Hallmark Gold Crown stores have been a recurring theme in my life. When I was a senior in high school, I took a part-time job in the Hallmark store in the mall. I worked there until I left for college in the fall, and it was my first experience of working in retail. I enjoyed the customers and got along well with my co-workers, but it was the actual products in the store that most captivated my imagination.
Years later, I again went back to work at another Hallmark store part-time. I thought I would be there just a few months, helping during the Christmas season. I ended up staying for almost nine years. Once again, it was the people and the products that inspired me to stay.
Working at these two gift shops gave me a first-hand glimpse into the creative process. Although both stores were under the Hallmark umbrella, we carried creations from many other companies as well. As I unpacked and set up the displays for all these products, I couldn’t help but notice the artistry and collaboration involved in every item, whether it was a wall hanging, a card or a Christmas ornament. In each of these examples, someone had an original idea, an idea that communicated and said something. This idea was sketched out roughly in words or drawings, before undergoing a long process, moving through different hands and steps before it finally achieved its completed state and arrived in the store, ready to speak to the customers.
Somewhere along the way during these years of working retail, I began to connect this process of artistic creation on a small level to the great process of creation God undertakes with each of us, as He forms and molds us in the different experiences and circumstances of our lives, helping us become the idea He had in mind at our creation.
As Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece. (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists)
Crafting our lives as a whole is a daunting task. Usually, I’m happy if I can try to make something out of each day, to do my best to respond in the present moment, going small and specific instead of big and expansive.
In fact, it was through noticing the small and specific items in the Hallmark stores, especially the annual collection of Hallmark Christmas ornaments, that inspired me to start contemplating them more deeply and writing about them. As Catholics, we know that almost anything, properly used, can be turned to the service of God. Why not Christmas ornaments as well?
This year, Hallmark came out with a 3D perpetual Advent count-down calendar. The calendar has a space above it to place an ornament for display. This gave me the idea of creating an Advent calendar of Christmas ornaments, of looking at some of these creations in the light of Advent, leading us into the Incarnation.
This is a new idea, not one that I have completed already. Will I be successful in writing for 25 days this Advent? Who knows! But I’ll give it a try and see what happens. Now, just to be clear, I am not advocating that anyone rush out to buy more Christmas ornaments, Hallmark or otherwise. Instead, my hope is that by training ourselves to look at the items around us with a discerning eye, especially those items produced through using God-given artistic talents, we can use that same habit of discernment to see where God is working in our lives. If you’d like to follow along, you can start by reading my reflection for Advent Day 1: Jack Skellington in the Arms of an Angel.
This Advent let’s take a closer look at the items around us. Let’s try to view them through the eyes of an artist, the eyes of a creator. Hopefully, this will help us to see the child in the manger a little more clearly, the one who came to give us the ability to be co-creators of the Kingdom of God.
As we approach the end of the "24 Days of Thanksgiving" journey, here are four more reasons to give thanks from November 17 through November 20.
November 17: Give Thanks for St. Elizabeth of Hungary
Today is the feast day of another wonderful saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Like St. Margaret of Scotland yesterday, St. Elizabeth of Hungary was also royalty.
Ponder: She was born a little more than 100 years after St. Margaret of Scotland, in 1207. She married Louis of Thuringia, and they had 3 children. Elizabeth lived a life of simple service, choosing not to indulge in luxury or ignore the people whom she could help. She is also an example of a person who chose to turn personal tragedy into a life of service.
Elizabeth wore simple clothing and spent her time ministering to the sick and helping the poor. She is known for her saying, " How could I bear a crown of gold, when the Lord bears a crown of thorns? And he bears it for me!" Sadly, Elizabeth's husband died after only 6 years of marriage and her husband's family mistreated her, even finally forcing her to leave the palace. Her husband's allies came to her help, however, and she was reinstated since her son was the legal heir to the throne.
In 1228, Elizabeth joined the Secular Franciscan Order, spending the remaining few years of her life caring for the poor in a hospital which she founded. Elizabeth’s health declined, and she died aged only 23, in 1231. She was canonized just four years later.
Elizabeth is often portrayed as a young woman with loaves of bread in her apron, as a reminder of the many loaves of bread she distributed to the poor daily. Sometimes she is shown with roses, instead of bread, pointing to the many miracles attributed to her soon after her death. She is the patroness of widows, brides, Catholic Charities and the Secular Franciscan Order.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the life and example of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. We pray for her continued intercession for the country of Hungary. May we follow her example of faithfulness, even in times of great distress. Amen.
