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Where Do You Stand on the Post-Christmas Debate?

By Sister Jean McGrath

The post-Christmas debate goes on:

. . . If your Christmas tree is up on the weekend after Thanksgiving, it is only appropriate that it comes down on the day after Christmas.

. . .Family tradition demands that the tree be up until at least January 6…we used to call that “Little Christmas”…

. . . Keeping the tree up wards off the post-Christmas blues when it is so cold and dark outside. If up to me, I think we should keep until Valentine’s Day.

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Where do you stand on the debate?

I have always been on the keep it up for as long as you can side of the question. On January 6, the feast of the Epiphany (Little Christmas), I finally took down my Christmas tree. It was a bittersweet experience.

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In the last few years I have created a mini-ritual for taking down the tree. While much is written about the traditions related to putting up the Christmas tree, I think it is equally important to celebrate taking down the tree. Whether you have a “live” tree from the local American Legion lot, a tree that you and your family cut down yourselves, or a pre-lit “looks almost real” tree from Home Depot, it is a memory holder that can prompt wonderful reflections on all that was and all that is to be. I offer the following:

The tree holds an eyewitness account of Christmas memories and new traditions created each year. If you have children, what could possibly top the vision of watching them discover all that Santa left for them after his late night visit? One quickly realizes that the time spent searching for the most desired toy of the year was well worth the effort. The new tradition of “family pajamas” creates a family portrait to be treasured for years to come when you wonder who ever thought of that idea.

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The tree is the constant in the flurry of holiday celebrations and gatherings with family and friends where the circle of love between and among all present reminds us of the treasure each is in our life.

In the rush to put the tree up, we might lose sight of the memory so many of the ornaments hold. Construction paper snowflakes, popsicle stick stables, glitter sparkled angels crafted so carefully by pre-school artisans now home from college for Christmas. (“I cannot believe you saved that” as the now sophisticated sophomore scholar revels in the magic and memory of time that passes so quickly.)

Be very careful to wrap the tiny silver framed picture ornament with:”Baby’s First Christmas” a gift that announced the adoption of a grand-niece who at ten years of age continues to bring so much joy to her family as she grows each year.

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A special box is here for the lovely Waterford crystal globe sent from cousins in Ireland so many years ago…Three generations have ensured it be part of family legacy and tradition.

I am careful to wrap the light strings with a prayer that they will last for another year. The old “bubble lights” are almost impossible to find now. I hold my breath each year for the aha moment of plugging everything in for the first time, hoping these vintage bulbs will light not only the tree but the faces of all who gather around the tree during the beautiful season of Christmas.

Today is a damp and cold January day. Most of us are back to work or school. Christmas aisles at Target have been replaced with Valentines and yes, even bathing suits for Spring break, but I am enjoying one of the best days of the New Year. The tree is in a big green bag, the ornaments are carefully boxed, and my heart is grateful for memories of another wonderful Christmas and the promise held in that tree bag and ornament box.

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This Christmas like those in the past will light the way for a new year filled with hopes and dreams, worries and wonders, surprises and disappointments which will enrich the tree when it is put up again next December.

Happy New Year!

About the Author

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After years as a Catholic School Principal, Sister Jean McGrath is looking forward to volunteer service now that she has retired. She loves a good book, a good conversation and a good bargain!

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Reflecting with the Epiphany

by Sister Sallie Latkovich

I love the Epiphany Story from Matthew’s Gospel. Mostly, I love the reflections it evokes. I thought you might like to reflect with me. . .

An epiphany is like an “A-ha” moment for us: when we see something new, or come to understand something we thought a mystery, or greet another/others with new recognition of who they are, and who we are in relationship with them. Thus, it is an apt title for the traditional story of the “Three Kings” visiting the newborn Christchild. I am given cause to reflect on various “epiphanies” I have experienced recently. How about you?

