Don’t put scratchy toilet paper in the guest bathroom

greeting

Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson is the author of “God Loves You, Chester Blue” and other books. You can reach her at Suzanne@suzanneelizabeths.com or facebook.com/suzanneelizabeths.

First impressions make all the difference.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve lived in Baku, Azerbaijan, Kiev, Ukraine, in Tahoe, Fort Lauderdale, Whitefish, Evergreen and now, Breckenridge. In each location, the first place I sought out was the local Catholic church.

I looked forward to attending Mass knowing I would immediately feel at home as I experienced the familiar beauty of Communion.

Whether I felt welcome could be determined by a warm greeting. If you’ve been a member of your neighborhood church for decades, you might doubt the impact you can have.

But imagine for a moment that you are standing in front of the manger. Notice Saint Joseph kneeling next to his beloved wife. Then follow his gaze to Mary holding our Savior, who on this cold winter night is just a baby. She looks lovingly at this precious child she knows is destined to save the world.

And then she looks at you. Her eyes ask the question: “Will you open your heart to help my Son? Will you welcome the stranger sitting next to you so they can discover the love and joy that you have found in Jesus’ Church?”

On a dark and snowy Christmas Eve in Evergreen, Colorado, My 85-year-old mother and I had just moved from Florida. We were very excited to join the community but we didn’t know a single person.

When we arrived at Christ the King Church for Mass we were not only late, we’d entered through the side entrance, right next to the altar, just as the priest was reading the gospel.

The church was packed to the choir loft rafters. We hurriedly slid into the nearest pew, still spinning with unfamiliarity and embarrassment at being late.

After the homily, the man sitting next to us smiled and said hello. I explained that we were new, and he responded by welcoming Mom and I and assuring us that we would love our new church, that it was filled with newcomers and long-time residents. And then he wished us a very merry Christmas.

It was one simple conversation that occurred seven years ago. I don’t remember the man’s name, only how welcome he made us feel on that wintery night.

During this Advent and Christmas, our churches will be crowded with unfamiliar faces, some will be on holiday from other states, others live a few streets away.

You’ve spent the day shopping in crowded malls and battling crowded highways to get to church, so the last thing you want to see is a stranger sitting in your favorite pew. You might even be tempted to grumble as you slide in next to them.

But as one of those strangers, might I ask you a favor?

Say hello to me. Welcome me to church, ask my name, shake my hand, and at the end of service tell me you hope you’ll see me next week. If you’re feeling festive, invite me to join you and the other parishioners for coffee and donuts in the church kitchen.

The crowded churches we face at Christmas feel like a nuisance. But I believe they are filled with people who have been called by Jesus Christ, Himself!

They might not know it was Jesus, only they felt a faint tugging on their heart, on their sleeve by a child, or nagged into going by a spouse or parent.

Don’t be fooled by their sullen gaze. They have been called to witness and celebrate the birth of Jesus, by no less than God, who is gently reaching out to them.

They might come once a year, but this annual visit is fueled by a desire to meet Jesus, not only in the Eucharist but in each of us.

That’s what happened in the church I now call home.

Barb is the quintessential grandma, with a smile that brightens the heart of everyone she encounters as one of the greeters at St. Mary’s in Breckenridge.

When I began attending Mass at St. Mary’s, I would slip in and out of church without saying a word. Finally, Barb stopped me, said hello, introduced herself and gave me a hug of welcome. Every week after that she did the same.

Because of Barb, I felt welcome in my new church. I lingered after Mass to meet other parishioners, began attending Adoration on Thursday’s, and recently I become a Lector.

One person can make all the difference. The smile we share, our warm greeting, might be the only one they receive that day.

When we greet a stranger during Mass, we become the hands and heart of Jesus welcoming his beloved to His Church.

Jesus asks us to use this Christmas to share our love for Him and for our church and faith. He’s done hard part, bringing them to church. All Jesus asks of us, is that we share the love He shared with us when we were strangers.

