A Spirituality of Advent
NOVEMBER 30, 2018
Advent is a time of preparation. It has many parallels to Lent: we don the purple, we suppress the Gloria (awaiting the angels to sing it again for the first time at Midnight Mass), and we are given weeks to allow the Holy Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive the Son of God. While Lent prepares us to receive him resurrected and glorified, we prepare now to meet him humble and needy. This is an invitation that goes out to all the world year after year. The liturgical seasons call us all back yet again. The great Benedictine liturgist Dom Virgil Michel (1890–1938) saw how we Christians need to repeat these liturgical times over and over. In fact, Michel wrote that committing ourselves each year to the movement of the Church’s calendar is
in harmony with our human nature . . . the liturgical cycle is repeated year after year, just as the divine sacrifice is repeated in the Church day after day. As we are unable to exhaust our capacity for the Divine in a day or a year, the Church of Christ, with the infinite patience and the tender love of her divine Founder, continues to present to us the divine means of living Christ, thereby truly fulfilling her mission of achieving the ever increasing plenitude of the Redeemer. It is for this reason that the recurring daily and annual cycles of the liturgy never grow old for those who enter into their participation with the understanding and love of their divine Head. Ancient as the hills, the liturgy is still ever new, it has ever a new store of the divine life to hold out to our grasp, and with the recurring years the realization of its meaning grows ever richer. (The Liturgy of the Church: According to the Roman Rite, 91–92)
The sacred events which these days celebrate may have occurred in history only once, but we mercurial mortals need to revisit them again and again in order to appropriate what we can of these infinite mysteries. We are the Church on pilgrimage and until we “get it right,” this Church will never tire of calling us back to continue to live out the mysteries of Christ in our own life.
Every action that Christ instituted for our salvation is transmitted to us liturgically so as to be appropriated by each of us mystically. Think of the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit when Our Lady began to give human life to the Christ Child. That same action is continued in the Epiclesis of the Mass when the priest’s hands “overshadow” the bread and the wine, which are then beginning to be transformed from that which was once natural and impersonal into a supernatural person. That Eucharistic action is performed solely for the sake of the sanctification of Christ’s Church — consecrated not simply to be adored but to be assimilated into the lives of each present. Again, this is key to understanding what we do Sunday after Sunday, season after season: the historical is transmitted by the liturgical for the sake of the mystical.
This is why Saint John Paul the Great saw in Advent a sign of the Church in any season. He pointed us to the two great sacraments of Christ’s incessant Presence: Reconciliation and the Most Holy Eucharist. Is this not what Bethlehem is all about? For here the enfleshed Lord reconciles sinful man to perfect God, becoming our living bridge between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity:
Nevertheless, it is certain that the Church of the new Advent, the Church that is continually preparing for the new coming of the Lord, must be the Church of the Eucharist and of Penance. Only when viewed in this spiritual aspect of her life and activity is she seen to be the Church of the divine mission, the Church in statu missionis, as the Second Vatican Council has shown her to be. (John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis §20)
As God’s chosen ones “on the way,” we must insist on the quiet of Advent. As a pilgrim people, it is too easy to get caught up in the stresses and demands of these days, as lovely as purchasing presents and decorating the house is. Can we use these four weeks of Advent to make four holy hours, to get to Confession at least once, daily Mass when possible? We must show the world that Christmas starts at Christmas and that the Lord himself asks us to use this time to purify our ears so we can hear him and to sit peacefully before a God who comes to us so humbly and quietly.
C.S. Lewis knew that this is precisely how God chooses to come to us. In one of his Screwtape Letters, those missives from a high-ranking demon below, Screwtape by name, to his nephew Wormwood above, the devils on earth are warned that there is something God refuses to use to woo us to his side. There is something that God thinks too unfair, too overwhelming of our free will, namely his absolute and irrefutable Presence. He thus calibrates his greatness to our smallness, measures his Absoluteness to our numerous contingencies: “the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo” (Screwtape Letters, no. 8). The Lord enters the world as courteously and as politely as he can; he will enter our souls as gentlemanly as he can: without force and without demands, but simply with a gift to be received only when we are ready.
To be ready, the Church offers us these days. These are the days that every human heart has longed for, the time every created soul awaits God in the flesh. The Catechism of the Catholic Church brings us into Advent by inviting us into the Jewish expectation of the Messiah as well as focusing our spiritual lives on Christ’s increasing and our decreasing:
When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (CCC 524)
To decrease demands that we first detect those places of our lives which do not want to receive the Christ Child. From which areas of our existence do we prefer to keep the Lord away? To decrease means not to obliterate ourselves, as if we were distractions or nuisances before the Father; it means to allow those selfish tendencies and disordered affections to be transformed as the Lord of all Life draws near. This is ultimately what makes a martyr like John the Baptist — not the bloody wounds, but the other-centered soul.
I would also invite you to think of four different activities marking the four weeks of Advent. Possibly,
- Praying a nightly rosary with family and friends; having that often uncomfortable conversation with loved ones and neighbors about “praying together”;
- Finding a “Giving Tree” and taking the time to find presents for needy children;
- Making a holy hour, allowing yourself to be at Bethlehem as that quiet God-made-flesh simply lies on the snowy white linen and asks you to offer yourself as he has done the same for you in this glorious Incarnation;
- Spending some extra time in spiritual reading, especially as regards Our Lady. What happened to Mary months and months ago was known only to her. She is the humble Tabernacle who housed our Lord until Christmas, when she let the rest of the world in on her cosmic secret: God has become a babe! The Annunciation (Lk 1:26–38) is the Gospel proclaimed most often throughout the liturgical year. Ponder and relish the exchange between Mary and Gabriel: What did she feel when God broke into her life’s plans this way? What did she understand was going to happen?
In particular, I would like to encourage each and everyone of you to purchase Fr. William Saunders’s new book, Celebrating a Merry Catholic Christmas: A Guide to the Customs and Feast Days of Advent and Christmas, which TAN Books out of Charlotte, NC, just released. It makes great spiritual reading and an equally excellent gift, especially for those who have left the Church but do not find Christmas particularly threatening.
Ignatius of Loyola had a great devotion to the Newborn Jesus and begged Our Lady to let him hold the Child in his arms. Ignatius even waited an entire year after his ordination in Florence to celebrate his first Mass in Rome. Why so? He waited so long in order to travel so as to meet the Lord in his hands for the first time directly over the boards of the original crib of Christ, which is still housed under a side altar in the Church of Maria Maggiore in Rome. Let us have that same devotion, to hold the Christ Child in all areas of our lives. God has come to earth because he loves us, and he loves us so much he continually offers us this season of Advent, the season of allowing us once again to enter into the quiet and peace of Bethlehem.