Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent Reflection

Advent Reflection 2013

The days of Advent have begun once more, and again Christians find this season of joyful expectation drown out by the frenzy of over-the-top consumption and washed out holiday sentimentalism.  And so the annual chorus of those decrying the holiday madness sounds from the predictable choir lofts, as if turning off the syrupy sweet holiday music and keeping the million Christmas lights under lock and key will somehow produce a peaceful vacuum for Advent to fill.  But the negation of Christmas does not induce Advent.  Ironically, the more Christians protest, the more it sounds like the Grinch howling from the pulpits and pews about the reason for the season. 

Advent is not the privation of Christmas, it is its anticipation, its prologue, its appetizer.  And so instead of yelling at our culture for snacking on Christmas the moment Halloween costumes are stowed, we should make an effort to show our culture what a fitting and tasty appetizer Advent can be.   Our culture loves appetizers.  We are addicted to nachos and buffalo wings.  We make them the main course, we enjoy them so much.  And Advent could be like that.  Because Advent, when it is set before our culture in all its glory, is irresistible – like one of those huge piles of nachos at a sports bar that you just can’t stop eating…  Advent speaks to contemporary culture like no other season.  Its ingredients make it distinctively appealing to today’s spiritual taste and nourishing to today’s spiritual hunger.  Here’s why:


Our culture longs for authentic hope.  Politicians have recognized this for a while now, running on messages of hope and change.  They have predictably failed to deliver on their utopian promises, exacerbating an already escalating societal pessimism.  Individual and national indebtedness, pervasive violent crime, insolvent entitlement programs, environmental disasters, and a whole host of social ills are constantly referenced in everyday conversation.   There has been little refuge within the church from the bad news, especially for those living in New England: priest scandals and shortages, fallen away Catholics, and divisive social battles have caused many to worry about the future. 

The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces;
The reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken. – Isaiah 25:6-8

In the midst of this dark and anxious landscape, Advent offers us hope that is rooted in a deep and unwavering trust in God’s goodness.  We focus on the writings of the prophets who urge us to trust in the faithfulness of God who never abandons his people, even when they dwell in darkness.  Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to save us from our sins, to bring us redemption.  He reassures us that God is not unaffected by our struggles, that he will not leave us orphaned or forget us. 

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
He has come to the help of his servant, Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever. – Luke 1:49, 54-55

Advent shows us how to face the darkness of our world with authentic courage – not running or escaping from sin and evil, not giving in to anger and resentment, not being overcome by fear and anxieties.  Through word and example, the prophets and the saints of Advent – Isaiah, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah, John the Baptist – they lead us along the pathway of Christian hope, a hope that is at once gritty and pure, hidden and radiant in splendor.   Eating locusts and honey, facing rumors of premarital escapades, riding donkeys and paying taxes – and yet dreaming with angels and led by a star.  A God who is gentle in the midst of a brutal world.  A God who upholds when appearances are deceiving.  A God who gives shelter when there is no room at the inn.  These are the deeds of the Lord we recount in the days of Advent as the reason for our hope and trust in him today.  These are the saints who we pray with and to during Advent, asking that we be men and women of hope in the midst of a despairing world.


So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. - Matthew 24:44

None of us are getting out of here alive.  Yet of all the scientifically verifiable realities that impose themselves upon us in a deeply personal way in this world, there are few that our culture tries to forget as much as death.  Death is pushed out of society and into hospitals, nursing homes, hidden in body bags.  Funerals are increasingly “celebrations of life” that ignore the cold body and focus solely on warm memories and feelings.  So many have a hard time placing the remains of their loved ones in the ground: instead they set urns on the mantle, or ashes are divided and placed in lockets and trinkets in a futile attempt to keep the memory of a loved one alive.  The pile of dirt at the grave is covered over with plastic fake grass sheets, the casket left above ground as everyone departs. 