November 18: Give Thanks for Warm Clothes
Ponder: When the wind picks up outside and you can hear it whipping around the door, let's be grateful for warm earmuffs like these.
When the temperature drops, and you know you have outside chores/walks to school/drives in cold cars, let's give thanks for warm mittens like these.
When your nose turns red and starts stinging about 5 minutes after you go outside, let's give thanks for scarves like these.
When the flowers fade from sight and those first frosts settle in, let's give thanks for warm winter coats.
Let's be grateful for all the warm clothes that we have and give to those who don't.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the many ways you keep us warm, from warm clothes to warm hearts. May we never take these gifts for granted. Amen.
November 19: Give Thanks for Second Chances
Our pastor likes to say that "Our God is the God of Second Chances," (or third, or fourth or even 78th!)
I saw the second-chance mentality in action a few years ago, when I was waiting for a 3rd grade class who were lined up for Reconciliation. One little child asked "Is Father going to judge me and be mad?"
"No," her catechist answered, "He is speaking for Jesus, who is very happy that you are coming to talk to him. You just have to say anything that you feel sorry for."
The young girl nodded, then sighed. "I'm glad I'm doing this." she said. "I have a deep sorrow to talk about."
Putting aside wondering what "deep sorrow" such a young person could possibly have to confess, it was nevertheless inspiring to see such a small person reflect on her actions. She realized she had done something that she wished she had not done, and here was her opportunity to go and make it right.
Ponder: The idea of second chances is not new. In fact, the Old Testament is filled with stories of God giving second chances. That's why there are so many covenants. But one thing that we do often overlook is that in order to be reconciled - to God, to our neighbors and within ourselves - there has to be repentance. Repentance is the key that opens the door of mercy. Only those who realize they have done something wrong, can then also decide to repent of it. It seems rather obvious, but it's surprising how often this step is missed. Then, of course, true repentance is also followed by a change in behavior. Sometimes this change is the real barrier to repentance. We are sorry, sort of, just not enough to change.
As the liturgical year draws to its final few days, and the Mass readings continually focus on the end times and the 2nd coming of Christ, it's good for us to remind ourselves that we don't have to get everything right, all the time and every time. Our God is the God of Second Chances, and as long as we are willing to trust the mercy of Christ, we can always start over.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for your endless mercy and willingness to forgive. Keep us close to you, so that we will seek forgiveness and teach us to imitate you in forgiving others. Amen.
Nov. 20: Give Thanks for Ushers
Ushers? That's an odd thing to be thankful for, right?
But, if you think about it, aren't ushers the quintessential symbol of the servant? They are the largely unnoticed helpers who glide about in the back of church, only coming forward at the appropriate times. If you didn't already know the names of the same ushers you see every weekend, you probably still don't know them. That's how ushers are. They quietly serve.
Here are some of the things I saw the ushers do this past weekend:
-a child was coughing (and coughing and coughing) during Mass. Suddenly, a friendly arm reached into the pew, offering a cup and a bottle of water to the child.
-latecomers to Mass became the most important people in the world, as the ushers arranged to find seats for them (and they were friendly about it, too, as though now Mass could REALLY start because these wonderful people had arrived!)
-doors were held open
-pathways were created for the altar servers
-after everyone was seated in a very full church, an elderly woman with a walker made her way into the narthex. She was noticed by an usher, who immediately welcomed her and went to ascertain her needs. Should she be seated in the front? Did she need to be near the bathroom? The usher found out the woman also needed a seat for her caregiver, who arrived a few minutes later. Somehow, two more seats were located, and the pair were led to them.
-during communion, the eucharistic ministers were led straight to 3 different people, in different parts of the church, who were unable to walk to communion themselves. The ushers had found these people earlier, told them not to worry and that they would be taken care of, then followed through on that promise by bringing the ministers to them.
Ponder: Watching these people go about their work was truly witnessing a sign of the Kingdom of God. They are all volunteers, who sign up and show up faithfully. They are not helping for their own glory, not in any way. They just want to help people so that everyone can have a good experience of Mass; can participate and pray well and have an encounter with God. Everything in their ministry is about everyone else and everyone else's needs.
The show "Everyone Loves Raymond" poked fun at Raymond's father, in one episode. Ray accused his dad of only wanting to be an usher so that he could hang out in the back to gossip and skip praying. That may be true in the show, but on reflection, have you actually ever seen most ushers blow off what's happening in the Mass? The exact opposite seems to be much closer to the truth. Most of the time, the unseen ushers are very much aware of what is happening, and they maintain an attitude of respect.
