Advent Reflections

December 3: SimonMary Aihiokhai — and James Bretzke — December 10: David VonSchlichten — December 17: Francis Berna — December 24: Wilburn Stancil, and Jill Raitt.

Advent: A Prefiguration of the Parousia

While liturgical historians differ on the origins of the celebration of the Advent Season in the liturgical life of the church, evidence shows that Saint Perpetuus, sixth Bishop of Tours had already ordered the celebration of this season around 480 C.E. By 567 C.E. the regional Council of Tours decreed that local monks fast every day during the month of December, hence the name, the Fast of December or the Nativity Fast. What began within the Diocese of Tours soon spread throughout France via the decree of the First Council of Macon in 581 C.E. For those interested in liturgical history, the Advent Fast first began to be known as the Lent of Saint Martin (Quadragesima Sancti Martini – Forty Days of Saint Martin) because it began from November 11th the Feast Day of Saint Martin of Tours and ended on the eve of Christmas..

Today, Advent Season is celebrated among many of the Christian churches. For many of these churches like the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans (Episcopalians), and Lutherans, Advent Fast has either been relaxed or completely abolished. However, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches still observe the Advent fast. During Advent Season, many churches have different customs like the laying of the Advent Wreath, the lighting of the Advent candles, gathering for Advent vespers, and so on. It is a time of intense prayers filled with a sense of great expectation and hope.

From a surface level, it might seem that Advent Season is counter ecological. The period of Advent also marks Fall season in the west. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Advent Season is also the time of the dry season, which is characterized by the Harmattan season. This is the period when the dusty easterly winds from the Saharan Desert blows through the tropical region of West Africa. Here in the west, Advent is marked by the yellowing of leaves and their gradual shedding in preparation for the harsh season of Winter. It is a period of gathering of food by animals and for some, it is the fattening season as they prepare for the cold and long nights of Winter. Where is life in all these, one may be tempted to ask?

The season of Advent points to the gift of life. This gift interrupts the monotony of our world. Tempted to see death around us, Advent points to the saturated icon of divine life that makes its way through the drudgery existence we are faced with in our world. God becomes one like us in our own delicate state of existence. Christians sing with expectant hope a song that points to our covenantal hope – O Come O Come Emmanuel! The God who is with us in the beginning of time has chosen to become one of us by taking on that which makes us humans, flesh and blood. Our song is a prayer of faith in a God who is the source of all things. It is a prayer of hope for that which God has promised us if we choose to follow in God’s path “I will be your God and you shall be my people” (Ex. 6:7). It is a prayer of charity because that which we shall receive, we are expected to share with those we encounter in our world.

Our world is in need of a new vision that is life-affirming. Of recent, we have been faced with one natural disaster after another. We have seen the rise of nativist and belligerent ideologies and leaders who seek a world that is hateful. Rather than building bridges of love and friendship, many in our world are today clamoring for walls of hatred. Who suffers? The voiceless amongst us. Muslims communities are being systematically driven-out from their ancestral homelands in Myanmar. Hindu nationalists in India are calling for a Hindu state that denies the rights of non-Hindus. Many in the United States of America are calling for a return to the old order where the system favored only whites. Many of those advocating for this are themselves Christians. This begs the question; how does the gift of Advent speak to us who profess the Christian faith?

In the words of Jesus, we find the purpose of God’s gift to us during this Advent Season; “…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Rather than despair as we attempt to focus on how to transform our world for the better, let us not forget that Advent is a time when God gifts us with God’s own iconic self. Advent is a time for a radical commitment to be renewed by the gift of life and also a commitment to become the source of life to our world. As we joyfully await the celebration of Christmas, let us not forget that Christmas means nothing unless we bring along to the festive table, those who have no food, the homeless, the voiceless, the marginalized, refugees, migrants and all who suffer injustice in our world. We are called to join hands together as one family singing the song of faith, hope, and charity; O Come! O Come! Emmanuel.
SimonMary Aihiokhai, University of Portland

_____________________

Those Were the Days: Putting Christ Back Into Christmas Christians

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.”
(Is 64:2)

What might these words mean for us this year? Every Advent, as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and find ourselves busily moving towards Christmas it is a time of many, many feelings for most of us. Nostalgia is certainly among these—along with stress, anxiety, hope and joy.

The First Reading from Third Isaiah we have just heard touches on some of these more difficult nostalgic refrains—out of tune with treasured Christmas Carols such as “We Three Kings” or “Silent Night.” Instead, we hear a jarring note that perhaps we should like to join our voices to in a lament against God: “Why are these terrible things happening to us?” And “When are you going to get off your throne-on-high and come smite these evil-doers who are getting away literally with murder—or worse?!”

For myself, having survived enough Advents that when I hear speak “of old” I more or less automatically recall my own youth. I was raised in the “Leave It to Beaver” generation, when everything seemed better—clearer, more pure, settled, peaceful, hopeful—in short, seemingly at first glance far better than this year’s Advent when the daily news and social media seems to throw before us either another crisis or scandal.

