“Advent is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope…It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Seek That Which Is Above
One of the things I love best about the Advent and Christmas season is the attitude of PREPARATION and ANTICIPATION. I love putting up Christmas decorations, making cookies and candy for the holidays and the feelings of good will in the air. Another aspect of this preparation that I love is the SILENCE that can be found during the Advent season too. It can be a challenge to find it in our busy world, but the moments are there. Our weather especially can prepare our hearts to be silent and ponder deeper meaning: to go outside when snow has freshly fallen (and where there are no snowplows!); to take a walk among the skeletal trees, dead leaves, and sharp winds and contemplate that periods of death and barrenness can be the preparation for new life.
Most of all during Advent, I love to contemplate what it means that God CHOSE to enter this world as a baby. This is the thing that I love most about salvation history – that is, that God always seems to choose the surprising way to manifest His love to us. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8) It begins in the Old Testament with the way God begins to draw His people into covenant with Him – a new beginning through Abraham who is to trust radically a God whom he does not really know, building a nation through Moses, a man who stuttered and spoke to the pharaoh about the liberation of the Israelites only through his brother Aaron, and establishing a kingdom through David, a young boy who was still tending sheep when anointed as king.
This “surprising way” of how God manifests His LOVE to us reaches its zenith in the life of Jesus. St. Francis of Assisi was so struck by it that he established the spirituality of his religious order on this notion through constant reflection on the “Crib, Cross and Holy Eucharist.” And that notion is the surprising reality that God chooses to SAVE us, to free us from sin, to draw us into relationship by making Himself VULNERABLE, WEAK and POWERLESS. At the crib, we see the Incarnation, the entrance of the eternal God into time with all of the frailties and insecurity of a helpless baby. At the cross we encounter a God who chooses to save His people not through a blatant display of power but by being BROKEN so that this BROKEN HEART, the channel of His LOVE and MERCY, could be opened for all people. And at the tabernacle, we see the presence of Jesus under the humble appearance of bread, waiting for us to encounter Him, drawing us through LOVE: “Whom the world cannot contain, love imprisons here.” (Pope Pius XII)
My hope and prayer is that each of us can take the opportunity to STOP during this Advent season, if only for a few minutes a day, to encounter God in the silence of our hearts and contemplate this mystery of the Crib, Cross and Holy Eucharist. What was it like for God to be a baby? Why did he make Himself helpless in this way? Why did God choose to save us through death? Why was it essential in the mind of God that His Son restore us to relationship with Himself through an act of extreme vulnerability? Why does Jesus choose to dwell with us continually through His presence in the Blessed Sacrament? What meaning is conveyed through this? How do all of these events help me understand what the real definition of LOVE is? By asking questions like these we enter more deeply into the ANTICIPATION of the Advent Season and will desire to PREPARE our hearts for His coming!
Advent is my favorite time of the entire liturgical year! I love the anticipation and HOPE that the readings at Mass convey, and the emphasis on preparing for Christ’s coming. We are to prepare for His coming in three ways during this season: reflecting on Christ’s entrance into human history through His Incarnation as a baby, His second coming at the end of time, and we prepare to receive Him more intentionally when He comes to us in the Eucharist and in our encounters with the human person. Mother Teresa once said, “In the Eucharist I see Christ in the appearance of the bread; in the slums, I see Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor. The Eucharist and the poor are but one love for me.”
I have been reflecting on how I should best prepare for His coming during this Advent season, and I am once again brought face to face with the stark change that has occurred in my attitude toward life. Much of my desire to be “serious Catholic” in the past was motivated by a very “black and white” approach to the world. I have been amused when talking with friends recently by some of the things they say I told them in the past about holiness and the meaning of life. I was very certain of how holiness is achieved and felt my mission as a religious was very clear. But PRAISE GOD for the hard knocks of life! I, like Paul, have been “knocked off my horse” and from my clear mission to consider again what it really means to belong to God. As a person who tends to be focused on accomplishment, I wanted to follow God in a way that was socially acceptable and clear in purpose. Of course it should follow the dictates of common sense and clearly reflect God’s approval! But what if that’s not GOD’S plan? I continue to struggle with discouragement over “losing my mission.” All I was going to “accomplish for God” now seems to have been just an illusion. I wanted my life to be important, to have MEANING.
I am starting to realize that God is much less concerned with me being successful at doing anything “for Him” than He is interested in helping me to KNOW HIM. And that the MEANING that I wanted to give to my life is not so much my work, but His. My motto is the Scripture from the Prodigal son story: “You are with Me always, and everything I have is yours.” (Luke 15:31) THIS is what I am to live: to KNOW that I am with Him, and that what I seek, I already possess in this relationship with the Father. I am starting to learn that “finding God’s will” is not necessarily the hard job that I have made it. In fact, I think His will is pretty simple: LOVE. That’s it. He wants us to know we are loved, and to help every person we meet to know they are VALUED and LOVED!!! Perhaps God intends for me to recognize and appreciate the meaning He has imbedded in the very smallest things, the places that seem insignificant. Rather than accomplishing a plan and giving meaning through my work, perhaps I have been placed here on earth to recognize meaning, appreciate it, and see the extravagant love God manifests in the littlest things. That is beauty too, and perhaps is the real source of happiness: “to soak up meaning” rather than to create it myself. This is my HOPE for this Advent.
What are you grateful for?
I thought I would depart from my usual pontifications to invite all of you who read this to participate in a “Gratitude Fest” in honor of the awesome American tradition of celebrating our gratitude to God for the small and everyday things of life, which in reality are the BIG THINGS because they have the most impact on us!! I’ll start!
I am grateful for my Mom, my Dad, and my beautiful sister. I am grateful for all of the beautiful people I have the pleasure of calling my family and friends. I am so grateful for the gift of extended family, all of whom are such an integral part of my life. Not everyone today can say they have 14 aunts & uncles, over 50 cousins and more “cousins once removed”! I LOVE YOU ALL! I am also grateful for the many beautiful religious sisters I have had the joy of knowing more deeply in the shared gift of religious community. I miss you, and pray for you. I am grateful for the gift of faith, and for (what JPII called) the “drama of the human person:” the mystery of the journey of faith, on which I am accompanied by my Beloved. And today, I am very grateful for the gift of celebrating this Thanksgiving with those around me.
So what are you grateful for?