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The Little Drummer Boy

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“The Little Drummer Boy” is my all-time favorite Christmas song. Oddly, I can remember singing it in Christmas pageants as a kid hating it. “What a dumb song! There is no drummer boy in the story of the nativity,” I would think to myself while rum-pum-pumming to the beat. But a few years back, a Canadian a cappella group known as Pentatonix released their version of the song. Being a fan of the group, I listened and was amazed when I promptly burst into tears listening.

 Yes, their arrangement is beautiful. If you haven’t listened to it, I highly recommend it. But something about the lyrics to the song hit me in a new way as I listened to them.

 You see, the little drummer boy is me. It is each of us. Whether or not there was actually a little drummer boy at the nativity scene is irrelevant really. Because the story is still a narrative that perfectly describes each of us coming before the infant Lord in the manger at Christmas.

 Here is this little boy who is told to prepare to go meet a new king. How could he possibly understand what that really means? Other than knowing it is something, someone very important. How can I? How can I truly understand the fullness of the babe in swaddling clothes? Who He is and what He means to the world?

 The drummer boy is told to bring his finest gifts for the king. But he is poor. He has nothing to offer anyone, let alone a king. Was he ashamed walking up to the king with nothing? Insecure or afraid he would be found lacking? Even if he was the richest person in the world, what gifts of use or importance could anyone possibly give to a king?

 I too am poor. Not so much materially, but spiritually, emotionally, personally. What gifts do I possibly have to give a king? THE King? Should I even bother approaching? Am I worthy? Am I welcome? Will I be found lacking?

 Off he goes with the rest of his community to meet this newborn king. And as his time comes to go up to bestow gifts, all he can present is himself. In his poverty. In his nothing-ness. Just himself and the only thing he has--his drum. And so he plays. Maybe not well—he is a little boy. Being poor, I presume the drum is beat up and ragged. But despite the challenges facing him, the ways in which he is lacking, the little boy plays. And the song tells us he plays the best he possibly can for this little baby king, hoping to do him justice with the little he has to offer.

 Isn’t this the reality for all of us as we approach the newborn King at Christmas? Walking up in humble confidence knowing we have nothing to give, except for our very selves. Knowing we too are poor compared to Him. Wanting to do Him justice with the little that we have to give. Approaching Him nonetheless; striving to do our best, to “play” our best for Him regardless. To give the best of what we have, the best of what we are, little though it might be. Just ourselves. In all our flaws and failures and nothing-ness.

 And how does He respond?

 “Then he smiled at me, par-rum-pum-pum-pum.”

 It is enough. It is more than enough. You alone are enough. Jesus delights in the song of the little drummer boy, likely far more than He delighted in the gifts of the Magi. The point of the gifts, according to the song, is to honor the King. And what honors our King more than the gift of our self? Our heart and mind and life and very being, presented to Him as a gift of love. What need has a king for fancy gifts? What He wants is us! To love us. To have a relationship with us. Poor, humble, and playing our best on the beaten up drum of life. He sees us standing before Him. And He smiles with delight.

The First Commandment

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The Ten Commandments are the laws handed down to Moses some 3500+ years ago. There are some differences in wording and substance between what the First Commandment is for the Jewish people and some Protestants and what we have been taught as Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a very good table comparing the wording of the laws as received in Exodus, and given in Deuteronomy compared to our tradition. The Catechism also contains an extended commentary on the Ten Commandments starting with CCC# 2052.

The immediate question is, what is the role of the Old Testament commandments for our faith today? To help answer this, the CCC makes reference to the story of the rich man, one we just recently heard in our Sunday scripture. In this story the rich man asks what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus’ first answer is, following the commandments. This gets supplemented by the rich man to “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and then come follow me.” In this exchange, Jesus does not abolish the importance of the Law but rather adds the importance of imitating Christ as a means of salvation. The Ten Commandments, these “ten words” frame the terms of the covenant with our God. The CCC speaks of the Ten Commandments as showing us what is required in loving God and our neighbor; what Jesus called the two greatest commandments (CCC#2067). The First Commandment has a variety of forms, all of which capture these love commands, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me…It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” In God’s first “words,” he is making himself known as the God who has now taken action in our world. Secondly, God demands a giving up of all other idol worship, a call for fidelity to Him alone. Finally, comes a statement of responsibility for us, as God is loyal to his people, we should by this covenant, be loyal to Him. What is unspoken, is that this relationship, this covenant, is to be the most important “law” in your life. This First Commandment, gives us our vocation…to love and serve God. This First Commandment initiates our relationship with God. 

