Saturday, December 15, 2007

Advent Thoughts

As you know, the true liturgical season of Christmas starts on Christmas, not ends with it. What most of society considers to be the Christmas Season, is in fact the Season of Advent.

So with all the “stuff” of Christmas surrounding us: the parties, the decorations, the music, the “happy holidays”, the shopping… what’s a Catholic to do? Do we ignore “the world” and ascetically hold out from the Christmas “busy-ness” that buzzes around us?

That’s not likely unless you live in a cloister. The world has co-opted the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas as its Christmas Season (the malls begin a little earlier), and let’s face it, most of us Catholics are shopping, partying, and decorating along with the rest of the world.

However, there’s nothing keeping us from keeping an “inner Advent”. The Advent Season is, liturgically, a time of preparation. The traditional means of preparation for the Church is prayer and fasting. And there’s nothing keeping us (most of us) from doing just that.

When I was kid (yes, in the “pre-Vatican II days”) I remember well that we were asked to give up something for Advent. One doesn’t hear much admonition to do that anymore. But whether we hear about it or not, it’s still a venerable and recommended practice.

In past years I tried to “fight back” against the world by refusing to put up a tree (or at least decorate it) until “the night before Christmas (that’s the traditional way). I tried to ignore the holiday buzz, avoided the malls, avoided saying “Merry Christmas”, and do whatever I could to at least keep some sort of an “exterior Advent”.

This year I gave up the fight. The tree was up in our house just after Thanksgiving. Christmas CD’s started playing. Lights were up all over the house. “Christmasy” movies were rented, etc.

However, this is probably my best personal Advent in a long time simply because I’ve decided to “return to my roots” and do exactly what the Church has said to do: fast and pray.

Now, I’m a wimp when it comes to real fasting, so I just decided to give up a few things (sweets – especially donuts, fried stuff, red meat, and beer). No real hunger, but just enough self-denial to remind me its Advent. And as you can see, it’s stuff I (and probably you, too) should do without anyway. (Well I’ll have to think about the beer.)

I’ve also put more emphasis on praying with the family (a nightly rosary or some other prayers and readings). Again, stuff we should be doing anyway.

The wisdom of the Church never ceases to amaze me. Even these terribly small acts of prayer and mortification (if I can even call it that!) have given me a certain something this Advent Season that I haven’t experienced in a long time, if ever.

I call it a “certain something” because I don’t have a name for it. It’s not joy or peace or any cliché sort of feeling. My real world troubles aren’t any lighter. The financial pressures of expecting an 11th child are more overwhelming than ever.

I also hurt my back a few weeks ago (just in time for Advent) and have been moving about in pain for awhile. The irony of the back injury is that it, of course, is coinciding with the busiest time of year for us at our store – where I am the primary employee as well as the owner.

I could go on, but I find my most frequent conversation with God is “Okay, Lord, what do you have in mind NOW?” I would call it a “broken record”, but I doubt there are very many folks out there in the Ipod generation who would even know what a “broken record” is.

So what is the “certain something”? Here I do the “prayer and fasting” thing and the troubles pile on. What’s up with that? I’ll just call it a certain peace that comes from knowing that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing regardless of the feelings that one may or may not have. (In my case it’s the “not have”.)

Also, I’ve noticed that there is an absence of despair or at least the temptation to it. I personally have many reasons to despair or at least descend into a chronic state of exacerbation. Perhaps it’s just a merciful numbness to the difficulties that swirl around me.

No matter. Thanks to the wisdom of the Church, my parents, and the Benedictine Sisters of yesteryear who imparted it to me, I know what is TRUE, and that is the greatest gift of all! Truth is the real source of peace and the original gift of Christmas.

I also have, for the first time in my life, an expanded understanding of Christmas. It’s the Church’s teaching, but I’m just getting it. (I’m 51, so it’s never too late for anyone to learn new stuff.) Here’s what I mean.

In the past I would read the readings and prayers and Advent admonitions that led up to Christmas with a certain attempt to be “thankful” for Christ’s coming. But to be honest I could never quite get “into it”. I kept trying to recreate the first Christmas in my mind and “get in the mood” as they say.

This year, I am beginning to understand Christmas the way the Church understands it: we celebrate the First Coming of Christ as a preparation and reminder of His Second. The real thing here is to “get ready”, to light the candles and turn the lights on not to just remember some stable scene that happened two millennia ago, but to get ready and be ready for Him who is coming again, and coming “like a thief in the night”.

We’re not just talking “end of the world” stuff or some sort of “Apocalypse Now”. We’re talking the end of “your world”, of “my world”. It’s called Death. Jesus is coming for us. It could be tonight, tomorrow, in the next 2 seconds for that matter. But He’s coming. Keep you lights on….and give up something while you’re waiting.

Mary Christmas

Tim Rohr
December 15, 2007
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