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If you look at the story in Matthew’s Gospel, 2:1-12, you will notice that there is no mention at all of  “Kings.” So, what’s the story? We have a hymn where we sing: “We three kings of orient are. . .” Look back at first book of Kings, where Yaheweh asks Solomon to ask for anything; and Solomon requests an understanding heart. From that encounter on, the gift of wisdom is seen as a gift given to kings. Thus, the three in their wisdom of seeking out the Christchild are named as kings. Here, I am given cause to reflect on the “wise ones” I have met in my own life—those with understanding hearts who reflect well on their experience of life. Who are the wise ones of your own life?

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Furthermore, these magi are from the “east.” Thus, they are not native to the place. I reflect here on our own mission of unifying love, and greeting the “dear neighbor.” I must admit here my own prejudices, my preconceived judgment of those who are different from me in any way. Do you too have such prejudices?

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The sojourners “saw the star at its rising.” Stars are always guiding lights. Remember when the Israelites were crossing the desert in the exodus? They were led by a fiery cloud in the heavens; thus, a light in the sky. What/who are the guiding stars in my life? Perhaps these have been sure signs of the direction in which to go. What/who do I look to for guidance? And, specifically, guidance in my journey to God?

Enter King Herod: who sought to use the travelers to find this “newborn king” and report back to him. Even the youngest child who hears the story knows that Herod does not wish to “do him homage,” but rather to do him harm, so as not to be a threat to Herod’s power. There is often a bump in our roads, a detour that threatens to move us off course, even a threat that we seek to overpower. Has this ever been your experience?

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Finally, the same guiding star (by which they were overjoyed in the text) leads them to the place where the child was. EPIPHANY!!! Don’t miss the detail that “they went into the house.” They weren’t simply observers, but truly entered in. When have I chosen to observe God’s work instead of entering in and participating? The visitors seemed to understand, so they prostrated themselves and did him homage: behaviors in the presence of a king—this newborn king of the Jews.

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We have often heard that they gave him great and priceless gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Any souvenir shop in Israel today has a “three pack” of these same gifts! One homilist I heard suggested that these were astrologers, readers of the stars; or even magicians, a derivative of the word magi. And, if they were practitioners of illusion, they surrendered their tools of illusion because they had discovered the truth: the Christchild, Emmanuel. Oh my; what are the illusions of my life, untruths that I cling to? Am I willing to surrender these in light of finding the truth of God in my life and world? Are you?

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I hope you will spend some time reflecting on this wonderful story from the Gospel, and the truths it might reveal to you.

About the Author

sallie-sized-for-useAfter nine years at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Sister Sallie Latkovich was elected to and currently serves on the Leadership Team of the Congregation of St. Joseph.

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The Season of Waiting

Advent. The season of waiting. As children, we’re waiting for the magic. For Christmas morning and Santa Claus and presents under the tree. As adults, we’re waiting for the coming of Jesus, our savior born into the world. We too have hope in the magic of Christmas, in the promise of peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

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At least, on a good day. Some days it’s hard to remember that this season of waiting is joyful. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there have been years where I felt like I was just waiting for the season to be over. To be done with the shopping, the baking, the general stress of the holidays. Admittedly, it’s not always easy for me to joyful at Christmas. (You can read more about my struggles with Christmas in this blog post.) But this year Advent, the season of waiting, has taken on a very different meaning for me.

You see, this year I’m not only waiting for Christmas. I’m also anxiously awaiting my own bundle of joy. The idea of a season dedicated to waiting for the coming of a child has suddenly given rise to new questions in my mind, and a new appreciation for the holy family’s plight.

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While my little one won’t be born until about a month and a half after the holidays are over, I am very, very ready for her to be here. We often talk about pregnancy being a gift, which it truly is. But it is also a lot of very hard, very uncomfortable work. So this year, as I wait for the holidays, I can’t help thinking more and more about Mary. A young woman who was not only experiencing pregnancy, but also the knowledge that she was pregnant with the messiah. What kind of pressure must that be? Being pregnant at all brings with it all kinds of anxieties. Will I be a good parent? Will I raise my child well? Will they be a good person? While Mary knew she was carrying an exceptionally special baby, I’m sure her anxieties around having and raising him were also substantial.