Our society can’t stand finality, preferring to think of every day as ground hog day.  The idea that a decision can be permanent, that there are choices that cannot be revoked, that a day can come to a definitive end: no, we abhor the thought as much as that of a cold and rigid corpse.  Which is why Advent is so important.  Because Advent reminds us of the second coming of Christ – of the end of time.  Advent asks us to focus on the fact that life does not end when we want it to, but when God allows it to.  And when God allows our lives to end, that’s it.  Death is definitive, it is the end of our earthly journey.  There are no do-overs.  Nor is there a place after death where we can correct all the mistakes that we have made here and remedy anything we have done wrong.  This may be a common misconception of purgatory.  But purgatory assumes that our lives are over – the die is cast.  As we leave this earth we are cleansed in the purifying fire of Gods’ grace if we are not ready to meet him but have not definitively rejected him.  But we do not have a chance to make up for our wrongs – he makes up for them in his mercy.  We live once.  We are judged once.  We should try not to screw up.  Yolo.

Brothers and sisters:
You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. - Romans 13:11-12

And so Advent remedies the common subconscious assumption today that we can live our lives tentatively, as if we were trying them on for size.  St. Paul urges us not to waste the time that we have, not to play with life as if it were a mere toy or a warm up for the real thing.  Life is real, life is serious business; beautiful and joyful, but serious, precious business.  It is for this reason that Christ instructs his disciples to be strategic, thoughtful, calculating – time is limited in this world.  The readings of the Advent season help us to clear away the vague notions of perpetual youth that pervade our culture and instead to view our lives as Christ has taught us.  To ask questions like, “When I look back at the end of my life, what might I wish I had done more of?  What will I regret I neglected?  Are the things that are truly important the things that are occupying my time?  What can I do to ensure that I am living my life deliberately?”  These are not morbid questions, but clarifying questions.  They are questions that help us avoid the snares of the evil one, the most destructive of which is a lukewarmness in our response to the gift of life that God has given us.  When we reflect on our mortality, the clear preciousness of each day prompts us to live wisely: in prayer, with family and friends, reading and working on various artistic and cultural endeavors, reaching out in service to others.  And this Advent reflection is also a powerful antidote to the consumerism and social over-commitment that tempt us in the run-up to Christmas. 


During season of Lent, the other purple penitential season, the Church on the beginning of creation, on Adam and Eve and the fall.  Reflecting on the original sin of our first parents, we acknowledge that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And we reflect on how our disobedience led to the cross, to the scapegoating of our Savior, to the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.  How our sins became a happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer.

Advent is also marked with purple, but it is a purple less mixed with the blood of our iniquity and more tinged with the blue of tears.  Advent repentance looks not so much to what we have done, but to what we have failed to do: not so much to our sins of commission as our sins of omission. 

And this is an incredibly important reflection for Catholics today.  For it seems as though the consciences of most people today are almost exclusively preoccupied with consideration of sins committed, and almost entirely oblivious to the seriousness of failing to do what is good.  In fact, it does not even dawn on a great number of people that their moral life consists not merely in avoiding the injury of others, but most importantly in their love of God and neighbor.  For many, the examination of conscience is carried out as if it were preparation for a ritual washing: we look for the dirt, for the defects, so that we show Jesus where we need him to scrub.  We employ Jesus’ grace to fix our problems, our ugliness – to relieve us from our shame and disgust.  Sin is thought of as dirt.  This is not all wrong – sometimes we do need to be cleaned up.  But if our moral awareness is limited in this way, we risk spiraling into a myopia consumed with the state of our own soul’s cleanliness without any regard to the world around us, not to mention consideration of our love for Christ.

Advent reminds us that the primary moral posture of the Christian is not that of naval gazing, but of vigilance, of keeping watch!  Yes, sometimes we must turn our attention to those things that have enslaved us or weakened us or are blinding us.  “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” etc…  But the great weight of Christ’s moral teaching has to do with vigilance in following in the path of love, not dissecting and operating.  “Go, sell what you have to the poor, then follow me.”  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Who are the evildoers who are consigned to the eternal flames in the final judgement?  No mention is made of murderers or thieves or adulterers, but those who did not give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, or visit the sick.  All sins of omission, sins due not to malice and hatred, but to indifference and lukewarmness: to being asleep.

