Article for Dec 30, 2012

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Several years ago, when my nephew was four-years-old, he received a rat for Christmas. That’s right, a plague carrying, sewer infesting, garbage eating, four clawed, sharp-toothed rat. Like its wild cousins, this ten inch long vermin concluded on the caboose end with the characteristic six inch long, plastic looking, tubular tail that one rightfully associates with Halloween, or sudden revulsion.

The nephew the rat belongs to belongs to my brother who always hosts Christmas dinner at his house. On that year, the holiday roast beast was taking longer than anticipated, which gave me a moment to ponder my nephew’s Christmas companion nestled in a bed of wood shavings in a four-foot tall cage. I searched the rodent compound, and was amazed to find no spring-loaded, baited trap. In the feed dish, there was no D-Con. Most surprising of all, there was an easy access door that allowed the prisoner furloughs into the family’s living quarters at the behest of his four-year-old warden.

When I was a youngster, we were always informed that any kind of childhood misbehavior would result in a Santa special delivery of sticks and coal rather than presents and candy. As I stood staring into the beady eyes of the creature ensconced in my brother’s house, I wondered what kind of mischief Santa’s spies, had caught my nephew engaged in. “He is such a cute little boy.” I mused to myself, “What could a four-year-old possibly do to receive such a miserable Christmas consequence?” I resolved to treat my little Godchild with the kind of respect one affords potentially dangerous household items.

A little later in the evening I was to discover that this holiday vermin was not the mammalian equivalent of a Holiday spanking, but was actually a Christmas gift. My sister-in-law, Ann, explained that my nephew had actually asked for it. With great effort, I restrained the sudden desire to blurt out the thought bubble that immediately formed over my head. “It’s a good thing he didn’t ask for explosives.”

I know that after I die, and have taken up residence in heaven, whenever I want to spend time with Ann, I will have to go to the neighborhood where Francis of Assisi, Doctor Doolittle, and Marlin Perkins (the host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) live. Ann loves every manner of snarling, snorting, slithering, braying, barking, creeping, crawling, cuddling creature.

This Sunday’s Christmas season’s Feast of the Holy Family has me contemplating the profound impact that families play in the formation of the human soul and psyche. It seems to me that we human beings come into the world wired with all sorts of interests and potentialities. In the intricate dance of family relationships, some of those gifts are noticed and appreciated. As a consequence, those parts of the self unfold and bear fruit.

I don’t know what social science literature has to say about it. Anecdotally, I would guess that in the 365 days between Christmases, the average four-year-old requests hundreds, maybe thousands of items that a parent could purchase for him or her. Out of the universe of things that my little nephew, Luke, has requested over the past year, his animal loving mother had ears to hear the request he uttered for a pet rodent. Perhaps this, and other interactions like it will awaken a latent little Saint Francis-like part of my nephew’s soul.

One of the mysteries uncovered in this Sunday’s Feast of the Holy Family is that you and I are endowed with an awesome power to co-create human beings. In what we notice and fail to notice, in what we encourage, or ignore, our relationships have profound and long-lasting consequences.

The third reading this past Sunday (Luke 2: 41-52) presented an invitation to take Mary as our role model as we engage in our Christian vocation of people-making. Toward the end of the Gospel passage, Luke described her as contemplating the unique qualities of her son, and storing them in her heart. As Jesus grew, this thoughtful parental discernment allowed his identity to unfold in the intended manner.

As you relate to a child, a spouse, a friend, or community member, will you, like Mary, contemplate this person with awareness and intentionality? Will you take the time to discern what is unique and unrepeatable about this soul, so that in seeing those dimensions, you will call them out into the world? In the new year, will you resolve to consciously claim the tremendous power that you exert in forming and shaping human beings?

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