Wouldn't it be something if more of us acted like ushers, not just at Mass, but especially when we leave the church and go out into the "mission fields?" Next weekend, notice those men and women who give up their time to serve everyone else in the church, and think about how we can imitate them.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for ushers, whose faithful service helps others to worship you. Amen.
-Fifth and Final Part 5 coming soon!-
Continuing the "24 Days of Thanksgiving" theme, here are three more days to Give Thanks.
November 9: Give Thanks for Basilicas
November 9th is the day we remember the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. To be specific, the Lateran Basilica is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, in Rome. Why would this dedication make it into the liturgical calendar, and why is it important?
Ponder: First of all, we have to realize that church buildings, simply in and of themselves, are signs of hope. There's a story told of an atheist person who would drive by a large church each day. Even though she herself did not believe, she said, she was glad to see that building every day because it meant that there were people in this world who did believe. She didn't feel that she could pray, but she was glad there were people who could. That understanding is the most basic understanding of what "church" is - a community of believers who gather to have an encounter with the living God.
Sometimes just the act of gathering together is enough of a witness. At my parish, we remember the story of an 80-year-old man who spent years driving by our church. One day, he just pulled in. He said he did it because every time he drove by, there were cars in the parking lot - night and day. He decided that if that many people thought this church was worth showing up to, maybe there was something worthwhile going on there. He eventually came in to see for himself, and he stayed.
Churches are also the physical places where we hope to find God. One of the members in my choir told me the story of how, through having this sacred space available, she essentially converted herself to Catholicism, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Our parish has a day chapel where the Eucharistic tabernacle is kept. It is open most of the time so that anyone can just drop in, whenever they need. This friend of mine drove by our church every day on her commute. At the time, she was going through a very difficult period in her life, and one day, it all came to a head. She suddenly had a desperate, overwhelming need to just be in a church, any church, and she thought of “that Catholic church she passed every day.” Surely, they would have a safe space to pray. She wandered in, sat down in front of the Blessed Sacrament, gazed at the life-sized crucifix on the wall, and burst into tears. She found enough peace in this small, quiet place to return, once, twice a week. After a few months of sitting with Jesus, she had the sudden revelation that “this place must do some type of worship on Sunday,” so she started attending Mass. When she told me her conversion story, it was two years after going through R.C.I.A. and being received into the Church, and it all started with finding a simple, physical space.
But on November 9, we specifically think about one church. There are a couple of the reasons why we remember and celebrate the dedication of the Lateran Basilica. This church is actually the seat of the Bishop of Rome, i.e. the Pope. The basilica features large sculptures of the 12 apostles, who are each shown holding symbols of their martyrdom. This church is a reminder of the call of every baptized person to spread the Good News, as well as the universal call to holiness. Secondly, being designated a basilica means that it holds a special place in the hierarchy of churches, so to speak. Basilicas can be fitting destinations for a pilgrimage and are usually of larger proportions and have more ability and tendency to adapt to the needs of pilgrims. So, for example, many basilicas have programs or festivals that encourage religious visits, pilgrimages and retreats. A visit to a basilica is an event, a celebration. It is a special thing to do within the spiritual life. Basilicas encourage and invite us to step out of ordinary life, and focus more fully on the transcendent, at least for a little while.
As Catholics, we designate our places of worship as holy places, as special places set apart. This, too, is a sign of the ultimate temple, the new Jerusalem that will be made up of living stones. So, for this gracious reminder, let us give thanks.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the skills and abilities you gave us, so that we can imagine and build such wonderful places of prayer and encounter. Help us to carry this gratitude in our hearts. Amen.
November 10: Give Thanks for Good Shoes
Ponder: Maybe the boots pictured above aren't exactly what you think of at the words "good shoes," but when the weather turns cold the problem of keeping your toes warm suddenly gets a lot more attention. We've probably all had the experience of freezing, wet feet, and the accompanying thought of wondering just how quickly one can get frostbite. A pair of good, warm, waterproof shoes goes to the top of the list of Important Things I Really Need Very Soon after you discover that you don't have any.
For most of us, good, warm shoes are a given. If we don’t have them, we can get them. But the next time you pull yours on, take a moment to give thanks for them.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the shoes we have that keep our feet warm, so that we can continue our daily tasks. Amen.
November 11: Give Thanks for Hot (and Clean) Water
Ponder: Here's something else we so often take for granted - instant hot, clean water. Just imagine a life with no hot tea or coffee. And during these colder days, just think about not having a hot water heater. Ice shower, anyone?
