Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May the new birth in our midst of the gracious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ bring you peace and joy!
This letter comes to you several days before our Lord’s birth, but I anticipate already our shared joy, in wishing you a Merry Christmas! In these last days of Advent, as we continue to prepare for his arrival, we may joyfully and reverently contemplate the great faith and trust of Mary, our blessed Mother. Her path was not an easy one, yet she trusted completely in the goodness and compassion of the Lord.
Her greatest desire was always to will what God willed for her. In this way, she allowed herself to become the mother of God. What an unrivaled gift! God wills such gifts of grace and holiness for us, too, if only we can accept them by choosing what he wills for us.
In these last days of Advent, then, we still have time to improve our preparations. In my last letter to you, at the beginning of Advent, I suggested that we should prepare for the Lord’s coming by going deeper into prayer, the sacramental life of the church, and good works of mercy and love for others. Have we done these sufficiently, in such a way as to make room for the birth of Jesus Christ (again) in our hearts?
If we have not, or not enough, we can start now. God bends down to us with the most tender compassion. He waits longingly for us to look up to him.
We need to build our sacramental and prayer life as a living relationship with him, spending time with him each day as with a loving father (as indeed he is!). He gives us the sacraments so that we can receive him fully. He also offers a constant invitation to pause, even for just a few moments, as we go through the course of our day, to set aside for a moment whatever is our task, to give a few words of thanks and praise to our Savior. “Jesus, I love you.” “Jesus, I trust in your mercy.” “O God, help me in this task.” “Lord, thank you.”
This is no neglect of our duties, but a gathering of strength and hope so that we can complete our duties more effectively and more charitably. How many graces flow from this simple, constant life of prayer! If you’ve never had an effective life of prayer, try doing this – just a few simple words of this kind, of thanks and praise and need, several times throughout the day. You will find that God is truly with you, every day!
Likewise, I’m sure we’ve prepared our houses and made or bought presents for many people. We’ve planned dinners and travel and celebrations. We’re excited that Christmas is nearly here. But have we remembered the poor? Jesus comes into the world to heal us all. The gospels remind us that we’re not ready to welcome him into our hearts, if we can’t welcome him in the poor around us. What acts of charity can we offer?
There are so many worthy charity groups, too many to support them all. But we should nonetheless support one or two, or more if we have the means, in imitation of Christ’s generosity in giving his own life for us. Perhaps even more important than material charity, we can offer the light of hope and forgiveness in how we carry ourselves; for example, not giving back anger when people are rude to us, or not insisting that we’re right quite so vigorously, or simply in offering a joyful smile and gentle greeting to someone we don’t know.
In our own families, so often there is lingering hurt from unkind words and thoughtless acts of the past. We should be the first to offer the balm of forgiveness, since God offers the same to us, constantly, even when we don’t deserve it. All these big and little acts of charity and mercy make a home for Christ in our hearts, and shine with the light of divine love.
Next week’s celebration of Christmas, I hope and pray for all of you, will be joyful and merry. But it’s not the material gifts that make it so. It’s the imitation in our lives of the unfathomable love of God, who came into the world as a helpless infant in order to save us all from our sins.
When we give at Christmas, remember that our giving is only a pale copy of his giving, and that he also receives each of the gifts we give. When we truly make Advent and Christmas about Christ, and bring to abundance all the generous love and hope that our faith in him makes grow in our heart, then we are truly celebrating him.
May these last days of Advent, and the joyful feasts of Christmas about to begin, bring you his every blessing and gift. Please pray for me, that I may be a faithful shepherd to the whole flock entrusted to my care. Please pray for our priests, for consecrated persons and for all those who are or feel abandoned at Christmastime. By your prayers, may they come to know the love of Christ and the merciful healing only he can give. Know that I pray for all of you constantly.
Merry and most blessed Christmas!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City