Advent, Seasonal

An Ancient Custom Revived for Advent

Advent seems to most of us to be a time of joyful anticipation. Christmas presents are being purchased and wrapped, wreaths hung, trees decorated. It’s definitely a time of getting ready: getting ready for travel, for receiving friends and family, for parties and potlucks and oh, yes, for the miracle of Christmas. We’re all aware of how the “reason for the season” can get lost in all the other activities, concerns, and stresses that accompany it. I’d like to suggest one activity that, this Advent, might help to keep you more focused.

I’d like to suggest fasting.

Despite its liturgical color, Advent is not considered a penitential season by the Catholic Church, so there is no requirement for fasting enjoined upon the faithful. This wasn’t always the case. In the medieval Church, Advent was every bit as strict as Lent. St. Martin’s feast day was a day of carnival (the word comes from carnis and vale, which means “farewell to meat”). In those days, the rose vestments of Gaudete (Rejoice Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent) were really something to rejoice about, since the fast was relaxed for a day. We’ve left those customs behind: the worst penances of Advent, these days, seem to be standing in line at the shopping mall.

Perhaps it is precisely in the way the secular world “does” Advent that makes this season such an appropriate one for fasting.

Fasting, more than any other discipline, does not let you forget for one moment what it is you’re doing. You’re hungry. You feel deprived. Your body is reminding you something is different, uncomfortable. That discomfort gives you focus: What better way is there to balance the excessive consumerism through which the world around you celebrates the season than with a constant reminder of what it is that we as Catholics are about now: the anticipation of the coming of the Lord?

What is fasting?

In a sense, fasting isn’t about food itself as much as it’s about abstinence; you could, theoretically, fast from something other than food. And in fact the discipline of fasting doesn’t say consuming the food of our choice is bad—quite the contrary. Abstinence is the act of voluntarily giving up something that is good.

It’s enabling the spirit to focus.

So why choose food? Well, have you noticed how you feel after a large meal? Sleepy, possibly uncomfortable, lethargic, distracted. Notice that these are all feelings that go against the spirit of Advent. Advent is a time of anticipation and watching, of preparing yourself spiritually, of holding your breath with the longing of centuries, waiting for the Messiah to arrive. You cannot wait and watch if you’re replete from a large meal.

Fasting doesn’t need to mean abstaining from all food; though Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, most of us would die with nothing. God wants us to survive! Fasting does mean, however, abstaining from enough to allow you to keep coming back to the discomfort, and—through it—to the reason for the discomfort. It keeps you coming back to God.

Have you heard the expression “give until it hurts”? Fasting is very much like that: give up until it hurts. Literally. Feel the hunger. Feel the discomfort. And feel the spiritual longing for the Son of God singing in your body and in your heart and in your soul.

How to fast

There are many different ways to fast, and a good place to begin is by asking God for discernment: what kind of fast are you being called to this Advent? The Bible gives examples of one-day, three-day, seven-day and forty-day fasts. But you’re not required to follow any of those: you can fast on Fridays, on Wednesdays and Fridays, or (in a modified way) every day.

Some people abstain from food altogether for short periods of time. Others give up one or two meals a day. Some prefer to give up something they love (chocolate, for example, or alcohol, or even television) while still having regular meals.

So what do you do instead of eating?

Use the energy of fasting. That may sound counterintuitive: it’s food that gives our bodies energy, so how can we be energized by fasting? Yet time and time again, in various religious traditions, people report fasting brings them clarity of mind. An experiment at the University of Chicago showed an increase in mental alertness and better schoolwork performance when participants were fasting. So take advantage of that clarity and focus to open yourself up to new ways of being with God.

You spend time preparing and consuming the meals you’re giving up. Use the gift of time the discipline has given you in spiritually constructive ways. You might want to spend that time in Eucharistic Adoration or other prayer; in reading Scripture; in organizing an Advent discussion group.

You also spent money on the food you’re not consuming anymore. That money could well be spent this Advent on those people less fortunate than you: donating it to a local food bank or soup kitchen will help you address the needs of those for whom fasting is not optional, for whom the feeling of hunger is all too familiar.

Fasting and Advent

You are not just abstaining from food in preparation for the coming of the Messiah; you are also echoing and remembering the centuries of longing as God’s people waited for his coming. At some point during the season you’ll be singing the haunting O Come O Come Emmanuel: “…and ransom captive Israel/that mourns in lonely exile here.” We were indeed wandering a barren wilderness before the Good News of Christ was revealed to us.

How do you feel that mourning? That sense of exile?