Think about washing clothes or even dishes. Do you remember being in grandmother's kitchen, watching her fill up the sink with hot water from the kettle, so that she could wash the dishes? It's amazing just how much easier our lives have become from previous generations. We don't have to build a fire to warm the water, or even keep the fire going all day in the wood stove. We just turn on a tap and wait a few moments. Or if we're in the kitchen, we can just zap the water in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Not only that, but in most cases, we don’t spend a single thought on whether or not the water in our taps, kettles and fridges is drinkable. We just assume it is, because in reality, it is. However, if you’ve ever lived through a bad storm or other crisis when the water suddenly goes out, one quickly realizes just how often we take clean water for granted. Wouldn’t it be something if we could be grateful before the outage, not just after? Clean, hot water on demand - just another small thing that makes a huge difference, and for which we can give thanks.
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the gift of clean water whenever we need it, whether hot or cold. Help us to ensure everyone has this gift of life. Amen.
This November, I wanted to do something different. Something intentional and deliberate, in keeping with the passing of the year. Since Thanksgiving falls towards the end of the month, and right before the end of the Liturgical Year, I decided to try to read about, think of or just notice at least one thing each day to be truly grateful for, as a contemplative exercise and as a discipline to center my thoughts on God. Here are the first 8 days.
November 1: Give Thanks for the Saints
What would we do without the constant intercession of the saints? What a wonderful day November 1st is, what a blessing, to be able to stop and recognize them and think about meeting them in person one day in the next life.
Ponder: "In the saints, we are continually coming into contact, not with a diminished life continually curtailed by mortification, but with life at the moment of its pristine outpouring, with life at the moment of its burgeoning splendor: with life itself - a wellspring we are only now discovering...
A hero gives us the illusion of surpassing humanity. But the saint does not surpass it: he assumes humanity; he strives to realize it as well as possible...He strives to come as close as possible to his model, Jesus Christ, the One who was perfect man, who was man with perfect simplicity, who was man to the point of disconcerting all heroes." -G. Bernanos
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for all your saints, and for the many paths to you they have illuminated. We look forward to the day when we will meet them in person, with you, in glory. Amen.
November 2: Give Thanks for Purgatory
Purgatory, the ultimate place of redemption from the God of Second Chances. We especially think about Purgatory on November 2nd, All Soul's Day.
Ponder: “If a soul were brought to see God when it had still a trifle of which to purge itself, a great injury would be done it. Yet, a great happiness is granted to the holy souls as they draw nearer to God. For every glimpse which can be had exceeds any joy or pain a man can feel. The holy souls clearly see God to be on extreme fire with love for them. Strongly and unceasingly, this love draws the soul with that uniting look, as though it had nothing else to do than this.” -St. Catherine of Genoa
“Purgatory basically means that God can put all the pieces back together again, can create wholeness, so that we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.” -Pope Benedict XVI
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for your gift of Purgatory. We pray for all who are there. Amen.
November 3: Give Thanks for Falling Leaves
Ponder: We are thankful for that crunch, crunch, crunch of the leaves underfoot, for the scritch, scritch of the rake across the grass as those leaves are gathered in and moved into great heaps and piles, and for the delighted shrieks of the children who fling themselves into those same piles with unbridled happiness.
These are the sounds that tell us that summer has passed and the year is drawing to a close. Time is passing, the year is ending. It’s the coldness of the fall air that causes the leaves to change colors, reminding us that strife can also produce beauty.
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the beauty of your creation, seen in the leaves, the grass, the children, and the people who enjoy it. We pray for the grace to notice it and be reminded of your own beauty. Amen.
November 4: Give Thanks for Fall Skies
The sky looks a little different in the Fall. It takes on a deeper shade of blue, and seems to stretch out into eternity. The summer sky, on the other hand, is warm and welcoming and friendly. It invites you to be happy, to drink some sweet tea and stay a while.
But the Fall sky reminds you of the End of Things. The clouds are thin and stretched out, and they draw us into contemplation. It's a crisp, bittersweet blue; a thin but strong blue.
Ponder: The Fall sky invites you to breathe deeply. In. Out. In. Out. Especially on those days when the breeze is fresh enough that you can almost drink it. It invites us to "Wake Up!" Be alert! There's a reminder of the Truth, a sense of expectancy, a world that is preparing for something, a drawing in. For those who see with the eyes of faith, this is a great blessing. We know that one day, we , too, will be part of this great gathering-in, this home-going. We are a people on a pilgrimage. One day, the pilgrimage will finish. We will reach our Journey's End. And for this, we must give thanks.