Will you share the love of Jesus and welcome a newcomer to your church this Christmas?

COMING UP: Embrace the waiting this Advent

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DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 7: Ordination of Joseph LaJoie at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on December 7, 2013, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic Register)

Brianna Heldt is a Catholic writer, speaker and podcaster. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.

Five years ago, one of my daughters desperately needed open heart surgery. Newly adopted and four-years-old, her heart defects were the result of having been born with Down syndrome. The doctors all said that she should have had this surgery when she was much younger, but that was simply not an option in the country of her birth.

So there we sat in the hospital on a chilly December morning, my husband and me, praying and waiting. Waiting for an update from the nurse on how things were going, waiting to hear that my daughter had been placed on the bypass machine, and waiting for the surgeon to finally emerge with news that, miracle of all miracles, the surgery had been successful. After so very much waiting, my daughter’s heart was repaired.

As a mother to nine children, my waiting is of course not limited to dramatic situations in dimly-lit hospital rooms. I wait for sleepy kids to finish breakfast so we can rush off to school, I wait for them to put their pajamas on (and drink their hundredth glass of water) before I tuck them into bed at night, and I selfishly wait for them to reach milestones that promise to make my own life a little bit easier—although it turns out that each new stage brings its own unique challenges. Who knew?

I also spend a fair amount of time waiting at soccer games and swim meets, and in the car outside of our church each week until my eldest finally emerges, with her friends of course, from youth group.

But for as much as I do it, I really don’t like to wait. It feels stressful, and inefficient. Waiting necessitates not only a quieting of the heart and mind, but also the acknowledgment that there are (gasp!) things outside of my control.

And then there is the not knowing. How will things turn out, what will this look like, will there be suffering mixed with the joy? I sit and worry over challenges my children face (not least of which is the reality of growing up in an increasingly coarse and confused culture), or I fret about friends and family who are sick or struggling. I inadvertently take my eyes off of Jesus, and my heart fills with anxious thoughts about a future I cannot see.

More than ever, then, I desperately need Advent. It is a liturgical season entirely predicated upon this notion of expectation, and waiting, for Jesus. And not only that, but Advent calls us to penance, reflection, and silence, things that are hard to come by in our modern time. We must place our trust in the hope of what is to come, while we wait.

As difficult as it all is, this is actually one of the biggest blessings of Advent—being still and watching God’s plans unfold, with the expectation that no matter what, it will be good. Not necessarily easy, happy, or what I would choose, but certainly part of my journey toward holiness.

If I can continue to trust and to love, and to remember that I am (in the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta) merely a pencil in God’s hand, I open myself up to the astounding and perfect work of the Lord. When I accept my vocation and all of the accompanying joys and sorrows, I become like Mary when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation—not just giving my fiat or yes to the one specific thing being asked of me, but to whatever may lie ahead as a result. Unknowns and all. Without condition.

It is, however, hard to enter into Advent and tune out the voices of the world, especially during this frenzied time of year. I am prone to becoming distracted, overwhelmed by what the perfectionistic culture expects from super-moms (think elaborately crafted gingerbread houses, perfectly baked cookies, and getting all of your Christmas shopping done early). So it is all the more necessary to carve out time to simply love and to simply be, both individually and as a family.

This can be time spent at home reading good books or playing a game, saying (even just a decade) of a family rosary, or singing an Advent hymn. Your plans don’t have to be perfect or even particularly extensive to make for a good and holy Advent—remember that God asks for our hearts and for our best, and he knows we have seasons of life that are harder than others.

And unlike the world’s shallow, saccharine-sweet version of the holidays, Advent makes space for loneliness and suffering. Also, for tired moms. Advent gives us hope, as we prepare our hearts for the Savior who came into the world as a small and defenseless baby. Advent gives us courage to continue to give our yes, in the way of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our waiting, even in a hospital room, is suddenly redeemed by the love and mercy of Jesus in Advent.