Advent reminds us that moral minimalism has no place in the Gospel.  It is not enough to merely avoid evil, we must also be vigilant in seeking and serving what is good.  It is not only divorce that is a sin, but also the neglect of our spouses and children.  It is not only stealing that is a sin, but also a lack of generosity.  It is not only swearing that is a sin, but also the failure to say the good and true things that others need to hear.  It is not only impure thoughts that are a sin, but also the failure during the day to turn our minds to our Heavenly Father in prayer.

An examination of conscience infused with Advent vigilance is not mired in preoccupation with a few crass, ugly, or dirty things we have done, but instead examines our perseverance and watchfulness in caring for the bountiful gifts entrusted to us by our Heavenly Father.  If tears arise it is not so much from shame as from regret – regret for our callousness, our neglect, our indifference, our laziness in the face of the Lord’s goodness and generosity.  Contrition arises against the backdrop of God’s generosity rather than the limitations of human frailty.

Our culture needs to experience this type of Catholic guilt – contrition that is accompanied by gratitude rather than shame.  Contrition that frees and refreshes.  Contrition that strengthens within us the desire to be with the Lord rather than to run and hide from him. 


In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” – Isaiah 2:1-3

Advent is a truly Catholic season in the sense that during the season we reflect on the universal plan of salvation that God has revealed to us in Christ.  First announced by the prophets, particularly Isaiah, and then confirmed by Christ himself, the Church reflects during this season on the universal call to holiness.  Holiness is not the privilege for a few, but an invitation extended to all people by Christ.  Many times this invitation is extended in hidden and mysterious ways to those who seem to be on the religious fringes: the Samaritan, the tax collector, the Centurion, the gentile. 

Advent reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways, that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and that his grace can never be circumscribed within the limits of earthly institutions or structures, no matter how glorious and holy they may seem.  The life of Christ can never be flattened into a merely horizontal project.  His kingdom is not of this world.  The Church, as Pope Francis says, is not another NGO.  It is not the sum of our labors, a work of the people – it is a divine project, an initiative of God’s grace.

This too is an Advent theme of critical importance in our day, when many conceive of religion as the expression of personal spirituality by a specific set of adherents within the confines of a place of worship.  Identity is no longer primarily rooted in being a son or daughter of the living God, but in a particular local community.  “I’m a member of Such and Such Parish.”  And all too often power and authority are wielded and controlled with a sense of entitlement.  How many sacristies have been staked out more aggressively than spots of grass at a Phish concert?  How many parishes are tormented week after week for the personal fulfillment of a few mediocre musicians?  How many Catholic associations are rife with gossip, petty politics, rivalries, and jealousies?  How many Catholic schools have become cliques of secular upper middle class families who don’t want their children to rub shoulders with riff raff? 

Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  – Matthew 3:9-10, 12

Advent reminds us that we worship a sovereign king.  Earthly kingdoms, domestic tyrannies, parish fiefdoms: all of these must give way before the Christ child.  For even though he will not trample a bruised reed or extinguish a smoldering wick, Christ will not quietly take a place with other gods in the pantheon of modern secular religiosity. The Sunday prior to Advent boldly proclaims Christ the king of the Universe.  He has not just come to save some people, a chosen people who are edified together in a remote little house of worship that doesn’t bother anyone.  No, Christ does not play nicely with idols or despots.  All nations shall come to him, and before him every knee must bow.   The bow he will break, the spear he will snap.  Earthly powers will crumble.  Christ’s reign, his authority is universal, encompassing all things so that he can redeem all things on the last day. 

