With the Christmas holiday and holyday less than a month away, many will identify with the verse in today’s Gospel: “beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” Sadly the hubbub and expectations of our cultural celebration of Christmas can allow this special time to degenerate into a trap of material expectations and of anxiety. The shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the cards, the decorating, the parties, the travel, can become a trap of sorts when we lose the spiritual dimension of Christmas. As someone said, the season of Advent we begin today is not so much about preparing for Christmas day to come as preparing for Christ to come.
I love the traditions of this time of year – lights, special music and more. Gift giving is a beautiful expression of our love and concern for others. But the greatest gift we need to prepare for is the coming of Christ in time and at the end of time out of love for the salvation of souls, our own and others. Take time these busy days to reflect a moment on the truth that for Joseph and Mary preparing for the first Christmas meant a rugged pilgrimage to Bethlehem and lodging in a stable in order to do the Father’s will.
The Church delays decorating with red and gold or adding lights and glitter for a purpose. In Advent each of us has the opportunity to go on pilgrimage in anticipation of remembering Christ’s birth and in anticipation of when he comes again. That day Jesus talked about in Luke’s gospel is not the celebration of his birthday, but the Day of Judgment which will come to each of us and to the world. We also have the opportunity to re-acknowledge his coming to us each day especially in the Holy Eucharist. The Gospel of Luke sets forth clearly: “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.” What a humbling thought that we will stand before the Son of Man and give an accounting not of how well we have shopped and celebrated this year but of how well we have lived and loved all our years.
There is one benefit from the consumer focus of this time of year; it offers us the challenge to come to grips with what is most important or rather who is. To prepare spiritually for December 25 and for the coming of the Lord in all his manifestations on our Advent pilgrimage we need to watch, we need to pray and we need to grow in holiness.
To watch means to take the time to look around us and at ourselves and see what is really going on. Are we running at another’s pace or our own? Do we notice God’s presence in our lives or do we relegate him to a task? Do we see each day as a gift to be used well or a block of time to be scheduled. Do we see others as fellow members of God’s family or an obstacle to or vehicle for getting what we want? We need to watch for what is directing our lives every day and make amends if necessary.
To be prepared for the coming of Christ we also need to pray. Special prayers for the season such as lighting candles on the advent wreath are helpful because they focus us on the spiritual dimension of whose we are. We can pray less formally as well. Prayer is referencing our lives and world back to God, lifting our hearts beyond the pressures to the One before whom we will stand.
A little boy said his night prayer. He thanked God for his mommy and daddy, his grandparents and then stopped. “What about your brothers and sisters,” his mother asked him, knowing that he had been fighting with them all day. He shook his head and said, “I don’t do kids.” Can we pray for our brothers and sisters especially the ones that are the hardest to love?
Advent offers us the opportunity especially through confession to once again experience the healing touch of Christ and once renewed experience the hope that comes in Christ. We need to pray for forgiveness and for forgiving hearts. Christ’s mercy is always there for those who honestly own up. It is freeing and hope giving.
And to prepare for the coming of Christ we need to grow in holiness, which means to strive to better live virtuous lives. Recall the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; how well do we exercise them each day. Recall the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. How well we exercise them is often reflected in little ways. How patiently do we wait in line, take the time to listen to someone at home who needs to talk, share our blessings with those in need, radiate joy in the midst of confusion, resist the inevitable temptations our human weakness brings forth, and in a hostile culture how often and well do we defend the Church and Christ’s teaching. In short, how well do we keep Christ in Christmas?
The story is told of two families who were arguing vehemently over some land they both claimed. They asked a rabbi to settle their dispute. One said that though they had never used it, they had received the land as an inheritance. They had the legal papers to prove it. The other family described how they had lived on and worked the land for years. They didn’t have documents but their calluses and sore backs, the harvest and produce of the land proved it. The rabbi studied them. Then he knelt down and put his ear to the ground. Finally he stood up, looked at both families and said, “I had to listen to both of you and I had to listen to the land. The land has spoken. Neither of you owns the land you stand on. It is the land that owns you.” Who or what owns us? How we deal with the pressures and what we set as our priorities at Christmas time can tell the story. We need to grow in holiness to allow the light of Christ to guide us.
St. Paul wished the church in Thessalonica in our 2nd reading this comforting and thought provoking resolution: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.”
This can be a special Christmas, if we during our Advent pilgrimage these next few weeks watch, pray and grow in holiness. Come Lord Jesus.