So I can resonate with both the desire to go back to some sort of Golden Age that Archie and Edith Bunker whose opening, and marginally melodic rendition of “Those Were the Days” began each episode of the popular 1970’s sitcom “All in the Family”:
“… And you knew who you were then
Girls were girls, and men were men
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again
Didn't need no welfare state
Everybody pulled his weight
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great Those were the days!”

I imagine also that many of us of a certain age like Edith and Archie would like to echo the Prophet Isaiah’s cry that God would come down with shock and awe to rend the heavens with the mountains quaking before you, to Make Everything Great Again for us. This is a prayer that is quite literally millennia old.

So why doesn’t God answer us in the way we seem to want? Maybe this Advent as we prepare to welcome God’s Son who became human for us we could probe both that question and answer a bit more. Isaiah for his part suggests one partial reason:

Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.

I say this is only a partial answer though. Another theme that runs through both the Old and New Testament is that God’s ways are not like our ways. And this means I think that we have to look at God’s “anger” in a more god-like manner. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is only offended or made angry by our sins to the extent that we hurt others or ourselves. For again, as Isaiah reminds us

O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.

Those of you who are parents I think would say “Amen” to both Isaiah and Thomas Aquinas here. In the Gospel Jesus shifts the metaphor to a watchman:

"Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.”

So this Advent what in particular should we be “watchful” and “alert” for? If we look to the shopping malls for our answer then it might be not to miss any of the fantastic sales and great offers. Now I know that this would be the place for me to launch into a “Put Christ back into Christmas” message.

But to celebrate Christmas joyfully I do think that special presents and decorations, cards and carols all can, and do often, help. But what helps even more is to reflect a bit more deeply on what Jesus keeps telling us throughout his public ministry. If we do that better than more than putting Christ back into Christmas, we’d be focusing on putting Christ back into Christians.

How might we do this then? Last Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King, which ends the Church’s liturgical calendar. The Gospel we heard gave us an excellent positive answer I think to that question:

For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.'

So instead of trying to find our way back to some mythical age when “our old LaSalle ran great” we can work together to move forward so that the Lord cannot lament a response that defensively asks

Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?'

Because the key to putting Christ back both in Christmas and in us Christians is to remember Jesus’ words that

'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.'

And this indeed will Bless our Advent and Make Our Christmas Truly Great Again!
James Bretzke, SJ, Boston College

_____________________

"All Manner of Thing Shall Be Well"

Julian of Norwich lived during the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Papal Schism, yet dominating the visions she received from God was this assurance from Christ: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Hope amid horror.

Isaiah 40:1-11 also offers hope for people heartbroken. Jerusalem and the Temple had been demolished. Loved ones had been killed or taken into exile. People needed hope. And Isaiah 40 presents that. Comfort, give comfort. Prepare a way for God. God is coming back to you. The Advent. Better times are coming; get ready.

One of our central jobs as the Church is to be a persistent voice of audacious hope crying out in a desert that often howls with the winds of despair and cynicism. Hope trumps despair.

Now, being proclaimers of hope in the desert does not mean being in denial about the world’s pain. We are not to ignore or minimize suffering. It is obvious when you read Revelations of Divine Love that Julian was no stranger to the misery. Similarly, the book of Isaiah is frank about the world’s ignominy. And Jesus certainly knew suffering, this man who lived in poverty and touched lepers and was abandoned by his friends and was slapped across the face and whipped across the back and nailed to a tree. When someone comes to you or me with her suffering, we are not to dismiss or trivialize it. “There, there, everything will be all right.” No, when suffering stands before us, we take it seriously. When a person comes to you bearing grief, don’t toss it aside. Listen. Take it seriously. Let that person sob, rant, stare into space.

The world’s pain is real. It’s just that, as Christians, we don’t stop there. We take seriously the sound and fury, but then we offer the all-signifying hope. Yes, we live in fear of gun violence and terrorism and opioid addiction and nuclear attack and changing climate and sexual assault. We don’t take any of that lightly, but we also embody hope.

How do we do that? How do we proclaim hope to a howling, arid desert of despair? How do we declare that all manner of thing shall be well without it sounding like we are out of touch with the plagues and exiles and wars that threaten to devour us?

One way is by doing whatever good we can in the face of the bad. You want hope? Be the hope. God gives us the power. We are to be the person who is polite even in the face of rudeness. We are to be compassionate even in the face of hostility. We are to be accepting of all types of people even in the face of racism, sexism and Islamophobia. We are to be generous even in the face of greed. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t protect ourselves or that we should be doormats. I mean that our focus should be on being that comforting, protective, encouraging voice in a world that frequently tells us we should be cynical, prejudiced, cold, judgmental, self-righteous, greedy.

