Christmas preparations and the gift of faith

Posted: Sunday, December 05, 2010

My predecessor and friend, Bishop Michael Warfel, was not one for Christmas decorations at the bishop's residence. In fact, he had a pre-decorated 2 1/2-foot Christmas tree in the closet. From what I understand from diocesan personnel, it simply stayed decorated all year long - in the closet. When it came time for him to have guests at the house for Christmas, he would pull out the Christmas tree and place it on the table in the living room. That was the extent of the Christmas decorations at the bishop's residence.

For me, I was used to the Christmas decorations we had at my previous assignment at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh. During the time I served as rector, we continued the seminary's wonderful tradition of having a huge Christmas tree in our dormitory and decorations throughout the campus. So, in comparison, this 2 1/2 foot tree was not going to last long.

In preparation for last year's Christmas season, I acquired an 8-foot tree for my living room. With that, I was then on a mission to decorate it. After being told that Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts had some great decorations, I made the trip to the Nugget Mall. Standing in front of the rack of ornaments and decorations, a voice from behind me said, "Well, it's not every day you see a guy in Jo-Ann Fabrics."

As I turned around to see the source of this declaration, the woman quickly caught sight of my Roman collar, and without missing a beat declared, "Well, by the looks of ya, I can tell you're not a rabbi."

Already amused by her outgoing and lighthearted spirit, I introduced myself as the new bishop of Juneau. It was a wonderful encounter and she told me that she was raised in the Jewish faith. Our conversation led to her describing the wonderful relationship she enjoyed with Bishop Michael Kenny. As many know, Kenny was a very outgoing man and so many people loved him. We discussed a number of things and I shared with her that I once worked at our neighborhood synagogue in Ellwood City, Penn., while I was in high school. We parted ways and continued to see each other throughout the store. Prior to her leaving the store, she sought me out and gave me a silver metal Christmas ornament in the shape of a star with the word "faith" stamped on it which she purchased for me. She wanted to give it to me as a sign that during the holidays we all have our own unique ways of sharing the faith.

With the tree up, I put all the red and gold ornaments in place, including that wonderful gift - the silver star. It looked a little out of place, but it meant a lot to me. The Advent and Christmas season proceeded quite well with various gatherings at the residence and at the Cathedral. Last year's Christmas Masses were celebrated at the Cathedral and Lemon Creek Prison. My first Christmas in Alaska was wonderful. When the season was over, I received a picture of the lady volunteers who work for the Inside Passage, our diocesan newspaper, who came to my house for a luncheon. On the picture was a great reminder of the foundation of the Christmas season - our faith - the star with that word stamped on it caught the light of the flash and is shown prominently in that picture.

Advent is a time of preparation, for Christmas, for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ into our world and into our lives. The preparations that keep us busy, in addition to decorations and shopping, should also include the time to reflect on our faith. Our faith should be examined and our lives prepared to welcome Christ. Let the light of Christ shine in the darkness of our lives. This beautiful season should be used to reflect on how we greet Christ in others. Our charitable acts, especially towards those in need, serve as another way to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our lives.

For me, every Advent and Christmas season is different. It is my hope that we always add faith to our preparations for Christmas. If we do, I am convinced that just like that little star in the picture taken last year, our faith in Christ will shine for all to see.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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