I’m delighted to have this opportunity to spend time with all of you who are members (or becoming members) of the Order of Malta, and to do so on the cusp of the season of Advent.
If you were to visit my residence, you would see to my shame and chagrin that it already looks like Christmas. The trees are up, the wreaths are in place, and the lights are twinkling. It might as well be Macy’s. It just so happened that yesterday was the day when everyone could get together to get the job done. “Carpe diem” was my thought.
And now let’s seize perhaps not the whole day but at least part of the day getting ready for Advent. Let’s call this little reflection, “The Advent of Advent.” And it’s a good thing to have a moment to prepare to celebrate Advent well. Next week we celebrate Thanksgiving (also Black Friday, as it’s called) and then, on one of the heaviest travel days of the year, the First Sunday of Advent will occur, alas, unnoticed by many harried travelers. It is not a moment too soon to think and pray about Advent.
Being a lover of symmetry, I’d like to propose a simple way of doing this. I’d like to propose three attitudes we should expunge from our souls in Advent and three qualities or virtues we should cultivate, all in God’s grace given to us in and through the Sacraments of the Church. So with that simple plan in mind, let’s proceed.
Three Attitudes to Expunge
#1: I’m Too Busy
ndy Williams can still be heard singing, “It’s a most wonderful time of the year” and indeed this should be a most wonderful time in our lives. Sadly, lots of people do not see it that way. Sometimes we don’t either. Part of the reason is that we are so busy, too busy for our own good. For example, work can be especially demanding at this time of year. There are certain things that have to be done before the year is over. There are meetings to attend, appointments to be kept, reports to be finished, business trips to shoehorn in before the end of the year, not to mention the many so-called “holiday” social obligations that take place during this time of year. Setbacks in our work or professional lives can seem especially stark just about now. All of this not only occupies our time and attention and is also the source of a lot of pressure and anxiety in our lives.
Family obligations seem to mount. School activities press on full-bore practically till Christmas Eve, including school plays, Christmas pageants, and sports. Those in college are finishing term papers and preparing for exams. Many families plan to travel over the Christmas holidays and there are many family gatherings to plan for and to attend. It is especially difficult if there are family members who are seriously ill or preparing to go home to the Lord, during this time of year.
Then, there are Christmas cards, shopping, wrapping presents, Christmas parties, dinners, ball games, and in general the wide wonderful world of Christmas entertainment.
Work, family, parties, shopping – none of it is bad in itself. But we know from experience how it can wear us down, stress us out. Most of us, myself included, are over-committed and it seems to me that during this season we become hyper-committed. To prepare ourselves for the season of Advent, we should have a serious word with ourselves about this. We should ask ourselves if this is how the Lord really wants us to live. He used to tell his disciples to come away and rest awhile. He used to seek silence and solitude. And as always Jesus helps us to probe our own hearts, to examine why it is that we feel the need always to be so busy. Yes, there is the pace of contemporary life and yes we cannot neglect our responsibilities and yes we want to be successful. But let us not equate busyness with our true importance. Let us not use busyness as an excuse not to pray or as a distraction that will avoid us from facing difficult issues in our own hearts and in our families. Busyness for the sake of busyness is not our friend. It can be the shield that blocks the rays of light of the Sun of Justice.
#2. Tis the Season to Be Jolly
If busyness militates against our making a good Advent observance, so too does the unbridled spirit of jolliness or, more commonly, a spirit of commercialism and materialism. This point may sound trite because it is repeated so often by homilists and Christian writers the world over. But it bears repeating.
I am not in the bah-humbug camp. A few years ago, when my mother and father suggested that we’d all have a happier Christmas if we did not exchange gifts, I confess that I felt a little let down – I don’t know about you, but I enjoy giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. And I’m all for a wonderful Christmas dinner. When I suggested to my mom that she needn’t do a big Christmas dinner with turkey and all the trimmings – I think she felt let down. She was especially offended by my suggestion that we use paper plates, mainly, of course, so I wouldn’t be stuck washing dishes.
If, during Advent, we become swept up in our purchases and parties, then our spiritual lives are lulled into complacency. We become like the man who had enough of this world’s goods and stored his excess supplies in barns – only to die suddenly. We can tell ourselves that we work hard, that we deserve a good time, and that we are not breaking any laws – the laws of God or of human beings. That may all be true enough but it does not begin to approach the watchfulness, the spiritual alertness that is the hallmark of the season of Lent – a time of watching and waiting not only for the Christ-child at Christmas but for the glorious return of the Son of Man who will come to judge the living and the dead.
The two main dangers here are excess and forgetfulness. The problem with excessive materialism and excess food and drink is that the celebration obscures the reason for the celebration. We often decry public attempts to crowd Christ out of Christmas – to replace the term “Christmas” with “holidays” and to do everything possible to make it secular not sacred. But we can so easily make Christmas a feast of conspicuous consumption and thus forget the Child who was born in the manger. Our minds and hearts become too busy, too crowded for Christ. There is no room at the inn. And in the process of forgetting Christ, we also forget the poor. Among the messages we are receiving from Pope Francis is this: “Do not forget the poor!”
#3. Tis the Season to Hurt and Be Hurt
A few days ago, a friend told me how his extended family always ends up fighting around this time of year. He said that grudges in his family are like perennials. They seem to pop up every year just after Thanksgiving. Some of the grudges are so old no one seems to know how they got started. Some are of a more recent vintage as well. Lots of people feel hurt, alienated, and sad during this time of year.
Some of this is natural. At Christmas we may be rubbing shoulders with people we don’t often see in the course of the year – relatives from out of town, co-workers we try to avoid, and the like. And some of it is the devil’s doing. After all, the Father of Lies has no interest in having the Prince of Peace capture our minds and hearts so as to fill them with authentic joy and peace. And some of it is our doing. Christmas brings back many memories, some of them less than pleasant, and it is all too possible for us to nurture and dwell on things that happened many years ago.
