Charles Dickens’ classic, Great Expectations, opens on Christmas Eve. It introduces us to Pip, an orphan who was being raised by his sister and her husband. As a boy, Pip didn’t think he’d amount to much but his chance encounter with a convict (Magwitch) and with a rich elderly woman (Miss Havisham) and her daughter (Estella), changed Pip’s view of himself. If before he felt he had no option except to be an ambitionless blacksmith, these people raised his sights. They helped him envision love, wealth, and social status. In time Pip’s expectations are trimmed and reshaped by his adventures but at the end of the novel, his life turned out better than he expected. Indeed, Dickens told this tale so masterfully, that we find ourselves harboring great expectations for the rest of Pip’s life.
None of us stepped out of a Dickens’ novel but all of us can think of people who encouraged us to dream about a bright future, perhaps our parents, a teacher or a priest, a family friend or a coach. Over time, of course, the boundless dreams of youth become more realistic. Life’s misfortunes and disappointments limit our options and diminish our plans. Still, we can’t quite shake those great expectations deep within us.
Nor should we! The One who inscribed the greatest expectations of our hearts is the living God. He made us for Himself and sent His Son into the world to share our humanity so as to redeem us of our sins and to unite us in love with Himself and one another. Camouflaged within the hopes, achievements, and disappointments that fill our waking hours is a desire to encounter the God who created us in His image and who loves us with a pure, passionate, and everlasting love. We will never understand ourselves or make sense of our lives until we hear and answer God’s call to conversion and repentance, a call that corresponds to the deepest longings of our hearts.
The greatest of our expectations are expressed powerfully in the Church’s Advent liturgy. The season of Advent has two objectives. First to help us prepare for Christmas when we celebrate Christ’s birth; and second, as we remember His birth, we prepare for Christ’s second coming at the end of time when we shall fully share God’s life and love. Advent is thus a time of devout and joyful expectation. Trouble is, the weeks leading up to Christmas can be so filled with anticipation of shopping, decorating, parties, and entertainment that we crowd out the greatest expectation of all – our yearning for union with God and one another in His heavenly Kingdom. As one author put it, “Jesus is our fulfillment! He is the happiness we are waiting for!”
Whatever else we can say about Pip, he made good use of his opportunities. And we should make good use of Advent, most especially in this Year of Faith. We should seek a deeper relationship with God through Sunday and daily Mass and by making an honest confession of our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation prior to Christmas. Our homes should have Advent wreaths and time for family prayer and we should make sure that we extend ourselves in charity to those in need. Each of us should spend a little time every day prayerfully reading the Scriptures, perhaps reflecting on the readings used at Mass during the season of Advent.
As we go about preparing our homes for the coming of Christ and celebrating the joys of the season, may we be focused above all on preparing our hearts, so that when Christ comes He may find us “watchful in prayer and exultant in his praise” (Advent Preface II).
May you and your loved ones experience a truly blessed Advent leading to the true joys of Christmas!