We are in the season of Advent, preparing for Christmas. Unfortunately, as it does with every other spiritual experience, the secular world has prepared a materialist alternative for Christmas. For Advent, we have the Christmas shopping and panic season. For the Sacrament of Marriage, we have various secular parodies of marriage – living together, “friends with benefits,” same-sex relationships. Instead of prayer, we are offered “spiritual” experiences that have nothing to do with the history of redemption in Christ. For doing good, person-to-person, we have the writing of checks. The list goes on. Despite all the secular flurry of the season, we are actually preparing for the religious feast of Christmas, and the real flurry ought to be about celebrating this feast.
Of course, quite often, the only ones who know what we have really done to prepare for Christmas are our own consciences – and, of course, God. There are no concrete gifts to give or meals to prepare as external signs of our spiritual preparation. Unfortunately, for some people, that means that there is then no need to do spiritual preparation. But going to Christmas Mass without a reflective Advent is rather like going to a movie in a language we do not understand. We do not have any immediate connection to it and especially not to the earth-shattering events being celebrated. And that mean a lot to us whether we like it or not.
So we have to prepare. We have to enlighten our minds and hearts by meditating on the story and the significance of the extraordinary events of Christmas. We have a series of Advent liturgies: “beware that your hearts do not become drowsy” (First Sunday); “prepare the way of the Lord” (Second Sunday); “what should we do?” (Third Sunday); “Blessed are you among women” (Fourth Sunday).
By paying attention to these celebrations – even if we have not done this for any other event this year and might be a little rusty – we allow ourselves the possibility of discovering just how remarkable, how wondrous, how rich our souls are with relationships to the communion of saints and the people around us in Christ. In this way, we are preparing for the richness of the community of eternal life and at the same time we will inevitably become better friends, spouses, parents, parishioners.
The Feast of Christmas is a window into the prodigious beginnings of the New Jerusalem. It is the celebration of the divine light breaking into our world. Surely it would be worth limiting the buying gifts, hassling over meals and travel, so as to find enough time to prepare to participate in this profound gift of Almighty God?
Not being trapped by the material world to the point where it provides pretexts (there was no time, I had to do shopping) for avoiding the spiritual world is of vast importance. It comes up again and again throughout the year. And it is not only a concern for laypeople. Clergy and those in consecrated life face similar distractions them from the spiritual world.
Clergy and those in consecrated life have to face the fact that they are part of categorical communities with priority over their commitments to their families, or what they (the clergy and religious) would like to do. After all, their commitment is first of all to their communities, clerical and religious, as well as lay.
Being a clergyman is more than a job with accompanying time off. That is how the secular world sees it. But you cannot have time off from being someone, in this case being a clergyman. Similarly, a spiritual understanding of belonging to consecrated life means belonging to a community of fellow religious with all that implies in terms of spiritual growth and support. The secular understanding of community (a convenient arrangement food and lodging) characterizes some religious orders and congregations – and is one of the main reasons they get so few vocations. Why join a group who are as secular as everyone else?
Advent is one of those times when laity and clergy must insulate themselves, even if just a little, from being seduced by the secular frenzy around them. Some might refocus on the great mystery of the Incarnation and what it means for being a clergyman, for life with the other clergy in the house and for the laity they serve. Perhaps by discarding secular ways of filling time, those in consecrated life might rediscover the religious purpose of their communities even at Christmas. After all, part-time membership in a community of consecrated life is a contradiction in terms.
A suggestion: one of the few contemporary Catholic books that will still be read 100 years from now is Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. In the introduction, he wrote: “my hope is that this short book, despite its limitations, will be able to help many people on their path toward and alongside Jesus.” During Advent, it would be worth spending some time with that text as a way of following that path to Christ and rediscovering his presence in his Church.