The Woman

Perhaps the most critical and promising Advent reflection for our time centers on the feminine.  We live in a time when Catholicism is portrayed by many as unfriendly toward women.  Women cannot be priests.  The Church teaches that abortion, contraception, and sterilization are wrong.  The progressive talking points speak of out of touch old men who are stuck in the Middle Ages and who don’t care about the rights and the freedom of women.  Pundits wistfully opine about the possibility of Pope Francis modernizing the Church so that women can finally find equality within its walls.

But Advent reminds us that the Church’s vision and tradition present a far more exalted view of women, one that would never demean women so much as to try to make men their equals.  What man could possibly equal the glory and splendor of our lady?  Not one.  Men can only earnestly pray for the purity, the fidelity, the charity of such a woman! 

The weeks of Advent encourage us to reflect on Mary’s singular and most important role in our salvation and on the incredible virtue that she possessed.  Unlike any other human person, she was freed from sin from the moment of her birth, a grace we celebrate during the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th.  Thus invited by God to be the flesh he would assume, she freely accepted his will without hesitation.  Where so many prophets stuttered and shook, questioned and protested, fled and rebelled, Mary resolutely and firmly and quietly agreed: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”  If only more men could be her equal!

And then off to Elizabeth – pregnant.  Traveling.  Rumors flying.  She greets her cousin.  It is the most well-known and celebrated encounter of two women in human history.  Thousands of paintings depict it – the joy on their faces, the kinship, the anticipation.  These women are radiant –they are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Prayer flows from their lips as naturally as breath.  “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”  After the “Our Father” (the prayer that comes from the mouth of God) this prayer, the Magnificat, is most prized of the Church.  It is prayed every evening by men and women across the world.  It has been sung millions of times according to a thousand different settings.  There is no more hopeful and beautiful expression of faith known to the Church than this, our Blessed Mother’s song.

The visitation is also an unequaled celebration of motherhood and feminine authority and power.  These two women prepare to do what no man will ever do: give birth to a “Voice crying out in the wilderness,” give birth to the Son of God.  How did the ground not tremble to hold them?  How did the sky not give way?  They are giants, they are mighty, they are the epitome of human flourishing and life.

Advent allows us to reflect on the glory of motherhood.  To celebrate the profound capacity that women have to bring forth life.  Even among those who are not able to conceive or who are not called to bear earthly children, there is in the feminine a unique capacity to bring forth life.  Women build community, women create the home, women weave the matrix of society, women shape the identity of a people.  This is certainly the case for the followers of Christ.  Women form the bookends of the Gospel: they come forward with heroic strength and virtue to welcome Christ into this world, and they come forward again with heroic strength and virtue to accompany Christ in his dying and rising to new life.  They greet his arrival and they bid him farewell.  They sustain him during his ministry by providing shelter, food, and clothing.  They swaddle him when he is a baby and wrap him in burial garments when he is a man.  They are the matrix of the Gospel, the glue that hold the twelve together, that remind them who they are and who Christ is and why he came.

Advent reminds us that women possess a deep awareness of the divine that wise men like St. Joseph cherish and honor.  Women seem to be more capable of understanding Christ on a visceral level, of intuiting the promptings of his Spirit.  And perhaps this is because of the passion at work in their bodies, the dying and rising that patterns their lives.  Men must be taught how to bleed, and even then they are slow to learn.

If the Church celebrated Advent properly, if she reflected on Our Lady with the honor she is due, it would be clear that the priesthood does awkwardly what Mary does with grace.  There is nothing inferior about a woman that makes her incapable of being a priest.  It seems more likely that it is the inferiority of the man that leads him to be slaughtered on behalf of the body, the Church, the bride of Christ, our mother.  We are sustained by priests as we are sustained by the sacraments – but these are partial and imperfect measures to help us encounter Christ incarnate in a world not yet fully redeemed.  St. Paul says that we groan in labor pains – that all creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God. 

Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!  Fill us with Advent hope, expectation, and joy. 

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