It has now been a number of years since I last spent Christmas at home. It is such a special time for everyone. Going to bed on Christmas Eve, having trouble getting to sleep, waking up so excited, the magic of seeing the tree lit up with presents strewn about beneath it, wearing your pajamas, being together with loved ones...
Christmas in the seminary is beautiful too- the decorations start going up around the house in the days just before Christmas, there is a strong liturgical awareness which fosters a conscientious spiritual preparation, the special Christmas Eve dinner that we have together in our religious family, and then, on the feast of the Epiphany in January, the exchange of gifts.
As the years have gone by, I have noticed more acutely the absence of the external elements to which I became accustomed growing up at home. There were times when the Advent preparation became more of a question mark for me, an unknown. It has invariably been an externally busy time (#BlackFriday) in which I hear much about "preparing spiritually" to celebrate the Lord's birth. That oft-cited "spiritual preparation" was often reduced to poetry in the background of the bustling and rapidly-passing days and weeks of Advent. This year I asked myself, what are we supposed to do during Advent to actually, in fact, prepare for Christmas? What is Advent supposed to be for us? What is Christmas supposed to be beneath the surface of those traditional, cozy external elements?
This is the first year that I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours during Advent and it shed lots of light on these questions of mine. I was really impacted by how hopeful the Advent liturgy is. "Come and save us, Savior of the world! Come Lord, do not delay. I will come to save you." Countless such expressions are present throughout the season's liturgy. It made me think and reflect on hope: it reminded me that I am a sinner; I am the one, today, who needs a savior; it reminds me that our savior was born 2000 years ago; it reminds me that our savior will come again in glory at the end of time to call the just, his friends, to their eternal reward. As the Jews of the Old Testament looked forward to the coming of their savior, so, too, we look forward to our Lord's coming again. So, I believe that Advent is to be an exercise of hope, and hope founded on our Savior's promises, rather than the merely superficial expectation and preparation of a party. There is always that eschatological dimension which recalls that we live in the Christian era, namely, the time of the Church, situated between the life of the savior, his incarnation, birth, death, and resurrection, and his definitive second coming at the end of the world.
nativity scene here at the seminary
So, what is the Advent message? Hope! Dare to hope. I was speaking to a priest recently who shared with me that he was cautiously optimistic about some upcoming changes. With human things, a "cautious optimism" is often the best we can muster. The hard knocks of life tend to teach us this. But with God, as one of the newly ordained Legionary priests recently said in the homily at his first Mass, we frequently find that we have hoped for too little. Allow yourself to hope! Challenge yourself to hope! How? Perspective: like Simeon in the temple, who rejoiced when he met the infant savior in Mary's arms, we too must remember that reality goes far beyond this world, beyond our problems here and now, beyond struggle, misunderstanding, poverty, hunger... yes, even beyond death. Eternity awaits and our savior will come again to claim those who have waited for him.
Christmas. Exercise hope. Contemplate the mystery, the incarnation, God coming to us like this... Then reflect on how he speaks to us today- indeed, he speaks to us still! But in a world of so much movement, when so many things in our lives are screaming for attention, we really need to carve out time for silence. In the Old Testament, God spoke to Elijah in the gentle breeze that followed the earthquake. To be sure, we do not need to wait for earthquakes, but creating prayer time, fighting to defend it, and then actually spending that time with God is absolutely essential.
God will speak to us. We are truly desperate for him, for our savior. He has come to us. We have every reason to hope!
nativity scene in St. Peter's Square