loathing. We will see the light, and we will want to put it out.

When the glory of the Lord comes to shine upon you, what will that light reveal?

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Image: “Epiphany” by Gallardoblend via Deviantart
This essay was originally published on Aleteia in January of 2016.