Every person you and I meet, every single one, is loved by God, made in God’s image. And every person we meet is struggling with something. That struggle doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but being aware of the struggle helps us to respond with compassionate hope, instead of judgment, condemnation, self-righteousness. What can we do or say that is hopeful? Not naïve, but hopeful? Theoptimistic? An email, a gift, a visit, a phone call, a donation? How can we be proclaimers of the brilliant hope of Advent?
David von Schlichten, SetonHill University

_____________________

"A Joyful Visit"

The lectionary readings for this “Joyful Sunday” accent the work of the Holy Spirit bringing a new age, inspiring John the Baptist, and encouraging us with the promise of God’s fidelity, I wish to turn to other stories of the Spirit.  I want to look at the stories of two women, graced with the Spirit, who trusted in God’s word.

               As Christmas visits begin – office parties, open houses, family gatherings – it seems fitting to turn to the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, particularly as the visit each other.  The visit has no practical purpose, perhaps to the dismay of our very efficient cultural expectations.  Mary leaves before the birth of John.  She leaves before she could be of any real help!  It is a visit, however, for the women to speak of God at work in their lives.

               As “old and barren” Elizabeth appears to have been forgotten by God; some would suggest “cursed.”  She stays faithful, however, to her priest husband, no doubt puzzled by his sudden silence.  With faith she allows God to do what God wanted to do in them.

               The “mystic Elizabeth” can see.  Upon Mary’s arrival she exclaims, “How is it that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”  She knows this in her body, in her flesh where God is at work.  And, as her son John would point to Christ, so Elizabeth points to Mary, “Blessed is she who trusted.” 

               Elizabeth, too, trusts.  In her husband’s silence, she finds a voice, “He will be called John.”  While challenged by the structures of religious and social power, she stands firm.  Her young relative, Mary, also has a voice.  In her canticle Mary speaks as the prophet of God’s justice.  She sings of God’s amazing power and voices her confidence in God’s amazing deeds, past and present.

               This year, as we in the United States and parts of Europe hear voices announcing the threat of immigrants, we do well to ponder that image of Mary, patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe.  In this appearance the Virgin Mother gives prophetic voice to the native, Juan Diego.

               Guadalupe speaks to the deepest recesses of the human soul.  The mother captures the dynamic of “Gaudium et spes” – the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age…”  In requesting a church, Our Lady of Guadalupe longs for a place where people will see her Mother’s heart.  “Here I will see their tears; I will console them and they will be at peace.”

               The appearance of Mary at Tepeyac challenges structures of religious and social power.  Yet, this Mary does not threaten calamity, demand a certain prayer, or confirm some theological claim.  Our Lady of Guadalupe promises only to listen, offering compassion and consolation. “Am I not your mother?”  Perhaps this was the really “useful” dimension of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.

               All that happened in the hill country of Galilee, and on the hill of Tepeyac, continues to happen – God doing mighty deeds in our midst.  May our Christmas and holiday visits be filled with joy – the joy of knowing “God has done great things for me!  Holy is God’s name.”
Frank Berna, La Salle University

_____________________

Mary Found Favor with God (Luke 1:26-38)

“Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel said, “for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). Encouraging words from an angel, but everything was lined up against Mary—her age, her gender, her social status, her location outside the beltway of Jerusalem, and now her unfortunate pregnancy prior to her marriage. Could it get any worse? And yet, she has found favor with God.

The phrase that is translated “found favor with God” is the word for “grace.” Mary is the recipient of God’s grace. Grace is God’s favor toward us. To receive grace is not to receive some “thing” or some commodity. Rather, it is to receive God. And grace transcends all of our limitations, both real and imagined.

Grace says, You’re okay exactly as you are—whether you’re in the lower rung of society, whether you’ve snuck over the border illegally, whether you’ve shown up pregnant without a ring on your finger. God says, “You’re okay.” Yes, there are challenges, but at the root of who you are, you’re okay. Grace is like that. It sees gain, when all we see is loss. It’s sees forgiveness, when all we see is regret. It sees love, when all we see is rejection. Mary is graced, in spite of all the challenges she will face.

Mary’s story is also ours. We long for acceptance in spite of our own limitations. We long for peace, reconciliation, wholeness, and life. God’s grace means we are accepted. “Do not try to do anything now,” theologian Paul Tillich writes. “Perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” This is what grace does. It catches us by surprise, giving us more than we could have hoped for or expected.

Novelist Frederick Buechner recalls a remarkable scene in Ken Burns’ television series on the Civil War. In 1913 on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the two armies decided to stage a reenactment of Pickett’s charge. All the old Union veterans took their places among the rocks up on the ridge, and all the old Confederate veterans started marching toward them from below. Then an extraordinary thing happened. As the old Union soldiers began to rush down at the old Confederate soldiers, a great cry went up. But this time instead of doing battle as they had half a century earlier, they threw their arms around each other, embraced each other, and openly began weeping. A picture of grace. Grace can wipe out the wars we fight within, wars of hatred, betrayal, despair, self-doubt, fear, and a host of others. God says, it’s alright. In the inner core of who we are, we have favor with God. Just as grace was God’s gift to Mary, so it is God’s gift to us. Our task is to accept that gift. Our joy is to live in it each day.
Wilburn T. Stancil, Rockhurst University