Bishop: Christmas Magnified

by Bishop Joensen | December 21, 2020

Bishop William Joensen

Two—well maybe three—gift stories:  Christmas this year came a bit early when my 87-year-old Mom, Marilyn, presented me with two boxes of Fostoria glass table serving ware that I had given her as Christmas gifts over the years.  It was not that she was tired of the items or was sending me a message she has no room for me or my past gifts in her house or her heart; she is trying to simplify her life with a view toward that ultimate day—may be it a long way off—when she is no longer with us.  And spare her kids some work in the process.

Of course, I cherish the glassware even more because of the “re-gifting.”  It represents the exchange of love and life over the years, and though I haven’t (and won’t) look on eBay to see how much the items are worth today on the market, they have accrued in value to me because they are wrapped in her steadfast spirit, magnified in meaning as they stir memories of shared family presence.  Mom, in her selfless way, was always at the center of it all, a nucleus of faith and daily sacrifice on behalf of her family—including the preparation of holiday meals by one who doesn’t like to cook!

In the Preface of the Mass dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, we pray: “She who knew not man becomes a mother; she who has given birth remains a virgin.  What joy is hers at your two-fold gift: she is full of wonder at her virgin-motherhood and full of joy at giving birth to the Redeemer.”  A two-fold gift: wonder and joy that stem from ongoing exchanges between this daughter of Israel and God.  The grace of immunity to original sin is met with the full offering of her body and soul in faith to God; the receptivity to the Holy Spirit in turn respects the integrity of her virginity; the conception of a Son who is the Messiah is followed by the unreserved dedication of this child given back to God—and to a people who sorely need a Savior.  Like us. 

Second story:  nearly 30 years ago when I left my second assignment as associate pastor to go off for further studies, the pastor, the late Msgr. Joseph Herard, asked if there was anything I wanted as a parting gift.  I pointed to his 10-inch tall carved wooden statue of St. John Vianney on his shelf, and said, “That.”  He seemed a little sad as he handed it to me, but I still took it. 

A year later, when I stopped by on break, he related a true story to me.  It seems some months later an unknown fellow presented himself at the parish office door asking to meet with the pastor.  The man told him he had a gift for him, and reached into his big bag and took out a two-foot tall carved statue of St. John Vianney, almost identical to the smaller version he had given to me.  Msgr. Joe had never told anyone about giving up his cherished statue.  And whoever this mysterious “Santa Claus” figure was, the willingness of this spiritual father, Msgr. Joe, to release something that had great meaning and value to him was met by an even greater—albeit quite surprising—present that bore some resemblance to the initial gift.

The woodworker St. Joseph cherishes his bride-to-be with all his heart.  The news that she was pregnant with a son without him must have caused a double sense of grief: his bride has given her heart and body to another, and the son is not naturally his.  And, yet, mysteriously, as the message he receives sinks in, and as his paternal, protective instincts are stirred, this just man of faith grasps that both this uniquely favored woman and this Son of sons, true God from true God, was being given back to him by none other than God himself.  Talk about high stakes re-gifting!    

Pope Francis, in this pandemic year’s message on social friendship, speaks of the love made possible by God’s grace that leads us to “consider the beloved as somehow united to ourselves.”  “All this originates in a sense of esteem, an appreciation of the value of the other.” This is ultimately the idea at the core of the word “charity,” where someone is dear and precious to us, stirring us to freely bestow something upon that person.

The Holy Father then refers to reciprocal gifts, borne of the sense of “gratuitousness” that frees us to do things “without concern for personal gain or recompense.”  If we lack this sense, then life “becomes a form of frenetic commerce, which we weigh what we give [and give up, I might add] and what we get in return” (see Fratelli tutti nn. 93-94, 139-40).

In what I might propose is the prospective third gift, the pope’s reflection centers on our ability to welcome others into our culture, our country.  He challenges us to open our hearts not only to receive children, but those who are different, including migrants and new arrivals to our community.  These are persons who will ultimately enrich our culture, who bring a ferment of values and possibilities and who will magnify our sense of universal solidarity and dignity among all members of the larger human family.  Our gift of respect and recognition is expressed in our willingness to “make a place at the table”—at Eucharist, in our schools and neighborhoods, in prospects for employment not simply for scientists or investors, but for those who— like St. Joseph— are skilled laborers.  Our support for mothers and fathers who out of a need to protect their children and give them a chance at a decent life, make their way to Africa and then back again—or who come to Iowa—enriches us all as we exchange faith and friendship, decency and generosity with our sisters and brothers under one God our Father.

God gives us Mary and Joseph, and above all, their Son, the long-desired of every nation.  As we conclude a year in which life seemed to downsize, be simplified, what sort of exchanges does our faith ask of us?  How might we take the initiative to gift others simply for their own sake?  If we respond as the Holy Family does, then the God who is never outdone in generosity will be sure to surprise us, bless us, and magnify our hearts and our hope.

Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year! 

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.