These past few days, as I have gathered fresh pine boughs and filled my outdoor pots, replacing the dried and withered flowers of the summer past, saving some of the boughs for my Advent wreath; I was called to reflect on the coming of Advent—a time of preparation to welcome our brother Jesus at Christmas. Advent calls us to slow down a bit—to consider what is most important in our lives. And in this month before Christmas, we might balk, protesting—“I have so much to do and you are asking me to slow down?” Yes, and if we do, reflecting on this great mystery, all that we do in preparation for Christmas will take on new meaning.
Advent is such a precious time—a gift that our Church gives us each year to prepare our spiritual selves. Our spiritual self is really our essence—our heart. It’s what makes each of us unique—without which, we wouldn’t really be much. During my years as a chaplain, I often did spirituality groups at the hospital and I would tell the participants, our spirituality is who we really are—made up of our values, what we hold as meaningful in life; what gets us out of bed every day—even what we would live and die for! So, when we think of preparing our spiritual selves, which really includes our physical and emotional components too, because that which makes us up as humans, can’t be divided; we are addressing the best that we have to offer.
Having just completed one Church year last Sunday, praising Jesus, who lived not as king above us, but as servant among us; we now today, have a new beginning with this first Sunday of Advent—whatever the last year in the Spirit has been—we can put that behind us because we are once again given a second chance. That is the wonder and blessing of our great God, who loves us so much and is always drawing us back.
The whole notion of expectant waiting is such a rich and life-giving concept. For those of you who have been blessed with physically carrying new life, the idea of pregnant expectation can be very meaningful this time of year. But whether or not one has actually carried physical life within; we have all grown the “life” of new ideas within, or made plans to renew our world through education and projects that benefit not only us, but the wider world. And, we know the joy of carrying such tasks to completion.
That is where we are in our Church calendar—expectantly awaiting the time when our God will be fully present in our midst—a phenomena that happens little by little our whole lives until it comes to completion at the end of our time here—at the end of our journey of love.
At Christmas, we remember that first wonderful coming of Jesus into humanity—each year Jesus becomes present anew if we allow it to happen. Jesus is always present but the full effect of Jesus among us only comes if we—each one of us, is willing to show Jesus to the world. We do this by making faith, hope, love, peace, justice, forgiveness and mercy flesh in our lives—by sharing these gifts with our world—with God’s people, God’s family. It is the same with the Eucharist, which we will soon celebrate—Jesus’ flesh and blood only becomes flesh and blood in our world if we allow him to do so through our lives of love and service. During the Prayer over the Gifts, which I will pray for us shortly; we acknowledge that our God expresses the Godhead through us—singing and dancing, speaking and writing, loving and creating.
Paul prays today that we will recognize that we are the work of God’s hands and when we do, the work of our hands will be beautiful. All the preparations to receive family and friends to our homes take on new meaning when we invite Jesus to be part. Our first reading from Isaiah today likens us to the clay in the potter’s hands and the artist shapes the clay into something beautiful. Our loving God is the potter and can shape us only if we are willing. We are called upon likewise in Mark’s Gospel to open our eyes in faith and see the ways that God is present and active in our lives. I often find that God is the gentle stirrings in my heart to do something—God comes again and again—never forcing us—just continually present—asking and waiting for each of us to respond.
We are also called upon today to open our hearts and our homes to God who comes to us daily both as stranger and friend. Who are the strangers/the friends/the acquaintances in our lives, knocking and needing to be let in/perhaps given a second chance? I personally think of the people who have hurt me, whom I have hurt in the past and ask, “Am I willing to move past the hurt, become a better person myself, and bring new life to these situations?” Sometimes we come to realize that there isn’t a lot we can do in some broken relationships, except be open to “new life”–new opportunities, should they happen. The times that each of us has each year to gather with family and friends gives us the potential to try again, listen with our hearts, not just our heads. When I think of those I have hurt; I can vow to be more sensitive going forward. All of this helps us to “prepare the way of our God to enter into our lives.
As one writer suggested when contemplating the words, “Prepare the way of our God,” we can recall the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to a strange land and finding no room at the inn. A kind innkeeper gives them a place to stay in a stable out back. Later, after Jesus was born, they traveled to another strange land, Egypt. They were basically, undocumented immigrants, much like those traveling to our country in present day, much like our forebears of another century.
This writer continues to suggest that we imagine for a moment, if this story had been different. How would it have been if the people of Egypt had been tired of strangers crossing their boarders, fearful of who they were and what they might do once here—if they would be a burden upon society? What if the Egyptians had built a wall to keep “such people” out? What if they routinely rounded people up and deported them? This would have left families split apart, children separated from their parents, wondering what had happened to them.
And further, suppose Joseph and Mary, under these conditions had made it into Egypt and one day, upon leaving the shelter of the workshop where he had been trying to eke out a living for Mary and Jesus, after fleeing the terror of those who wanted to kill his innocent son, Joseph, himself, was picked up by the authorities for not having the right documentation. Mary was at home awaiting his arrival, preparing their evening meal, caring for Jesus, who was probably only two or three at the time. When he didn’t arrive, she and Jesus went looking for him at the place where “illegals” are taken and she can’t find out anything about him. She is worried and frightened and doesn’t know how she and Jesus will survive. Jesus cries every night wondering where his Daddy has gone.
Listening to the stories that present day immigrants tell of fleeing the fighting and terror in their everyday lives; we can easily link the plight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to theirs.
The story of the Incarnation would have been quite different Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network says had it happened today and Mary and Joseph were from Mexico and traveled to the United States. Advent calls each of us, friends, to look at our world with largesse—be accepting of all people, trying to include all, be present in some way to all, seeing the possibility of ourselves in this situation, see all as equals, no greater, no less than ourselves, but one as God created us, as Jesus lived among us and showed us the way.
We are called upon today to accept the challenge to stay awake—to be alert for the times to bring life and hope to a world that is so badly needing these gifts and awaiting their arrival. We try here in small ways as a Church as we help with the monthly meals at the Catholic Worker, bring groceries each Sunday for the Winona Food Shelf, participate in home-delivered meals in February, give of our time to staff the Winona Warming Center for the homeless, give of our wealth in the collection basket each week to support justice needs around our city, nation and world, as well as what each of us do individually, separate from our church community. A reminder of the initiative of the Franciscan Water Group that I shared on the web for us to be aware of our water use and look for ways to save. We are presently in the 10 Days of Giving to restock the Winona Food Shelf—let’s remember to bring in non-perishable food items to help this worthy cause. Our board has agreed in addition to give a $300 donation to assist. Hope is paramount in Advent and that is perhaps why I so treasure this time of year—the new beginning—the chance for new life—the possibilities are endless, really.
This next month tends to be a busy time for all of us as we prepare for Christmas—and I would remind and encourage each of us to not let this beautiful season of Advent get passed over and rush head-long into Christmas and all the festivities. We wouldn’t think of having a big event and do none of the preparations. The same is true here for the season of Advent. Give yourself each day, even a small amount of time to be quiet with God—maybe when you are driving to work or elsewhere—turn off the radio—when you get stopped for a train, rather than being frustrated, quiet yourself for a few moments, get in touch with God who loves you so much— however you do that best and prepare your heart for the coming of this great gift among us—Emmanuel—God-With-Us!”