Transformation in Christ

Christmas is exceptionally hard for my family and me this year. We have death on our minds or, rather, the painful longing for a loved one who, although a nonagenarian, was, for us, taken much too soon in 2016. At ninety-one, my mother Mimi Sodano was, in a true sense, the heart of the family—more a “second mother” to my four grown children than a grandmother. She lived with us, and she expressed her love most vibrantly in the sumptuous meals she prepared for us nearly daily.

Advent and Christmas were writ large in Mimi’s mind. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she started preparing for our traditional Christmas Eve “feast of seven fishes” the day after Thanksgiving. She wrote long lists of grocery items and, since we moved to Maine from New Jersey several years ago, sent one or more of the grandkids on road trips to Boston to pick up the Italian seafood delicacies that are nowhere to be found in Maine. Seven is a relative number when it comes to the fish, as we stopped counting at fifteen dishes and nine different fish one year.

Christmas Eve at the Sodano-Ireland household was a regular Babette’s Feast, with Mimi spending seemingly endless prep days of relentless toil and extravagant spending—tremendous sacrifices for a woman living on a fixed income and in constant pain from severe arthritis. Her doctor couldn’t figure out how she could function, let alone walk, cook, clean, mend, sew, and serve like someone half her age. We used to think it was because she had a high threshold for pain, but on her deathbed we knew for sure that she worked so hard because she felt most fully alive when she sacrificed for others. She knew that “suffering is a key to the meaning of life.”*

Suffering doesn’t just refer to physical pain. Suffering—redemptive suffering, broadly speaking, is any sacrifice of oneself for love and for the betterment of another. The late John Downs, who was paralyzed in an accident in his teens, relates the deep and life-giving meaning of suffering:

Suffering without God can crush and destroy. Suffering with Christ can redeem and create. When the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became Man and took on a human body so that He could suffer, human suffering was transformed. It became an instrument for good, both for the individual and for the world at large…

One of the mysteries of life is that suffering is the divinely-chosen means of enabling human beings, wounded and handicapped by original sin, to rise above selfish inclinations and to live, by God’s grace, more fully human lives. It is only in the acceptance of suffering, in the spiritualization of suffering, in the uniting of one’s sufferings with those of Christ, that one can discover the secret to true happiness. Human nature recoils at this reality. But has not God “chosen the weak and foolish things to confound the strong and the wise?” (1 Cor. 3:18).

Indeed, suffering, in and of itself, is not good and serves no useful purpose. It is that which transpires in a human being who suffers that is of paramount importance and value… Only in the mystery of God Himself will we begin to understand how the suffering caused by original sin has been transformed into a blessing by means of the Redemptive Cross of Christ.*


The Adoration Of The Kings And Christ On The Cross, by Benedetto

St. Athanasius instructs us on the meaning of the Incarnation: God became man so that man may become God. Of course, we are not God in our nature, but we are divinized through grace. We are graced through Christ’s suffering love; that is, we are transformed into His own Image, so that with St. Paul, we can say: It is not I who live, but Christ in me.

This first Christmas without Mimi no doubt will be difficult for the children and grandchildren who loved her so dearly. Yet, we can be joyful even as we grieve, for we experienced first-hand the redemptive power of suffering through the sacrificial way Mimi lived her life for us and for others.  Until her last breath, she sacrificed herself for the sake of the good—the salvation—of others.  

In her last earthly days when she no longer could speak, Mimi would greet us by making the sign of the cross. When she no longer could raise her arm to form the cross, she would mouth the words of the Rosary as we prayed aloud or sang “Ave Maria” to and with her. When she no longer could move her lips, she moved her fingers over the beads clutched in her hand. When she could do none of these, she listened as we each spoke to her of our love and gratitude for the immeasurable sacrifices she made for us.

Although my family won’t be sharing a seven fish dinner or exchanging gifts with my mother this year, we remember the priceless gifts that she gave us—first and foremost, the value of redemptive suffering and sacrificial love—the same gift that Christ gave 2,000 years ago. Merry Christmas!


Patricia Ireland is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Program Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College.

*John F. Downs, Suffering: A Key to the Meaning of Life (Woodstock, Virginia: Apostolatus Uniti, 1991), Pamphlet.

