Happy Advent. Last year, at this time, I ran a post on “The War on Advent,” making the case that we Catholics must resist the dominant culture’s desire to start Christmas the day after Thanksgiving and forget all about Advent. Everything I wrote then rings, regrettably, even more true this year than last with all the countless stories about “Black Friday Sales” being extended into Thanksgiving Day itself.
Our identity as Christians must trump our identity as consumers, and it is not easy. This year, I invite the readership to delve more deeply into the spiritual resources of the Advent season and share some thoughts on how to do so.
Our liturgy and especially our wonderful Advent music tends to look back or forward. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” invites us to look back, to place ourselves among God’s Chosen People, Israel, as they awaited the Savior. Other hymns, like the glorious “Lo, He Comes on Clouds Descending,” look forward to the Second Coming, and the culmination of the Christian promise. Both exercises, looking back and forward, are essential to the season, but they should not block us from seeing the present. They shape the present, as points of reference on a map, but this Advent, perhaps we should look to how the Lord Jesus comes to us here and now.
Jesus comes to us in His Word, indeed, He is the Word made flesh. There is not an ounce of separation between Him and His Word. Praying over the Scriptures, not just reading them, but praying over them always helps cultivate the sense of expectancy and the awareness that in our relationship with God, the initiative is always with Him. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is God who forms man in His own image, who shepherds His people, who leads them out of bondage and exile, and who promises them a savior. In the Christian Scriptures, it is Jesus who calls the Twelve, who proclaims the Kingdom, who forgives the sinners, who teaches the Truth and shows the Way and imparts the Life. In those passages in the Scripture where man takes the initiative, it is not pretty: The Pharisees who try and trap him, Peter thinking it wrong to have his feet washed, the Sanhedrin who seek His death, and the centurions who crucify Him. But, there, in His death, we find the final Covenant, the final, eternal, on-going initiative of grace, the conquering of death and His resurrection and ascension. Pondering the Scriptures, especially those passages that trouble us, that we can’t make sense of, those parables that turn our human understandings of justice and peace on edge – the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the young man who walks away sad, the hired workers in the vineyard - those are the passages which, in the light of faith, most clearly proclaim the essence of what it is we wait for when we say we await the Second Coming. We wait for mercy.
This leads to another principal experience in which we can discern the Lord coming even now. As Pope Francis said in one of his homily’s this autumn, our own sinfulness is a privileged place for the encounter with God. Advent is a penitential season and, as the Holy Father keeps trying to teach us, penance is not about being good little boys and girls, there is nothing Pelagian about our faith, although the temptation to Pelagianism is a perennial of the spiritual life. Attending to our sins is not only an instance of the mere requirement of honesty, although it is that too. It points us towards the gratuitousness of God’s mercy in sending a savior, a savior who comes for us, not for Himself, who brings Himself as the antidote to all of our failings. Advent is a time to pray for God’s grace to restrain our sinful impulses and make right our relationships with God and neighbor. What pride keeps me from reaching out to another? What covetousness keeps me from being grateful for the things that I have? What envy keeps me from appreciating the gifts of another? What lust keeps me from recognizing the dignity of another person and searching deeply for an answer to the question – what does love require? What gluttony keeps me from sharing what I possess with those who have little? The list goes on. In each of these reflections on our own sinfulness, if done honestly, we quickly discern the brute fact that we have no claims on God’s mercy. It is all grace, all gratuitousness. That disposition allows us to receive a savior, not to try and manipulate Him for our own purposes nor to weigh ourselves down with feelings of guilt as if we had no savior. The point of attending to our sins is to lead us to the recognition that we have been, and can continue to be, liberated from them by the One who conquered sin.
We can find Jesus coming into the world in the poor. This is an easy one because, when He came the first time, Jesus came as a poor person among the poor. As well, as a wise man once observed, if you wish to know what God thinks about money, you have only to look at the morals of those upon whom He has bestowed it. There is a tendency to, if not glamorize, to idealize the poor. Being with the poor, you quickly realize that they can be difficult. Some have all the challenging behaviors and attitudes that come with drug and alcohol abuse. Some do not look very beautiful or smell very nice or exhibit good manners. But, the poor are almost never judgmental. In my experience, the poor are astonishingly generous with what little they have. The poor do not engage in the kind of middle class moralisms that keep many of us thinking so well of ourselves. The poor, often living in unspeakable conditions, rely on the Lord in ways you and I do not have to, and possess hope despite all. Last month, I flew to Chicago and both on the flight there and the flight back, we were all boarded and had to deplane because of mechanical difficulties. The grumbling was intense and the poor staff was hit with a barrage of anger. Did these people really prefer to discover the mechanical problem with the plane at 35,000 feet? I apologized to the agent who rebooked us for the behavior of my fellow passengers and thanked her for her calm and poise in such a difficult position. I am betting she made a lot less money than the people screaming at her. In short, the poor are real, and nowhere more real than when it comes to the spiritual life. When a desperately poor person expresses hope or gratitude or remorse, it can and should leave us speechless. In their faith, confirmed not by any material blessings, we discern the genuine article.
We find Jesus coming into the world in the Church, in the sacraments, in the ministry of the Church and in the teachings of the Church. Indeed, you could do worse by way of finding a working definition of the Church than to say those who look for Jesus’ coming. Yet, just as the fact that Jesus came in poverty two thousand years ago tips us off to look for Him amidst the poor today, His coming was also a surprise and tips us off to look to the Church in anticipation of being surprised. Is there a word in the Scriptures or a line in a hymn that catches our attention in a way we had not expected? Is there a ministry of the Church for which we did not think ourselves suited that might yield a deeper encounter with the Lord? Is there a teaching of the Church, maybe even one we are disposed not to agree with, that yet has something to teach us? Or, do we approach Mass as if it is only an obligation, a burden? Do we worry that undertaking a new ministry will prove fruitless or take too much time? Do we look suspiciously at a Church teaching as a kind of divagation, and dismiss it as such, confident that our agenda and our attitudes must be correct? Pope Francis constantly urges us to make room for the Spirit because our God is a God of surprises. He also has called upon the Christian faithful to “make a mess,” not to indulge clericalism in others or mediocre commitment in ourselves. And, he invites us to be docile in the Spirit, which seems at odds with the “make a mess” encouragement – but is it? I would submit there is a difference between posing tough questions to our tradition and to our Church leaders and being stubborn in our own convictions. Let us be stubborn in the Lord this Advent.
So, this Advent, let us sing the hymns that recall His coming in Bethlehem and let us sing the hymns that point to His second coming, but mostly, let us look to the many ways He is coming into the world, into our own lives right now. At the end of October, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete died. His last words were, “You see, Jesus always comes. He wants to be with us.” These words answered a question that had been outstanding for a little more than forty years: Was Lorenzo a comedian who happened to be involved in religion, or a priest who happened to have a great sense of humor? The question was first posed by his mother who, in the early 70’s, did not ask her newly ordained son to bless her new apartment but, instead, asked another priest, a Capuchin friar, young Fr. Sean O’Malley. When Fr. O’Malley protested that she should ask her newly ordained son to do the blessing, she replied, “I think he is joking.” I was wondering if Lorenzo’s last words would be, like Oscar Wilde’s last words – “Either those curtains go or I do” - a statement of exquisite humor or a statement of his exquisite faith in the Incarnation. The Incarnation won. Lorenzo’s mother can now know, he wasn’t joking. Indeed, in his final moments, he spoke the thing we proud early twenty-first century Americans have a hard time believing, that Jesus wants to be with us. But, He did and He does and He will. That is what Advent is all about.