Within this commandment is held the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (love). We are offered the gift of faith, by God revealing his identity. We are given the gift of hope by His fidelity to us. We experience God’s charity in his first coming to us, and in response, calls us to love Him and all of his creation. Our entire faith is a response to this First Commandment. Our task is to use these virtues in establishing, and enhancing our relationship with God. The trials in life, are meant to be endured in God’s honor. The promises we make or are made for us in our sacraments, hinge on this relationship with God. The commandment also serves as the precepts of love we achieve with each other in a holy life. 

What is the difficulty with hearing, understanding, and accepting this first, this greatest commandment? We don’t see God, and more importantly, we do not feel God in our lives. It is one thing to believe the “historical” God who helped the Israelites and even to believe in Jesus, who 200 years ago walked this earth. But God, what have you done for me lately? Some characteristics of God may help. God is active but he is not imposing. Out of pure love he offers. We can refuse. It is not God who fails to speak, but we, who in our busy-ness, fail to listen. God can be seen in everything and in every moment, we can choose to see him or not. God doesn’t save us from suffering, for reasons we will never fully know, but by allowing his Son to suffer, God guarantees us that he is present and it will eventually be alright.

This First Commandment also centers us in a moral framework of objective truth. If we listen to God, then we must obey him. If we choose not to listen to him, then we decide what is right and wrong, depending on our mood, our energy, and our needs. Yet, if we search our hearts, the decision of what is right and wrong has to come from somewhere, and it is not us. Any other source beside God will lead to survival of the strongest and is the source of disobedience to our First Commandment…when we make ourselves a deity. If we decide to listen to God, we have the benefit of accepting a voice beyond us that reminds us that there can be no compromising on the most important values of life. The First Commandment tells us that God cares about us AND how we act. Steady observance of this First Commandment brings us closer to God. When we lose God as the primary source of our life, when we substitute “idols” of money, fame, power, or if we even stop listening for God’s voice because we distract ourselves with work, leisure, or pursuing our own desires, we have disrupted the very first understanding of what our life means…"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).”

God of Kept Promises

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“Hosanna!” It’s a word we say or sing at each Mass as the priest prepares to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. For many of us, it is most likely a word that gets overlooked, quickly gotten through as just another part of the Eucharistic prayer. But it means something quite specific and quite special, offering a key to understanding the truth about our God.

Hosanna can be translated as “Please save us” or “Please, Lord, come”. In the Eucharistic prayer, then, as we say “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are full of Your Glory, Hosanna in the highest…,” we are first glorifying God and then begging Him to come and save us.

And what happens after we do? He quite literally hears our prayer and comes! The priest, acting in the authority of Christ, the Head of the Church, initiates the transubstantiation, and Our Lord is really and truly present among us. We beg for Him, and He answers our prayers, showing us in a very real and beautiful way that our God is a God of kept promises. Ask and receive. Beg for Him and He will come.

“Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
leading the ewes with care.” (Isaiah 40:11)

Ever the Good Shepherd, God gathers us to Him. He cares for us; He feeds us, physically and spiritually.

During every age since the first day dawned after the Fall, our world has seemed a darkening place, where a separation exists between Creator and created, not His doing but ours. We perpetuate that separation every day with our venial and mortal sins, and despite our continuation in this life of sin, when we beg God for hear our prayers and come to us and the priest offers the sacrifice to the Father, Our Lord arrives, and does something so miraculous, unexpected and overwhelmingly loving: He elevates us from our mundane, sinful lives to ultimately share in something we can never earn and certainly do not deserve. As Fulton Sheen writes, “Everything in nature has to have communion in order to live; and through it what is lower is transformed into what is higher: chemical into plants, plants into animals, animals into man. And man? Should he not be elevated through communion with Him Who ‘came down’ from heaven to make man a partaker in the Divine nature?”.

This call-and-answer dialogue that occurs in each Mass shows unequivocally that our God is the God of kept promises, not solely in the past but in the present and we can trust, also in the future. It is in real time  that He keeps His promise - “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) - so that He is here, now. All we need to do is ask and we can receive.

With the dark circumstances that constantly surround us in this world, without this well-founded trust in God, without His daily Eucharistic miracles, despair would be a threat to each and every one of us, and perhaps might even be our ultimate and inevitable conclusion, certainly non-believers struggle deeply in trying times such as we’re in now - but as Christians, and specifically as Catholic Christians, we have the ultimate hope.

So the next time you’re at Mass and the Eucharistic prayer begins, remember that you are asking God to come and save you. And He is.