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the fall skies that remind us of our eternal home and our ultimate destination. We ask for your help in getting there. Amen.
November 5: Give Thanks for the Gift of Faith
Ponder: Faith is a gift. Some people have it in abundance, and others struggle to hold on to the little bit they have. Who knows why some people have so much, and others have so little? It's a mystery. Perhaps the reason, at least partially, lies in what we do with what we've been given. If exercised, does faith grow and strengthen? If ignored, does it gather dust and eventually disappear? It would seem so.
I spotted this truck driver on my daily commute recently. This driver would belong to the first group, the group who has a great deal of faith. Let's give thanks that he was given so much! So much, in fact, that he posts saint stickers on the back of his truck as a public witness and a public prayer. What an inspiring sight to see on a very ordinary truck, on a very ordinary day.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the gift of faith. Help us to see you in everything and help us to bring you everywhere. Grow the gift of faith in us. Amen.
November 6: Give Thanks for Cinnamon
Ponder: Cinnamon is around so much this time of year. It's in drinks, potpourri, pies - even decorative broomsticks. The idea of sprinkling cinnamon on top of a hot cup of coffee is just delicious, mouth-watering and even heartwarming. Think of the scent of cinnamon baking in an apple pie or simmering on the stove with clove and oranges. Is there any other smell that is more welcoming, that just says HOME in capital letters?
And now we even know that cinnamon has health benefits! It's loaded with antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, may cut the risk of heart disease, and can help lower blood sugar levels. Some studies have shown that it may even be helpful in preventing cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Read more about the Benefits of Cinnamon and decide for yourself. *
It seems like cinnamon is truly good for the body and soul. Have you ever thought to stop and thank God for this simple spice that we use so often yet don’t always really, truly notice? It makes us wonder - what other simple, ordinary things do we overlook each day?
Pray: We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the gift of cinnamon and all those small, simple things you give us that we so often overlook. Help us to see how extraordinary the ordinary things are. Amen.
*Disclaimer: I am not offering any medical advice, just an observation. Consult your medical provider for guidance.
November 7: Give Thanks for Chrysanthemums
Ponder: Here's another unsung hero of the Fall - the chrysanthemum. It's everywhere during this season and is usually taken for granted. Chrysanthemums sort of fade into the background - the backdrop to pumpkins and gourds. They don’t take center stage; they fill in the background.
But the chrysanthemum is such a perfect symbol for the harvest season. It comes in a myriad of colors, with tons of blooms on every stalk, and each blossom itself is just stuffed to the brim with petals. Everything about it shouts fullness, abundance and plenty. It even has a lovely, delicate scent - not too overwhelming, always refreshing and sweet, and the blooms last for a couple of weeks, to boot. Just a lovely symbol for the Fall; showcasing humility and plenty at the same time. If you get the chance, bury your nose in a fresh chrysanthemum. Breathe in deeply, and let your gaze linger on the beautiful color of the blossom. And give thanks for this simple, sweet, unsung hero.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the sweet and simple blessings, the little notices and adornments you send us to cheer us along our way. Amen.
November 8: Give Thanks for Pumpkins
Ponder: What would Fall be without the pumpkin? Can you imagine no pumpkin pies or pumpkin bread? Or no bright orange balls of color in the fields, the grocery stores, or front doors?
Pumpkins just inspire happiness, just by being themselves. They instantly create a feeling of home and abundance. The bright orange color is a flash of warmth against the cold weather, reminding us of memories of gathering together in the past, and giving us hope for gathering again together in the future.
Plus, there's that very cave-man like feeling of fear of scarcity still hidden deep within us. When the cold weather comes, will there be enough food for everyone? Pumpkins alleviate this primal fear, because they themselves are such a plentiful food - pies, breads, soups, even the seeds can be used for food. And, each one can feed so many people! If we were lucky enough to grow up in a home where food was plentiful, pumpkins have the ability to connect us to that deep feeling of love and satisfaction.
But at the same time, we know there are many people who do not and will not have enough food to eat this winter. So, let's make sure that pumpkins also remind us to provide, according to our means, food for those in need. A bag of groceries dropped off to your local food pantry will do the trick and consider keeping some non-perishable snacks in your car to hand out as you drive around.
Pray: We give thanks, O Lord, for the abundance of food we enjoy. Help us to remember and provide food for those who do not have enough to eat. Amen.
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