Advent, Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace:How to Wait During Advent

We’ve all spent a significant amount of our time waiting. Waiting for an appointment, waiting for a kid to come home, waiting for an overdue airplane, waiting our turn at the grocery store. No one likes waiting; its very definition is postponement. Postponement of joy, of relief, of getting things done. So why does the Church give us Advent? Why assign a whole season just to waiting? Why not go directly to Christmas?

I’d like to suggest that things happen in the waiting. Waiting is liminal time, time spent between one thing and another, and that is often where the magic happens. Advent makes sure we’re ready for Christmas.

  • Advent waiting is finite. We wait for love and marriage without knowing if it will come. We wait for justice. We wait for healing. The hardest thing about waiting is not knowing when it’s going to end, or even if it’s going to end. The waiting that comes with Advent is fun because it’s finite. We know what’s coming at the end of our wait will be good, and we know exactly how many days we have left to wait for it. You can find stress in waiting, or you can find joy in knowing how and when it will end.
  • Advent waiting is preparatory. We make space for special things—Christmas trees, holiday foods, hidden presents. But we also have to make space inside ourselves, open ourselves to the Child on his way. Our hearts are his home, so they must be prepared.
  • Advent waiting is hopeful. As this part of the world moves deeper into winter, the shortened days and longer nights can feel dark. But there is a Light that shines in darkness: the one who loves, redeems, and heals the world is on his way. We, and our whole community of faith, are the people of hope. Let’s live it fully!

Hold your breath: it is almost here. The waiting is nearly over.

Advent, Christmas, Listening to the Heart

What if I can’t “rest merry”?

In the shops, it’s all “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” but every time Margaret hears the words, she wants to cry. She’s going about her everyday Advent errands, dutifully buying gifts and wrapping paper and cards; but, “I feel like there’s a barrier between me and everybody else,” she says. “Like I’m seeing them through some kind of blurry lens.” The reason for that distance? “My husband died in September,” Margaret replies. “I just can’t synch up. I feel sad in the middle of so many people being happy. When I do forget for a moment, when I feel even the smallest joy, I immediately feel guilty for not thinking about Daniel.”

Margaret’s story isn’t unique. No matter when we lose people we love, the first Christmas without them is bound to be painful. And that pain isn’t reserved for death: the sadness of the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, missing a faraway friend, fearing for a loved one in the throes of a major illness or addiction… the list goes on and on, for there are myriad events and situations that leave us feeling grief-stricken and therefore inadequate at Christmastime.

My childhood Christmases were shadowed by a death in my own family. When I was two years old, my sister Adele was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that has effective treatments today but very few then. She was born in October and died a few days before Christmas, and my mother never fully grieved—or recovered. All through my growing-up years, she sat and watched the rest of us trim the tree, never joining in because it made her so sad. I understand the depth of her pain, but I think she never really understood what its expression did to the rest of us.

I can’t think that God wanted our Christmases to be dismal, or for Margaret’s to be guilt-ridden. But how else can you cope with overwhelming grief when the world tells you to be merry?

If you Google words like “Catholic” and “grief” and “Christmas,” you’ll find some extremely sensible suggestions for practical ways of getting through—asking others for help, honoring missing loved ones, taking time for oneself. If you are grieving this year, I urge you to read them—especially, perhaps, these 64 tips. But the reality is that nearly all these approaches are strategic in nature, offering guidelines for how to manage grief during the holidays. And of course that’s necessary: we all need ways of coping with the various feelings, situations, people, and memories that can exacerbate sorrow during Advent and Christmas.

But the real need is for something beyond coping strategies. As many people who have moved through grief and sadness have learned, one great comfort is in storytelling; grief loves stories, because it is resistant to logic and linear thinking, but wraps itself lovingly around a narrative. It’s why we take comfort in telling stories about those we have lost.

Advent and Christmas are just filled with holy narratives. What can they tell us about handling grief?

The first thing they say is we’re not alone. In the most difficult places on our path, spaces of sanctuary are waiting for us. Pregnant, unmarried, and alone, Mary is in a perilous state after Gabriel departs; she has said the most luminous and yet most perilous “yes” that humankind can say. What does she do next? She goes in search of someone who can help. She goes to her cousin Elizabeth, who welcomes Mary and offers her safety, blessing, and sanctuary (Luke 1:39-45). Where are places—and people—who represent sanctuary in your life? Can you turn to them now?

The second thing we learn from the Scripture story is to open ourselves to the unexpected. Joseph was in terrible grief when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. His whole future was shattered. Not only marriage but divorce was now in his path. He must have felt sick at heart, numb, empty. And what happens? Joseph falls asleep and God speaks to him in his dream (Matthew 1:20-21; 2:13, 19-20, 22). When God wants to convey something to us, he frequently uses unexpected methods: dreams, stories, metaphors, intuition, poetry, art. God often manifests in our peripheral vision. Are there places where you might be able to discern him now?

