“What is the first reaction to the extraordinary action of God, who becomes a babe, who becomes man? I think that the first reaction can be none other than joy… [Joy] is the theme that opens the Gospel, and it is the theme that concludes it… But let us go one step further: where does this joy come from? I would say that it is born of the heart’s wonder in seeing how close God is to us, how God thinks of us, how God acts in history; it is a joy, then, that comes from contemplating the face of that humble Child, because we know that it is the Face of God present to humanity forever – for us and with us. Christmas is joy because we see – and at last we are sure – that God is man’s good, his life and his truth; and He lowers Himself to man in order that He might raise man to Himself: God becomes close enough to see and touch.”
– Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 6, 2012 (emphases mine)
Without a doubt, this was the most joy-filled Christmas I have ever celebrated. Not to be dramatic or anything, but 2011 was probably the hardest year of my life thus far – and I suppose it was precisely for that reason that I was able to approach the Christmas season with such a deep thirst for Jesus. I had never before been so desperate for Him to come into my heart, and by the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I was so fed-up with everything and so exhausted from trying to “have it all together” that I felt as though I didn’t have any words left with which to pray. So I went back to that psalm which had become the song of my soul all through Advent, and prayed:
“Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
It was a prayer from the heart – and even though the Lord has indeed been good to me throughout my life, I never could have imagined just how good He would be to me this Christmas! Spending the Octave of Christmas in Italy with four of my dearest friends sounds amazing – but I’m telling you, I never could have foreseen how much the Lord would use that week to refresh my soul and restore my joy.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are a few dozen of my favorites.*
The first fifteen photos are from the two days we spent in Assisi. We took a train from Rome and stayed at a guesthouse owned by the Secular Franciscans, who gave us a fantastic tour of the Basilica of St. Francis on our second day. We were able to go to Mass at both Basilicas (St. Francis and St. Clare), as well as visit Francis’ family home, the Cathedral of St. Rufino of Assisi (where Francis and Clare were baptized), San Damiano (Clare’s first convent), and the Porziuncola (the tiny chapel that Francis rebuilt) in St. Mary of the Angels. I got in some really great prayer time at Francis and Clare’s tombs, and it was just the most tremendous blessing to be able to tell them “thank you” in person.
The rest of the photos are from our time in Rome – and yes, that is a photo of Pope Benedict (near the end of the slideshow) celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s! We were able to attend Solemn Vespers with the Holy Father on New Year’s Eve and Mass with him on New Year’s Day, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. (Mario used his “seminarian magic” to score tickets for both.) What a gift!
I have to say, though – the greatest gift of the entire trip for me was the presence of Mario, Peter-George, Pius and Etsy. Words can’t say how grateful I am for their kindness, love and laughter. My life simply would not be the same if any one of them were not in it.
“There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”
– St. Thomas Aquinas