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Then, there’s the travel. That she and Joseph had to travel a long way, on a donkey, when she was nearly 9 months pregnant, seems impossible to me. At 7 months, I’m lucky I can walk from my car to my desk some mornings without having to stop for a break. What must that journey have been like for a pregnant Mary and Joseph? How uncomfortable must she have been, traveling a great distance of difficult terrain, a baby on the way?
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And then, to arrive in Bethlehem, only to find that they had nowhere to stay! That Mary, ready to give birth at any time, would be turned away from a bed and a place of rest after her long and tiring journey. Just last week, a sister who I don’t often get to see was in my office, and she wished me a Merry Christmas and encouraged me to “steer clear of mangers” over the next few weeks. I laughed and told her I would do so, but it gave a new meaning to Mary’s situation. Today, those of us who are lucky have access to medical care and assistance when giving birth. Mary, on the other hand, didn’t even have a bed! She had a barn and the comfort of hay and animals to get her through the experience.

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This newfound understand of Mary and the difficulties she must have faced have changed the way I think about Advent. And have reminded me that despite all the struggle and hardship, despite what she knew would be a difficult process, Mary still said “yes.” She said yes to the call of being the mother of God. She said yes to the months of discomfort, the sleepless nights and the labor pains.

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In the same way, aren’t we all called to say “yes” to this holiday season? Despite the stress and the madness that can sometimes surround us, despite the difficulties we may encounter, the season of Advent is meant to be a time of waiting for the coming of a great joy. And isn’t joy worth the work?

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About the Author

Elizabeth-Powers,-WebElizabeth Powers is the Electronic Communications Manager for the Congregation of St. Joseph and manages the blog, Beyond the Habit. She sometimes acts as a contributing writer. She loves reading, writing, and Harry Potter. This Christmas, she is awaiting her own bundle of joy.

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Welcome to the Human Race

By Sister Ann Letourneau

As we enter the Advent season, “welcome to the human race” is a statement that has been rolling around in my mind and heart. It was said to me by my formation director, Sister Helene, many times as I began learning what it means to be a Sister of St. Joseph. To be honest, my 23-year-old-self did not have a clue what she meant. Over time I realized she was gently inviting me to let go of my perfectionism. Making mistakes, forgetting a commitment now and then, struggling with self-acceptance, and feeling hurt and anger are not situations worth self-crucifixion – indeed they are part of the human condition. Being human means I am not perfect. I will have struggles, make mistakes, and feel a myriad of emotions. I have had this cognitive understanding for many years now and I am daily reminded of what it means to be a part of the human race. The critical voice in my head is much quieter and less condemning.

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Helene also frequently included the sentiment “I love you” as she supported me in personal growth and understanding of what it means to be a Catholic Sister. Again, not something I heard often, especially outside of my family. She, however, was subtly showing that I did not earn love. I did not need to be perfect to be cared about and loved. Helene helped me to experience love in a new way, a way that God had loved me from the moment of my conception.

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The concepts of my humanness and God’s acceptance continue to deepen as I pray to become aware of my own patterns of sin (which for me means becoming more aware of thoughts, words, and actions that keep me from moving toward God and from fully experiencing the love and mercy of God). Now, however, I do not hear my own critical voice condemning me. There is no self-crucifixion happening inside of me. I also do not hear the voice of God condemning me. Instead, I hear, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son” (John 3:16) and Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” (Philippians 2: 7)

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Jesus became human just as I am human. We are taught he did not sin, but that he did experience the emotions we have. We hear of his struggles in relationship to his disciples who either did not understand or told others of their experiences when Jesus asked them not to spread the word. We also hear about Jesus’ agony in the garden the night before he died. Jesus, in his humanity, did not live the perfection of God. How could I have ever held myself to such standards? It is no wonder I spent much of my young adulthood experiencing my own agony in the garden and Good Friday. I would like to say I spend most of my time now in Resurrection moments, but that would not be totally true. What I am coming to understand is that I am a person who continually re-lives Christmas, the day in which we celebrate Jesus becoming one with us in our humanity.