Finally, Scripture tells us that incarnation begins in darkness. The country was occupied and its people enslaved, and this is where God chose to be born. God comes to us in the darkness that Advent begins to pierce, and promises we shall see a great light. When we are in pain and grief, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path, that is precisely where God meets us. His first priority is not to do away with the dark—but to be present to us in it. Comfort my people, Isaiah cries, and “I will give you treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45:3). Can you look for God’s presence, not beyond your pain, but within it?

This is not the end of God’s story, and it isn’t the end of your story, either. The way you feel this Advent and Christmas is not the way you will always feel. As difficult as it is to imagine in these painful moments, there will be holidays when lightness returns to you. There will be holidays when you can celebrate with memory rather than grief.

But in the meantime, take God’s Word to heart. You are not alone. Stay open to the unexpected. Sit with God in the darkness. Christmas is coming.

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent

Another Way to See the World

I remember very clearly the afternoon when we received word that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was on fire. I was living in our convent in St. Louis and one of the other sisters in formation pulled up the images on the computer. We all sat there for a few minutes in silence, absolutely in dumbfounded by what was happening. I remember praying over and over again, “Lord, have mercy.”

As the hours went on, we received the news that the Blessed Sacrament had been rescued. No one had died. And yet, we all felt heartbroken knowing that the church had been so mangled in the fire. Inside myself, I was confused. Why was I so upset about a building? 

In reality, this is because Notre-Dame is not just a building. Throughout the centuries, countless people have come to that place to have an encounter with the living God. The beauty of the art and architecture was designed expressly and was successful in pointing to God’s loving providence. In a country that struggles so much to hold on to faith, the towering church is a symbol that God remains. It is so much more than a building.

As I began to think, I realized that Notre-Dame was not the only thing in my life that was more than what appeared on the surface. Each morning, I open my Bible, which some people might consider to be just another book. But my Bible is more than just another book; it is the living Word of God that speaks to me on a daily basis. When I walk into church, I genuflect to the tabernacle and spend time in prayer there because the Eucharist is not just bread but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When I touch my Rosary in my pocket, I am not just touching beads on a string but am reminded of the Blessed Mother’s constant loving protection and moved to trust what God is doing in that moment.

This is a concept that actually gets to the core of how Catholics see the world. This is called a “sacramental worldview” and it is what allows us to see the physical world, those things that we can see and feel and touch in this life, in a way that points to God. It is a sacramental worldview that leads us to see the glory of God in a sunset or to be in awe at the beauty of a newborn baby. It is the understanding that allows us to appreciate this life and material things for the good that they truly are while also recognizing that this is not our ultimate homeland.

Right now, we are getting ready for the season of preparation for the key to understanding what it means to have a sacramental worldview: the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God himself became one of us. He entered into our material world in a real way, not through symbols, not simply by appearing to us, but by actually becoming human. In Jesus Christ, God could breathe and eat and cry and even be killed. Because he entered into our physical reality in such an intimate way, he was able to save us from the inside as one of us so that we would be able to have his own life within us. “And the soul felt its worth.”

These next few weeks are going to be busy and intense for all of us. With long lines at shopping malls, Christmas songs on the radio, and endless parties and events, God is extending an invitation to us to see more than what is on the surface. He is asking us to allow these things to penetrate our hearts so that it is not just another run to the store, another version of “Silent Night,” or another batch of cookies that we bake with loved ones. No, to you and to me, he is saying, “Let me use these things to show you how much I love you.”

This is how we see the world in a sacramental way. Although we live in the world, it is a vastly different way of seeing it than most people today. This allows us to live in such a way that everything leads us to God because we are aware that everything in this life is a gift from him, a sign of his love for us. And this can even go one step further: you can become a sacrament for others. You can be an instrument, a person created and beloved by God, through whom he makes his love known in this world during this crazy season. Let each decoration that you put up, each present that you wrap, each minute that you wait in line, and each Christmas card you write become a channel for God’s grace in this season. That’s certainly a different way of seeing the world.

Truly, God did not become incarnate only in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, but takes on flesh in each of us every time we are open to receiving his love. The more we are aware of how he is using the material things in our lives to reveal his love to us, the more we are able to use these material things to show that love to others. As you go about your day, you can ask God, “How is it that you are showing me that you love me today?” You may be surprised by just how many love notes he sends you.

 

by Sr. Cecilia Cicone, novice

Advent, Christmas, Inspiration

The Big Three

The big three holidays are almost here: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. Hooray! we say. As you read this, we will be in the immediate preparation for the first of these, Thanksgiving, praying that we make it through with family and friends, and without too much fuss.

We all recognize these three as the extreme sports among our holidays. We flex our best resolutions before entering into this season. Somehow we will power our way through them.

It might be more worthwhile to spend some time with the little three. Now, by this I mean no disrespect, and I really should call them the humble and holy three: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We do well to ask how they negotiated the original version of what we celebrate.

