We hear it everywhere: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Ah, but for us the lavender candles and clothes and the tone of the prayers remind us it’s not Christmas yet … tis Advent we’re experiencing. How many Advent seasons have you experienced? Advent is one of the times that comes unbidden each year, whether we are ready or not…. Like your birthday. Advent is that unchangeable season when the same concepts, the same words rise over and over again in our liturgies, year after year, challenging our hearts, plaguing our minds, pricking our consciences. For each of us, the theme of each year’s Advent can vary depending on our outlook, our mood, our health, the state of our finances; whether we get into the flow of the liturgy of the season or are hounded by commercialism; whether we’re around children or persons nearing the Great Advent of their lives.
One overriding theme of Advent is “waiting.” And who hasn’t waited? When we are little children, we waited for Santa Claus. When we were novices, we waited for the mail from family and friends that had accumulated in Mother’s office during the days of Advent. Advent comes, year after year, relentlessly and throughout life, with its message of hope and faith, joy and love; prophecy, promise, fulfilment and faith; prophets, shepherds the Virgin Mary, and the Magi… Stirring our hearts with the hope of promise one more time. One author poetically puts it this way: “Hope is hearing the melody of the future; faith is dancing to it today.” The gift of Advent is the time to “hum hope as we move into sync with the rhythm set for us by the Lord of the Dance.”
Here in the monastery we pay special attention to the vigil services that take place each Saturday evening during Advent. “Vigil” means to keep awake, to be watchful. The monastic liturgy prays: “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Do you really believe that? We spend our days, our lives, as individuals, community and as a nation waiting to be saved by the overshadowing power of the Most High – the power of goodness that each one of us can spread, or dampen, in our environment.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel for this first Sunday of Advent 2018 to “Be vigilant at all times; do not grow drowsy from the anxieties of your life.” The evangelist Luke knew that when events don’t happen as quickly as expected, people tend to forget and stop doing the things they ought to do.
The Church in the liturgy reminds us of the alertness and preparation needed for the four-fold coming of Jesus. His coming into our lives not only at the celebration of His incarnation at Christmas but also in His active presence in our lives at all times, at the moment of our death, and in his final coming at the end of the world. So, do you get the message: Seize the opportunities of the present moment, prepare for Christmas, prepare for death. We do not like to think about it but we know that we are travelers on a one-way trip to eternity. Jesus reminds us of this, not to teach us a lesson on sneakiness, but to remind us to “Be vigilant… so you are not caught by surprise. Pray that you have strength to stand before the Son of Man.” We need to be prepared for the kingdom of God whenever and wherever it breaks through the barriers of our everyday challenging us, embracing us.
So, if we really are on a one-way trip to eternity, what are we doing to prepare? We can’t act like every day is a lazy Thanksgiving, turkey-filled afternoon. No, we have to be alert! Move around – take in the scene – notice who is coming and going – who needs help, who needs a shoulder to cry on or a little hand-holding, who needs a meal, who is waiting in a nursing home for a chatty visit, who needs a smile or a prayer.
Act like you are heading to a foreign country for an extended stay. Wouldn’t you bone up on the culture, the customs, the currency, the climate? So what of your soul? We need Advent to prepare us, we need Advent to ready our hearts. We need to be ready at all times for a promised eternity in the company of the Most High.
Most of us growing up played “Hide and Seek.” The point of the game was to hide oneself so well that the leader could not find you. The secret of the game was when “it” was counting down to 1, we scrambled to the best place we could find to avoid being discovered and caught. With excitement we heard the words, “Ready or not — here I come!” That’s what Jesus is saying to us and to the world, “Ready or not — here I come.” As in the game, but this is not a game, there is “counting” and an “accounting” going on right now. It is a countdown before God’s appearance to each of us and in His second coming.
There are no magic Advent practices to prepare for Christmas other than the classic Christian exercises: works of charity, prayer, self-sacrifice, and penance. The Mass readings this week focused on the end time. If they did not shake you up enough, the Advent gospels will perk up your ears and attention: “Be vigilant! Stay awake! Don’t grow careless and don’t give up!
In chapter 67 of his Rule Benedict reminds us of the mutuality of prayers for our journey: the travelers will ask for a blessing and the home community will always remember those on a journey in daily prayer. Advent is a journey we take every year from the warning to “be vigilant” to the glorious memorial celebration of Jesus’ birth. Let’s heed the words of Benedict and be prayerfully conscious of each other on our individual and our communal Advent journey. We know this: God is in charge and God can be trusted. Just “Be vigilant – and Watch!
May I suggest an Advent project to help keep us keep vigilant? Every morning when you awaken, pray, “Lord, show me someone today with whom I may share your love, mercy and forgiveness. And each night when you go to bed, ask yourself, “Where have I found Christ today?” The answer will be God’s Advent gift to you that day. By being alert and watchful we will receive an extra gift: Christ himself. I am reminded of a saying attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas: “Without God, I can’t. Without me, God! won’t.”