Gifts from the inside out

Elaine and I were getting ready for the night. Elaine had returned home that afternoon from the hospital with Miriam, a couple of days after Miriam’s birth. We had just moved into our house on the west side of Indianapolis two weeks before Miriam was born -- renters no more. As we turned out the lights, it hit me. “Elaine, do you realize that if something goes wrong with anything in the house, we can’t call the landlord. And if we need help with Miriam, we can’t call the nurse down the hall?” We were, for the first time in our adult lives, truly on our own.

Sometimes I remember this moment and it makes me think of what it might have been like for Joseph and Mary as they prepared for their first night of rest after Jesus was born. Obviously there were differences. They were not yet at home; and they were parents unlike any other parents, responsible for the care and upkeep of a child unlike any other child. But they were first-time parents, and so were we.

At the December session of our parish’s “Generations of Faith” gathering, where families come to the parish hall to share a meal, and then break into age-appropriate groups to discuss a common theme, we reflected on Mary, the Mother of God. We were encouraged to consider the similarities between Mary’s life and our own lives, to find the common elements that could help us appreciate the daily relevance of her gifts.

With what could we identify? Born without original sin. Never sinned in her life, not even so much as a little white lie. Said yes as a teenager to bearing the world’s Savior. Witnessed the execution of her son, after He promised to conquer death. Avoided the agony of dying by being assumed into paradise.

And from time to time she still makes her heavenly appearance, perhaps accompanied by whirling suns, or even leaving behind her incomparable calling card, a resplendent portrait on a common winter cape. The similarities at first were hard to find.

But the adults in our sharing group kept at it. We were asked to reflect on the gifts that we see in Mary, and then to compare those to the gifts that we might see in ourselves. Compelling reflections gradually emerged from the group, stirred by seemingly innocuous and unconnected details of Mary’s life.

Mary had to be physically strong, in order to endure while pregnant two arduous journeys, one to see Elizabeth, the other to reach Bethlehem, while sitting on a mule’s back. She had to be willing to trust, even though she could be, as Scripture recounts, greatly troubled. She had to be both insistent and patient depending on what the moment called for, whether prompting her to urge Jesus to help the wedding hosts fresh out of wine or requiring her to wait outside while Jesus told a crowded room that his mother and family were inside. She had to be overcome with grief, watching her son stumble under, and then be pinned to the wood. She had to be speechless with joy, seeing him stand before Thomas, asking the doubter to touch the wounds.

People began to share their own stories. Enduring the death of a loved one. Experiencing dread and then gratitude from being brought to the edge of life and back by illness and recovery. Undergoing the stresses that accompany all parents. Discovering in the midst of trials the desire, where before it felt only like a duty, to pray the rosary.

Our pastor mentioned beforehand that when parish staff made calls to invite past attendees to come to this Generations of Faith session, they were sometimes met with a curt and harried “no thanks.” It seemed that, according to our pastor, some people were just too busy getting ready for Christmas to have time to get ready for Christmas.

What a blessing it was to reflect on Mary in Advent and afterwards to have that reflection as an aid for meeting the season in right spirits.

Mary lived as a gift from the inside out. Like Mary, we all are called to be gifts from the inside out. That means that the source of our strength will come from God and yet it will be manifested in our actions, in how we act towards others. We receive, we share.

Our parish will share a bounty gathered from parishioners’ donations of food and gifts with a record number of families this Christmas. People are undergoing hardships this season at levels not seen in many years. What is happening at our parish is happening in other churches and communities.

Like new parents in a new house, many this Christmas find themselves on their own. But it is not the absence of a landlord or a nurse that confronts them. It is the lack of a home or the inability to afford food, clothing and health care. May we all follow the Lord’s promptings and, with Mary as our model, live even more as gifts from the inside out, sharing what we have received in ways that bring Christ to others.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.