The problem with singing the blues is that we miss the real project of Advent … which is neither to inflict hurt or to allow ourselves so to be inflicted – but rather to remove from our hearts whatever hinders the coming of Christ into our hearts and through us to the world. “Make a straight highway for the Lord,” we are told and this means straightening out our relationships with God and with those around us.
Three Attitudes to Embrace
Preoccupation, Materialism, Self-centered Sadness – these are three attitudes to expunge from our hearts as the season of Advent draws nigh. What are the attitudes we should be embracing?
# 1. A Spirit of Prayer
Let’s begin with the spirit of prayer. When we are overly busy, the first casualty is prayer. It is so easy to image we are too busy to pray and you might imagine that this would not be a problem for me and for my fellow bishops and priests but it is. My day can be so filled with activity that prayer is crowded out. I can tell myself I am at the service of the Lord and the Church but unless I plan for it, fail to take the time I need for prayer. For me, it has to happen first thing in the morning – and takes the form of praying the Breviary (Liturgy of the Hours), mediating on a passage from Scripture or the readings of the day, and offer Holy Mass – unless I am scheduled for Mass in a parish or elsewhere. I pray at other times during the day too and at night but the best time is in the morning.
As Knights and Dames of Malta you have a daily prayer which expresses so beautifully the commitments you have made – to defend and foster the faith, to advance the Order, and to serve the sick and the poor. It is good to pray that prayer daily but it is also good to find at least some time for quiet prayer – perhaps a conversation with Christ over a passage in Scripture or some writing of Pope Francis, or a spiritual master. Some of you are familiar with the Ignatian Exercises or other forms of prayer. The important thing is that prayer is how we might a straight path for the Lord. This is how the Lord comes into our lives on a daily basis; this is how, when, and where the Gospel sinks into bone and marrow; and this is where we get the insight and strength to mold our behavior after the Christ of the Beatitudes.
So as we prepare for Advent, let us test the quality of our life of prayer. Is it an added extra? Is it central to our day? Do we give it quality time? Do we know what to do when we prayer? What if we are distracted or tired? Who can guide me in the ways of prayer? Good questions to ponder in your Advent preparation.
#2. Love the Poor
As noted earlier, when we over-indulge, we become forgetful of the poor and instead become focused on ourselves and our ever-expanding needs. Pope Francis is urging us not only to avoid materialism and excess but indeed he is urging us to know, love, and respect the poor.
I don’t have to look far to see the faces of the poor. Across the street from the Basilica is a bus stop where four to five people sleep each night, including the coldest and rainiest. Next door is My Sister’s Place and around the corner is My Daily Bread. Walking home from the office I am routinely asked if I have any ‘spare change’. The future Pope Francis once wrote that we should see the poor not as objects of our largesse but as subjects made in God’s image. We can learn from the poor much about faith and trust in God even as we seek to provide whatever might be needed to help the poor and vulnerable toward the path of human flourishing.
By his example, the Pope is showing us how to love the poor. It involves laying aside some of our comforts. His decision to live simply is not a PR stunt, it’s how he’s always lived. His love for the poor is deeply rooted in his soul. The Son of God arrived in the world utterly impoverished and came to proclaim the Good News to the poor. How fortunate that Malta demands of us some measure of self-abnegation and some measure of hands-on service to the poor. When we know, love, and welcome the poor and learn from them lessons of faith and trust, then we are well on our way toward welcoming the Lord. This is a very important way to get ready for Advent.
#3. Reconcile and Be Reconciled
This is the flip side of hurting others and being hurt ourselves. If we inflict hurt on others or wallow in the hurt inflicted on us, real or imagined, then we may well miss not only the point of the Lord’s coming into the world, we may also miss encountering Christ himself. This is the most profound reason Christ came into the world – for the forgiveness of our sins, to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Ironically, the very time we prepare for the coming of Christ – who came to reconcile us to himself – we may find ourselves most unreconciled with family members, friends, co-workers.
If we really want to have a fruitful Advent, we need to take two steps. First is to think of those we have offended or hurt and to find a way to be reconciled with them. It need not be an elaborate apology, no Hallmark cards, no sky writing, but simply a word of thanks, an act of kindness, a word of friendship and openness. Our outreach may not be requited and we may need to be patient. But we should try to do our best to be reconciled to those whom God sends into our lives. The second step is to forgive those who trespass against us – to sort our imagined trespasses from real ones, i.e., those that arise from our wounded egos and inflated self-importance as opposed to those that are true affronts to our human dignity. Then we should attempt to rise above our feelings as we hear the Lord’s Prayer ringing in our ears: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Finally, make a good, thorough, unburdening confession. You may have seen that the Pope confesses every two weeks, because he recognizes how vital the gift of forgiveness is if he would be the Lord’s disciple and servant. If it’s necessary for him, it is certainly necessary for me – and for us all – to ensure that we confess our sins regularly and frequently. That is how we root out from our hearts those persistent sins that block the Lord from coming into our hearts, that block us from welcoming the one whom we love and who loves us with an everlasting love.
All the world is wishing you a happy holiday or a happy Christmas but it’s my pleasure to wish you a joyous Advent – joyous because it is a prayerful, generous, and peaceful time in your lives.
Let me conclude with the prayer of Fr. Olier:
O Jesus, living in Mary,
come and live in your servants,
in the spirit of your holiness,
in the fullness of your might,
in the truth of your virtues,
in the perfection of your ways,
in the communion of your mysteries.
Come and subdue every hostile power in your Spirit,
for the glory of the Father. Amen.