Fasting and Advent both remind us of that journey, the journey from darkness into light, from wandering into finding our home, from law into love. The longing of our bodies for food echoes the longing of our souls for the coming of the Savior. What more fitting way to live it out in our lives during this Advent season than through a fast?

by Jeannette de Beauvoir





Don’t Miss Jesus in the Bethlehem of Your Life

It all began quite spontaneously, unintentionally. One of those things that settle on you like a gentle night or a soft dew. Peace. Possibility.

We sit there a long while, holding hands, our fingers curled together protectively, vulnerably. Understanding communicated through simple gestures. I look at her and ask Jesus: “Jesus, will you show me how you are in this my sister, my sister waiting for you to come.”

In the evening I discover her waiting quietly, as the nurse prepares her supper. She is alone. I slip into a chair beside her and reach quietly for her hand. She says something I can’t understand, but I know she is speaking to me.

“Jesus, how are you within my sister, my sister who is waiting for you to come?”

I close my eyes and wait for Jesus to guide me to whatever he wishes me to see. I sense a brilliance, a happiness. The joy of God who is putting the finishing touches on a brilliant gem that gives him immense pleasure.

When I’m in a hurry, too busy to sit for 30 minutes to hold Sister’s hand while she eats, I can’t see HIS face. When I’m too efficient to notice someone who can’t follow my train of thought, too important to do the little services or hear the whispered secrets, I miss HIS eyes.

In these days we are preparing for the celebration of Christmas. We are looking forward to seeing Jesus in nativity sets and Christmas movies and in Christmas liturgies, and all this is good. But let us not miss HIM where he is now, still in the Bethlehem of our lives, in the poverty of our need, for after all that is what Jesus took on himself when he came to earth.

Jesus has come, and he has stayed. He is here and his face is wherever there is human sorrow and joy. See him, and Christmas is every day.

My heart cries out with the ancient words of Scripture:

“Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.”

O shepherd of Israel, hearken,
From your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.
Rouse your power.

Give us new life, and we will call upon your name. (Ps 80: 2-3, 19)

By Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP

My Sisters Gospel Reflection, Uncategorized

Feast of Christ the King

Hear the conversation between Jesus and Pilate. What a moment in time where Jesus proclaims himself King to a pagan leader who does not comprehend the profound meaning of that statement. And then Pilate asks a question of Jesus but does he remain there to learn the answer? Will I stay with Jesus to learn truth?

This is a meditation on this Gospel from one of my sisters:

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus gives a wonderful definition of a king: someone born to testify to truth. The Roman governor Pilate asks Jesus a direct question about his claim, “Then you are a king?” Jesus affirms it, “You say I am a king. For this I was born . . .” Pilate must be shaking his head, however, because Jesus had already stated that his kingdom “does not belong to this world.” Why, then, did he come into this world as king? The key lies in Jesus’ next, curious statement, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Here is the dilemma. What does it mean to “belong to the truth?” Pilate is the example here. Jesus tries to bring him around indirectly. When Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus challenges Pilate’s conscience by asking, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”

In other words, Jesus is telling Pilate that his opinion as governor is the only one that counts then and there. He holds the fate of Jesus in his hands. Pilate shoots back with his own challenge, “I am not a Jew, am I?” He reminds Jesus that the Jewish authorities who have handed him over should know the truth about him. Pilate should have taken the whole exchange more seriously because he will soon find himself shirking his duty to truth. Despite his doubts about Jesus’ guilt, Pilate will choose the indecisive, self-serving, cowardly nonposition. He will wash his hands of guilt. And what would we do? The King of Truth is ours. Are we people of truth? Have we given ourselves completely to the truth by living out our baptism? Or are we disciples of Pilate, willing to acknowledge the existence of truth, but unwilling to belong to it totally? So many disciples pick and choose what teachings of the Gospel and of the Church they will accept. Will that style support us all the way through life? Will we end up owning the truth when we appear before the King, or will we try to defend our vacillation as did Pilate?

If you have enjoyed this meditation, you’ll find meditations on all the Gospels in the Ordinary Grace series  Ordinary Grace Weeks 18-34

My Sisters Gospel Reflection, Uncategorized

Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

We hear about many  happenings in the world that cause us to be afraid. What will happen next, some say? In today’s Gospel Jesus is telling us about the end of the world. Many people have predicted that “now the end is really coming!” But the fact is, it will end for each one of us at our own passing. Oh, that we may be found watchful and eager to welcome him when he comes?

This is a meditation on this Gospel from one of my sisters:

“. . . when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.”

