Relax, Jesus loves you

When I turned over the page of my complimentary wall calendar to the month of December, I was greeted with this message: “Give me the discipline to get rid of the stuff that’s not important, the freedom to savor the stuff that gives me joy, and the patience not to worry about the stuff that’s messy but not hurting anyone.” Some wise person placed this prayer by Vinita Hampton Wright on the month that caps off an exhausting year by giving us a holiday season that rarely lets us sleep in Heavenly peace. 

There is a lot of “stuff” in the lives of our young families that gets in their way of experiencing the Sacred. Some of it is unavoidable and comes with the territory of raising a family. There will always be schedules to keep, shopping to do, family members who need our care. It is the unnecessary add-ons that tend to bring families to the breaking point. Take, for example, the innocuous little “Elf on the Shelf” that has insidiously entered into the season of Advent. For those of you not familiar with this newest Christmas commercialization, the elf needs to be moved every night to keep up the ruse that Santa Claus has sent a helper to watch over the little children and keep them off the naughty list. One young mom told the story of how the “Elf on the Shelf” took over her life, to the point that she would wake up in the night stressed because she forgot to move it. She finally freed herself from this sinister little guy by telling her children that once they touch the elf the magic goes out of it. This mom happily announced, “The kids touched the elf; now it’s dead.” Good for her for getting rid of one more meaningless stress in her life.

Our parish leaders bend over backwards trying to find the best way of engaging parents and inviting them to grow in faith. They try every measure available: marketing, mandates, entertainment, technology, and whatever new approach that sells books. Many years ago our parish youth came up with a great idea to hold a children’s Christmas party in the hall. Parents could drop off their children for three hours while the teen-agers organized games and activities. There was a baby area for the very young, arts and crafts, and a visit from a teen-age Santa. More than 100 children were signed up within hours of the announcement. At the end of the day, several moms came to thank the teens, saying, “You have no idea what those few hours meant to me.” Of all the activities offered by the parish that year, who knew that this was the one thing the parents needed most? 

The common lament heard in many parishes is that parents just drop off their children and never darken the doors of the church. Have we ever asked them what they do during the time that they leave their children with us? Some rush off to some mundane task, others are shuttling their other children to or from another after-school activity. But there are many who just sit in their cars, enjoying a few minutes of peace. Maybe the first step toward evangelizing these parents is to channel their desire for peace toward the One Who came to the weary.

Pope Francis reminded us to begin evangelization with the first proclamation: “Jesus Christ loves you; He gave His life to save you; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This simple message takes root when a person becomes profoundly aware of his or her need for Salvation. These busy young parents may not be aware of that which enslaves them, which is why many do not think that the first proclamation pertains to them. We might want to explain the first proclamation as it relates to their lives: Jesus loves you and would like to free you from the stress of your life. Maybe these busy parents are not yet ready for adult Faith Formation, small Christian communities or inter-generational gatherings. They might welcome a simple message that the church doors will be open to them when they drop off their children so that they can sit quietly and experience a moment of peace. 

We have an opportunity now that we are at the end of this paradoxical month of beginnings and endings to clean out the clutter from our lives. Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God. This will go a long way to clearing our vision of the young families that take up our favorite pews on Christmas day. As we offer our hands at the sign of peace, we can share this simple message: relax, Jesus loves you. Merry Christmas!

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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