Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us.
Pope Benedict XVI)
For a long time now, Advent has been my favorite liturgical season. The readings and prayers of the liturgy are evocative and rich. The characters who played such a unique role in preparing for the Messiah – Isaiah the Prophet, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary – assume their rightful place on the liturgical stage. The purple vestments speak of longing and the Advent wreath illustrates the growing nearness of the Light of the World. In short, Advent provides the believer with an oasis of sanity and peace in the midst of the arid desert known as the “holiday season.”
Right off the bat, the Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent set the theme: we are preparing for the coming of Christ – at Christmas and, as the early days of Advent emphasize, at the end of time. They remind us that our time here on earth is limited, that it’s passing quickly, and that we need to be prepared to meet the Lord any day now.
Isaiah, speaking on behalf of the people, says this to the Lord: “Would that you might meet us in doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold you are angry and we are sinful. All of us have become like unclean people. We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.”
That’s pretty dire, pretty clear, isn’t it? If you’ve had to rake leaves from your yard recently you know exactly what Isaiah means. In the sight of God, we are like withered leaves, blown around helter-skelter by the harsh, variable winds of our world. Our earthly existence is fragile, passing and transient.
And then in St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Be watchful, be alert, you do not know when the time will come . . . May the Lord of the house not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”
We have to be ready, always, on any day, at any moment, for the appearance of Christ when he will come to judge the living and the dead, a judgment that includes you and me. Think about it: Are you ready to meet the Lord? Are you ready to give an account of yourself? Will you do so confidently or shaking in your boots with trepidation and fear?
If Advent is a time of preparation, then – for the end of the world and the Birth of Christ at Christmas – what are the spiritual tools we use to achieve our goal? Here are some suggestions.
The first is to spend some time in silence and prayer. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the importance of silence as a tool for spiritual growth, peace of mind and tranquility. Or as Pope Benedict mentions in the quote cited above, “Advent invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence,” that is, the presence of God. A few moments each day spent in personal prayer and silence are also an effective antidote to the insane activity and incessant noise of our culture today. Now there’s a good, practical Advent resolution – turn off the electronics for a few moments and listen to God.
The second suggestion is to be more tuned-in to the Word of God. As mentioned above, during Advent the readings are especially beautiful. One possibility: When you’re going to Church for Sunday Mass, get there a few minutes early and look at the readings of the day. What do they say to you? What would you preach about today? Or in the privacy of your home, read the Word of God and think about its meaning for you. What is the Lord saying to you at this time in your life? There are, now, plenty of on-line resources to assist you in finding and meditating upon the Advent readings.
A third way of helping Advent to be fruitful is the worthy reception of the sacraments, especially Holy Mass and Confession. Is it possible for you to attend at least one weekday Mass during the season? The Holy Eucharist is so important for Catholics. And of course making a good Confession before Christmas is an excellent way to “prepare the way of the Lord,” especially if it’s been a long time since you’ve done so. Confession can change your life, give you freedom, and inspire you to make a new beginning.
And finally, during Advent try to do some extra, particular work of charity or kindness, for there too, we encounter Christ. Visit a friend in a nursing home; check-in on someone who recently lost a loved one; take a gift basket to a refugee family in your neighborhood; be reconciled to an estranged former friend or relative; give a donation to a worthy charity. You get the idea.
In the next few weeks you’ll frequently hear about the “number of shopping days till Christmas.” Really, for a committed disciple of Christ, that’s not the most important question. A much better question is: “How many praying days till Christmas?” Advent is a wonderful gift. Let’s unwrap it and use it well.