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During this Advent season, I hope to continue grappling with what it means to be a human in need of God’s freely given abundant love and mercy. My intention is to welcome Jesus into the human race with all the love I have for him, much as Helene welcomed me into the human race with her kindness and love.  After all, being perfectly human rather than a perfect human is better than my 23-year-old self would have ever believed.

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About the Author

Ann CroppedSister Ann Letourneau, PsyD has been a Sister of St. Joseph for 29 years. She is a staff psychologist at Central Dupage Pastoral Counseling Center in Carol Stream, IL where she sees individual clients and offers educational presentations on various psychological and spiritual topics. Sr. Ann is fascinated by nighttime dreams and runs a monthly dream group at The Well Spirituality Center, a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph in La Grange, IL.

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From One Heart to Another

By Sister Carol Crepeau

A blog, according to my understanding, is a public piece of personal expression, streaming on social media on a regular basis. Today it’s my turn to blog – out of habit.

I don’t know about you, but, if I had to describe my thoughts and feelings over these past three or four weeks the literary form called Stream of Consciousness is an apt vehicle.

So here goes…

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According to the calendar this is the time of the year when we are getting ready for Thanksgiving. Yet, there are hardly any symbols of this day around. It seems like stores and public places skipped it, and it’s Christmas all over the place. What happened to Advent? Maybe life is saying we should go right to Lent and ponder Jesus’ words, “… you will be with me in Paradise”.

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Speaking of paradise, it’s in ashes. Ashes and heroism of the first responders and searching and tears is what I experience… Really … Realities that were not part of my psyche are now burned there – the slaughter of line dancers and a heartbeat away from Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill – O God, the synagogue … the innocents – Rachel weeping for her children.

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In Lombard, Illinois and in La Grange Park Illinois I held hands with other Christians, Muslims and Jews and wept with the scores who are newly weeping and old weeping from Sandy Hook to Yemen… Why all of these guns?

And the elections, still counting, so many new voters, renewed voters, new faces in Congress, new hope …

I could go on and on: praying and blogging makes me so aware and profoundly grateful for freedom of speech and freedom to gather – this is what I am thankful for at this time of the year … and you?

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About the Author

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Sister Carol Crepeau, CSJ,  ministers as a facilitator and leader of group dynamics for non-profits. Guiding the annual Congregation of St Joseph Pilgrimage to LePuy and Lyon, France is one of the most wonderful activities of her life. She also enjoys a good book and gathering with friends for prayer and conversation.

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All Souls and Saints

 By Sister Christine Parks

Sitting here with morning coffee and watching leaves fall in the gusting wind, I’m thinking about November—a kind of in-between month, when Autumn is winding down, the harvest mostly done; but it’s not quite winter yet—in spite of frost, or the occasional snowflake. It’s a month when the days continue to shorten, the leaves to fall, and the last of our autumn mums begin to fade.

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On the first two days of November, at our morning prayer, we prayed with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, celebrating the “communion of saints”—the formally canonized ones, and all those other holy souls, who’ve led their more or less ordinary lives, and are now one-with God. In our prayer we remembered all the lives that have gone before us.; remembered those who have walked the path of life ahead of us, and left their footprints—some larger, some smaller than those we may leave ourselves.

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In my own reflection I brought to mind all my deceased loved ones—parents and other family members; our sisters and associates (especially those who touched my life); and friends who mostly died too soon, and whose loss I still grieve. All of these souls crowded round our prayer table, part of the energy field of this corner of the universe wherein we still live and breathe and have our being.