Today’s Gospel is from Jesus’ end-times discourse found near the end of Mark. Jesus speaks about the many signs and wonders that will indicate the end is near: a darkened sky, falling stars, and a moon without light. This is scary stuff! We don’t usually see stars falling when we venture out into the night. Yet Jesus is trying not to scare us, but to challenge us to be attentive and watchful. He wants us to be prepared disciples, eager to welcome him at his coming, for time passes quickly and the day of salvation draws near.

This coming that Jesus speaks of cannot be understood only in terms of his final coming, his Parousia at the end of time. It can also be seen as any of his comings. For he comes every day in our ordinary lives, be it through a beautiful sunset or the encouraging words of a friend. And it is precisely in being attentive to, recognizing, and responding to these comings that I will be prepared for his ultimate and final coming

So I need to ask myself: how attentive and watchful am I in my day-to-day life? How prepared am I for the Lord’s “ordinary” and even subtle comings? Am I like the prudent virgin with lighted lamp and oil in hand, eagerly waiting for her Lord? Or am I, instead, like the fearful servant who buried his talent, afraid for his master’s return? If I am the latter I need to ask myself, why do I fear the Lord’s coming? Why do I hold back from his presence? Do I not love him? For if I do, then love casts out all fear. Love makes me attentive and watchful. Love makes me open and receptive to the many signs in my life that indicate his presence even now. And love gives me the strength to respond to this presence anew each day, for “he is near, at the gates.”

If you have enjoyed this meditation, you’ll find meditations on all the Gospels in the Ordinary Grace series  Ordinary Grace Weeks 18-34

Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace: Surviving Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is almost here, a time Americans have set aside to express gratitude to God in the company of family and friends. But at a time of deep divisiveness in the country and indeed the world, holidays that bring us together can also tear us apart. Here are three tips for surviving (and thriving!) this Thanksgiving:

  • Take the high road. You will never, ever regret it. Even if someone wants to argue with you, be graceful, change the subject, and acknowledge that they have a right to their opinion.
  • Avoid alcohol. Drinking only intensifies anger, bitterness, and sadness. You don’t need any of them at your Thanksgiving table! Choose a sparkling nonalcoholic drink instead.
  • Take a break. If the conversation is going somewhere that makes you uncomfortable, excuse yourself for a few moments. Go to a quiet place (even the lavatory!) and say a prayer. This won’t change the situation at the table, but it will change how you feel about it.

At this time of year it’s especially important to remember that we are all God’s children—even the people with whom you disagree. Try and see everyone through God’s loving eyes, and initiate conversations that heal rather than divide.

My Sisters Gospel Reflection, Uncategorized

Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

How much am I to give? One may ask when hearing today’s Sunday Gospel. Jesus was in the temple observing people putting money into the treasury. Afterwards he lauds one person who seemed to have surpassed them all. The Lord sees the heart and that is the difference!

This is a meditation on this Gospel from one of my sisters:

“. . . all she had . . .”

In the Gospel readings these past few Sundays, scribes have not fared well. Today Jesus castigates those who, in avarice and lust for prestige, twist the Law to line their own pockets, even at the expense of society’s most vulnerable members—widows. In a different twist, one of those widows unwittingly bests both that crowd and the rich, whose offerings clatter in the treasury boxes that line the Temple walls. As if to sketch the face of true worship, Jesus observes that she “contributed all she had,” not to extol giving that harms the giver, but to laud the offering of the heart.

Chances are, we’ve all been muscled into a donation of some kind. We may have wished that a lighter heart could have accompanied the lighter wallet. Our reluctance may stem less from selfishness than from caution. We want to give to a “worthy cause.” We might even want to control how our contribution—money, time, energy, talent—is appropriated. That may be prudent; after all, in trying to do good with our limited resources we don’t want to feel we’re spinning our wheels. But such clinging can tarnish the Godlike sheen that comes from a spontaneous, lavish outpouring of love. Whether we give or receive, if we look only at the numbers, we miss the Gospel point.

Do I resist giving of myself, including my prayer, because no one can guarantee its “success”? Do I compare myself with others and demur, with the excuse that my small contribution won’t make a dent anyway? Our widow doesn’t seem to care either way. What does it matter if others give more? She is free. It only matters that God esteems her gift of the heart. The Gospel story’s paschal/liturgical dimension backlights another sacrificial love: the Crucified/Risen One himself and the Eucharist—one life, one loaf, one cup, emptied for the life of the many.

If you have enjoyed this meditation, you’ll find meditations on all the Gospels in the Ordinary Grace series  Ordinary Grace Weeks 18-34