Let’s begin with Advent, which is the season of preparation for the next two celebrations. We often reduce Advent to the season of shopping rather than of reflection on the coming of the Savior. So, let’s pick up Advent partway through its four-week pattern. The young woman, Mary, had an angel in her living room announcing she was chosen to be mother of the long-awaited Messiah. This certainly trumps all the robo sales calls we have to put up with! How calmly did she acquiesce to this turn of events? We don’t know, but she wholeheartedly consented: “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mary’s immediate response was to set out on a mission of mercy to visit an older cousin who was also unexpectedly pregnant. We can see how invested Mary now was in God’s plan. When her cousin Elizabeth’s son, John (the Baptist), was born, Mary returned to her own family and to the scrutiny of her fiancé, Joseph. He was taken aback to find her obviously with child, knowing it wasn’t his own. God decided to clarify the situation for Joseph as he had for Mary, through an angel. Joseph wasn’t to be distressed, the angel said. This Child is of God so go ahead as you planned and take Mary as your wife. )Do you notice anything stressful yet?)

Another curveball is thrown into this original Christmas preparation. No quiet sitting at home, no little shopping expeditions, no cozy chats with happy grandparents-to-be. No, the foreign governing body has called for a census. It isn’t a paper form to be mailed in, but a trek to the ancestral home to register in person. So off they go at a very inconvenient time. Mary was literally expecting the Christmas Child. She was seated on a donkey; no Uber rides were available. She had to balance on the swaying beast while feeling her time was close at hand. Joseph, for his part, could only worry and put on a strong face and pray his heart out that everything would be okay.

When they make it to Bethlehem, it is late. There is no room to be rented. Again it falls to Joseph to provide. We picture him in popular films running from house to house begging for some place, any place, to prepare for what is imminent. How inadequate he must feel: such a mission and such a predicament! Why? he could have lamented, but we believe he was more of a man of providence. God would show him how he was to provide for Mary and the Infant. What Joseph found – a poor animal stable – has become the icon of our individual devotion. We ourselves are poor, unworthy, but welcoming abodes of the Son of God. Thank you, Joseph, for this spiritual gift.

It is a holiday, a birth day–was there a party? Yes, there was one large decoration, the star. The locals, friendly and curious, came. The angels again pointed out the event to shepherds who hurried over to see. Later unexpected kings arrived with precious, symbolic gifts. Privacy didn’t exist and soon neither did safety. The three had to flee in the night, making another treacherous journey, this time into Egypt where they would again be strangers trying to fit in.

>All of this was certainly a stressful time for Mary and Joseph. Our religious paintings and cards portray a peaceful, serene image for the season. The will of God seems to have been like a soft comforter over these harsh circumstances. Sweet smiles and calm nerves prevailed. I think not. I see Mary and Joseph as the true patron saints of our modern holiday season. Think of the emotions, the misunderstandings, the anxiety, the exhaustion of all these days. They were in love with God and totally dedicated to His will, but they had to feel each moment as it came. They didn’t know what was coming next. They definitely experienced stress. They were thrown into it; we on our part create most of our stress.

We find that our stress doesn’t come solely from world or church affairs, but from personal interaction with those around us–the near and dear, but even more so from inner action, from our own unpeaceful spirits. Let’s do as Mary and Joseph and put all of our energy and attention on the Child who is the reason, literally, for the season, the Gift, the charm, the center of everything. If our heart is with Him, we will be able to weather this seasonal squall of stress with grace and even with joy. And we will be able to put a new ring on the coming of 2020.

by Sr. Mary Lea Hill, FSP

 

Advent, Inspiration

3 Ways to Open Doors of Hope

Don’t go through the next month and a half straight to Christmas. Take time to hope!

“Advent,” wrote then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986, “is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope.”

Our problem? We want to go straight to Christmas without taking the time the Church gives us for waiting, for expectation, for longing, for looking back, for looking forward… for hope! It’s easy for that to happen. Shops and online merchants lure us with promises of more to buy, more to do, more, more, more—until Advent gets lost in a headlong tumble of activity, anxiety, and stress.

“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

Here are three ways to open those doors:

#1: Start now

Download our free #PutJesusFirst Advent planner. What differentiates our planner is that it’s integrated: every week, along with practical reminders to buy stamps for Christmas cards and make travel arrangements, you will find prayers, family activities, Scripture readings, and more.

#2: Look ahead

Now is the time to plan for your Advent reading for yourself—and Christmas giving for others. Visit our webstore or one of our Pauline Books and Media Centers and get your children a reminder of what Christmas is really about—or find books for your friends. Choose some reading for yourself that will either challenge or comfort you, depending on this year’s needs. Order from our webstore now and you’ll be taking advantage of our free postage through December 8th!

#3: Be present every day

People talk about experiencing “the best Advent ever,” but even that is missing the point. Advent needs to change you, to allow God to act inside you and your family, to prepare you for the greatest gift of all: God come to earth as a tiny, poor, refugee child. In the birth of that child alone is our whole hope for the future.

Let us help you go through the doors of  hope this year!

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