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Sitting here now, I’m also pondering what size, what kind of footsteps I’m leaving? Who will be sitting in prayer on some future day in early November—remembering my life and how it touched their own? Although the feast of “Thanksgiving” is still weeks away, at the other end of this month, I’m beginning my list of gratitude for that day’s prayer. So, be prepared, included will be all those saints and souls who have gone ahead—along with some of you, the still living saints and souls, who will find yourselves in my thanksgiving prayer.

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About the Author

Christine ParksSister Christine Parks formerly served as a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph Leadership Team. Her leisure activities include gardening, long walks in nature, reading, writing, attending plays and concerts, as well as museums.

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Living Love: My Journey to the Birthplace of the Sisters of St. Joseph

October 15th is Founders Day for the Congregation of St. Joseph, the day that sisters, associates, and staff celebrate six women and one Jesuit priest coming together in 1650 France to begin a new community of women religious. These women would go out into the city and minister to the dear neighbor, looking to care for the needs of the people wherever they existed.

Founders Day is always an important day for the congregation, marked by service, prayer, and celebration. But this year, for me, Founders Day was especially powerful. Because in the days surrounding Founders Day, I was standing in the very place where it all began; Le Puy, France.

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The 14 pilgrims on our first day in Le Puy.

I, along with 14 other pilgrims, spent ten days retracing the footsteps of the early sisters, visiting many of the same places they had stood. The streets of Le Puy are still lined with the cobblestones used to create them hundreds of years ago. The buildings and rooms where our first sisters ministered to orphans, learned the needs of the people, and shared the state of their heart still stand.

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(Clockwise from left) The cobblestone streets of Le Puy, the building that housed the original orphanage our sisters ran, and the door that once was the entrance to our sisters home.

While the old city of Le Puy is still made up of the same buildings that stood in the 1600 and 1700’s, it is bustling with the life of today. Men, women and children still go about their daily lives amongst the history, some of them making a living similar to our first sisters.

In order to support themselves, the first sisters of St. Joseph in Le Puy were lace makers. Today, bobbin lace making is still one of the things Le Puy is known for, and we were thrilled to get to see a demonstration of how this lace is made by hand, in the same way our sisters would have made it over 300 years ago.

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A lace maker in Le Puy, using the traditional handmade lace technique.

For me, the portion of the pilgrimage that held the most meaning was our visit to”the kitchen.” During my time working for the sisters, I’ve heard a lot about the kitchen. Also known as “the hearth,” the kitchen is the last remaining portion of the original structure where our sisters were first founded. The kitchen was where these women would come together, share information about the needs they had seen in the city, share the state of their hearts, and work towards a better future for all of their dear neighbors.

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The kitchen in Le Puy

It was awe-inspiring for me to get to stand in this small room, where the Congregation’s roots took hold. But what was most inspirational to me was being surrounded by other people who are working to move the mission of the Congregation of St. Joseph forward.

Today the Congregation looks different then it did in 1650 France, and so did our group! Sisters, associates, staff, and partners in ministry all stood together in the kitchen, listening to the stories of the first sisters. And, while we have each come to the congregation in different ways, we are all doing our part to continue the legacy of six women who, along with a Jesuit priest, understood the need to make a difference in the world.

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Our group of pilgrims in the kitchen.

I’ll write more about my time in France in the coming months (once I am less jet lagged!) because there is so much left to share. But as I think about Founders Day,  and my trip to Le Puy, I am so grateful for the wonderful community of women and men who stand for love, justice and each neighbor in our world.

About the Author

Elizabeth-Powers,-WebElizabeth Powers is the Electronic Communications Manager for the Congregation of St. Joseph and manages the blog, Beyond the Habit. She sometimes acts as a contributing writer. She loves reading, writing, and Harry Potter.