A Catholic Advent

‘Tis the season to recover from the election – and see where the real hope lies. From the spectacle of vicarious attachments that we have been treated to for the past year, we are now faced with preparing for the great feast of Christmas, celebrating God’s gift of his attachment to us.

Spending time in a journalist-mediated relationship with a celebrity – of any political party – who wants to be my representative in local, state, or national government is trying to substitute part of their life for mine, when our time on earth is short. No more shallow relationship can exist. Unless it is through buying a product endorsed by someone we don’t actually know, who for some reason, is famous.

Since we will always long for something in which to place our hope, let us hope in the Lord. Advent leads us more deeply into this real relationship.

Benedict XVI told us: “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” This Advent, these next weeks near the end of anno Domini 2016 can be life-changing, unlike any Advent we have had before.

The season of Advent is the time to learn how to hope differently. Beyond the vicarious living offered by celebrities and material things, we can pay more attention to the bursting hopefulness of God’s becoming Incarnate in our world – and thereby reaching out to us directly.

Madonna and Child by Sandro di Pietro, c. 1470 [The Met. NYC]
Madonna and Child by Sandro di Pietro, c. 1470 [The Met. NYC]

A little purification is due here; after all, we are dealing with the Creator of the Universe who genuinely loves us. But the surface of our consciousness is mostly tied up with some things that are partly worthy of our attention and some things that are totally unworthy of our attention.

We will, quite soon, celebrate the glory of His coming, but before that let us prepare ourselves to see His glory because – though what we do and fail to do – we can block this vision. In the best of times, we don’t always see things clearly, don’t always understand things clearly. And our culture is very good at obscuring that part of life; it can throw dust in our eyes.

The Scriptures and the teaching of the Church when not skewed by many of the unconscious assumptions racing around our culture (and in a way any human culture) give us the right sense of humility (Confession helps), the right sense of our common humanity (help a homeless person), the right sense of the wonder that is to come on Christmas Eve.

It says something that, at this time of the year, we even have to touch up our sense of wonder. A knife that cuts an onion in one slice does not cause us to wonder beyond the ordinary realities of daily life. What God does in the Incarnation is like nothing else we experience in this world. By its very nature, it should engage our passion, our attention, and time – more than the time we spend, say, watching TV.

God demonstrates his real spiritual attachment, not just sharing worldly existence with us when He became man, but in the process, elevating and sanctifying us. This is an interpersonal knowing that is higher than vicarious or second-hand knowledge. We are meeting someone who genuinely knows us and who wills the best for us. And He brings us to know ourselves as we are known.

So, with so much to celebrate, let’s send Christmas cards that depict the mystery of the Incarnation and not photos of ourselves, which we can – and do – send any time of the year. This is just one way to signal the real spiritual attachments involved at Christmas, the real attachments to be reinvigorated and celebrated.

The commercial culture finds seductive substitutes for every element in Catholic life. The quantity of gifts distracts from the quality of the great gift of the divine Son Incarnate. The party culture displaces one aspect of real celebration in Advent: liturgical celebration, a celebration in which we wonder at goodness, beauty, and truth – rather than the usual hustle and bustle – to carry forward the celebration of true joy.

Advent also gives us a chance to appreciate the many great cultural artifacts that the Incarnation has inspired and the Church has encouraged: the thousands of Nativities in museums and on the web; the live concerts of the Messiah and many other exceptional pieces of music that proclaim the birth of the Prince of Peace. There is nothing in our superficial secular culture to match these depths and heights

God’s love poured out in the Incarnation affirms our value to God despite our sinfulness and concupiscence. He is, as Cardinal Ratzinger put it, opening us up “beyond the lattice-work of our egoism.” Just a few weeks ago, we read the story of Moses praying as Joshua fought the invader. Aaron and Hur held up his arms for him as he prayed. There is a common, communal part of religion that we perform together – and that bounds into the open at Christmas, when God Himself becomes a little baby.

As John the Evangelist said so simply: “He pitched his tent among us.” What a thing to prepare for! That preparation is Advent.