Advent! These four weeks of spiritual preparation for the grand feast of Christmas. (Actually, we only have three weeks-and-one day of Advent this year!)
Let’s try to better understand the wisdom, the invitation of this Advent.
A couple months ago, a friend-of-a-friend back home in St. Louis wrote to ask if, during his upcoming visit to New York, I would celebrate the sacrament of marriage for him and his wife. This was a unique situation, he told me, in that he and his wife, both Catholics, were already happily married, very much in love, but that they had not been married in the Church. He was asking for the sacrament.
Why? “Well,” he explained, “as happy as we are, we do not feel whole. We recognize something big is missing in our marriage. We need God; we need the Church; we need the sacrament.”
I not only wanted to witness the sacrament; I wanted to give that couple honorary doctorates in theology! How perceptive they were!
Now, I bring this up because what that wise couple observed about their marriage describes what Advent is all about!
The world, culture, society, our country, our families, are not—to use his word—whole. Something is missing. We need some help from outside.
That’s sure a no-brainer when it comes to the world around us: war, threats of a nuclear attack, genocide, persecution, political viciousness, respected celebrities we trusted toppling almost daily, violent mass killings. Something is deeply wrong! Something—or Someone!—is missing.
But admit with me this is also true inside of us: our lives can be a mess, out of whack, no focus, purpose, or meaning. Oh, we might futilely seek that meaning by working harder, investing better, buying more, getting a trainer, or, sadly, by relying on drugs, alcohol, opioids, or sexual promiscuity.
As our neighbors in Brooklyn remark, “Forget about it!” We learn the hard way that these only make our lives more of a mess.
What I’m proposing is that Advent invites us to acknowledge this: Dear God, the world is a mess, and my own life is less than whole. Something—no, Someone—is missing. We—I—really need You.
Now, that’s hard, because we are part of a culture that chants, “Hey, I’m okay, you’re okay.”
Advent invites us to say, “I’m not okay, and neither are you.”
“Hey if it feels good, do it!”
“What you gotta do, you gotta do!”
“I gotta be me.”
Advent invites us rather to claim, “No, I gotta be Thee.”
So, Advent invites us to claim, “The world is a mess; my life has messed up parts; I am not whole.”
And...we don’t stop there...We also acknowledge that we need a rescuer, I need a helper, someone to intervene...and, in the vocabulary of believers, that means “I need a savior.”
I remember an Advent evening of recollection with a group from a Catholic student center on one of our campuses. The topic under discussion was, why did Christmas seem empty and inane to so many?
One young student observed, “Well, Christmas is the birthday of our savior. If you think you don’t need one, the birthday might as well be Jack Frost’s.”
She’s on to something...
So, Advent is the time we claim: “I need a savior! I’ll wait for that rescuer! I need help!”
Number of ways to do that:
Prayer: you say you don’t know how? Of course you do. We’ve just been rehearsing how to pray. “Dear God, my life and this world is a mess; I am not whole. I need help from beyond. I need a savior!” That’s a prayer right there!
Confession: I’m missing something, Lord; I’m not whole, I’ve made a mess, and here’s why: my sins. (Here’s a commercial for Advent Reconciliation Monday, December 18, with priests available for the sacrament from 4 to 8 p.m.)
Charity: A danger comes if we wallow in our messiness and get down and discouraged. This season invites us to share, love, remember, serve, forgive, help out, let people know we care for them.
I repeat this story on this first Sunday of Advent every year:
My first Advent here in New York was nine years ago. I fumed as I processed up the aisle here at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Mass, because I saw that the crib scene already up!
After Mass I said to Msgr. Ritchie, the rector, “What’s going on? It’s Advent. We don’t put the crib up until Christmas!”
“Well,” he replied, “fine, but, keep in mind that between now and Christmas over two million people will come here to St. Patrick’s. They’ll see candy canes, snowmen, reindeer, and Santa out there; shouldn’t they see the crib at least in here?”
“Besides,” he concluded. “Take a look. The crib is empty. Jesus is not there. He’ll arrive on Christmas. The manger scene waits.”
Advent invites us to look at the world and our lives as an empty crib awaiting a baby, who is our savior, the way, the truth, and the life.