Blog title taken from Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Transformation in Christ, Ignatius Press.

Thomas Merton: Reflections on the Meaning of Advent and Christmas

Advent, a season of special grace, is a time set aside to prepare to receive Jesus more fully at Christmas.  Advent is about readying one’s heart to cradle the One who will be born anew when the Nativity feast is celebrated once again.  Advent is a time of hopeful expectation that Jesus will heed one’s ardent longing that He abide more completely within oneself.  If one’s desire for Jesus is great, one’s whole being will become centered in the joy that will accompany His renewed birthing in one’s life.   Thomas Merton reflects: “What joy is ours when we find Jesus, the sunshine of the universe.  Heaven and earth kiss in Jesus.  Jesus is God’s smile on the earth.”[i]

MertonAccording to Merton, Advent is a graced period of time when a person can choose to begin to end all that is not Christ-like in his or her life.  Contemplating Advent as a season of seeking greater wholeness of living in Christ, Merton writes:

I begin to live in Christ when I come to the ‘end’ or to the ‘limit’ of what divides me
from my fellow man; when I am willing to step beyond this end, cross the frontier,
become a stranger, enter into the wilderness which is not ‘myself,’ where I do not
breathe the air or hear the familiar, comforting racket of my own city, where I am
alone and defenseless in the desert of God. [ii]

In his writings, Merton considers Jesus’ three advents as discussed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of Cistercian monasticism.  In the first Advent, the Logos became incarnated in this world ad homines, that is, in order to redeem humankind.  Merton notes that, according to Saint Bernard, the virgin Mary’s role in the incarnation is central, since in and through her humanity God chose to enter into our world.

For Saint Bernard, the second Advent is in homines, which means that, through grace, God takes up residence within a person.  Regarding this, Merton comments: “Christ comes to us, really gives Himself to us, so that we already possess our heaven in hope.”[iii]  During this Advent time, one creates a sanctuary in one’s heart for the Word of God; one grows in humility and makes every effort to use one’s energies to do God’s will.

In his writings, Merton explores Saint Bernard’s third Advent as Christ’s final coming contra homines when He will return to Earth to judge the living and the deceased.  According to Saint Bernard, this Advent will occasion Christ making manifest negative judgment on those persons who rejected His saving grace during their earthly lives and positive judgment on those who, in life, were receptive to His salvific grace.

In his work entitled The Nativity Kergyma, Merton provides an exquisite meditation on the meaning of Jesus’ birth.  Merton reflects that the Savior’s nativity proclaims His initial historical presence but also His continued epiphany in the now moment. Each Christmas, Christ is born in new ways to be Light and Life in believers’ lives.  Jesus’ ardent desire is that His light shine in and through His followers’ works of love of others.  In this way, He is able to advent continually in the lives of multitudes of people.

Reflecting on the reality that long ago God chose to empty Godself to be born as a child in the village of Bethlehem, Merton writes:

The Child that lies in the manger, helpless and abandoned to the love
of His creatures, dependent entirely upon them to be fed, clothed, and
sustained, remains the Creator and Ruler of the universe. … He wills to
be helpless that we may take Him into our care. He has embraced our
poverty … in order to give us his riches.”[iv]

The Nativity Child, the God of earth and sky, paradoxically was born in a lowly stable.  The poverty that surrounded Jesus’ birth marked the rest of His life wherein He experienced humiliation, insult, opposition, and, finally, rejection that led to His being executed by means of a horrific crucifixion.

For Merton, the message of the Nativity is gaudete: Rejoice for the Lord who suffered death is risen and is truly near!  It was John the Baptist who heralded the advent of Jesus’ salvific ministry.   Today, Christ’s followers are called to carry forward the Baptist’s mission and to trust that Christ’s continued saving advents in time will eventually give way to an everlasting Christmas when those gathered around the resurrected Christ will feast at the banquet table of eternal blessing.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M., teaches theology at Saint Joseph’s College.

[i]Thomas Merton, Unpublished: “Advent Reflections, 1st Sunday of Advent,” 4. Accessed in the Saint Joseph’s College Merton Collection.

[ii] Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), 95.

[iii] Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 77.

[iv] Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 109.