Reclaiming Advent

Advent.  It means “coming.” The season of Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and is the beginning of the new liturgical year for Catholics and some other Christians.  It’s a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord at Christmas.  We’re in that darkening time of year when nights come early and last for many hours.  We long for the light of Christ to come and show us our way.  We’re waiting for Christmas but we’re also preparing for Christ’s next coming at the end of time.  Advent and Lent are penitential seasons in the Church calendar.  Both are opportunities for us to prepare to meet Christ, at our death and at the final judgment.  So we’re called to pray more, to fast more, and to give more to those in need.  Advent is a beautiful and holy time of year—as if the whole world is holding its breath, awaiting the King.
Sadly, much of our culture has forgotten about Advent.  It’s become the lost season.  We rush from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s, without any thought or pause for Advent.  We shop and cook and eat and party.  Our schedules are over-scheduled and our shopping bags are overfilled. There’s never enough time to get everything bought and wrapped and delivered.  At a time of year when we should be full of the peace and joy of His coming, we’re caught up in buying and doing without a moment to reflect on Who is coming to be everything we’ve ever needed or wanted or hoped for.  And we’re losing out when we lose Advent.
So this year,, let’s honor the coming of Christ by doing something radical—let’s reclaim the season of Advent. Here are some simple ideas to help us all remember the true meaning of these weeks before Christmas:
1) Resist the urge to decorate for Christmas just yet.  When we jump ahead to full-on Christmas mode, we begin to celebrate before we’ve prayed, fasted, and given alms.  If you just have to do something seasonal, put out an Advent wreath on a table.  Use real evergreens to fill the house with their wonderful aroma.  Three purple candles and one rose candle make up the lights.  On each Sunday of Advent, light a candle and read a few verses from Isaiah which speak of the coming of the Savior (Chapters 7, 8, 9, 48 and 52).  The rose candle should be lit on the third Sunday to remind us that the wait is almost over.  2) Use an Advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas.  Kids love opening each day’s “door” and seeing what treat lies behind it.  Counting down the days together is a wonderful chance to talk with your kids about the meaning of Christmas and why we celebrate His birth. 3) Spend some time as a family reading the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.  Read a verse together and then talk about it.  What’s an angel?  Who was Mary and what was she like?  What would it be like to travel on a donkey?  How did Mary and Joseph feel as they looked for a place to stay?  4) Do something for someone else.  Invite a single friend to share a meal in your home.  Take some toys to the local family and children’s service for kids in need.  Volunteer at the local food pantry or soup kitchen.  Write a letter to a family member you’ve been distant or estranged from. 5)  Put out a Nativity scene or creche.  Start with the manger and gradually add the animals, the shepherds, Mary, Joseph and the angels over the weeks of Advent.  But don’t place the baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas Eve.  Again, this sort of family tradition will emphasize the waiting and longing for Christ’s birth that is what Advent is all about.  Finally, by “saving” Advent, we also save the Christmas season.  Christmas isn’t OVER on Christmas Day—it’s just beginning!  We celebrate the joy of His birth until January 8, 2012 which is the Feast of the Epiphany when the Magi arrived to pay Him homage.  By reclaiming Advent we also get the gift of an extended Christmas season.  Keep your tree and lights up and relish the joy of Christmas season.  In reclaiming Advent we have the time to prepare our hearts for Christmas.  We can savor the anticipation of His coming, both at Bethlehem and at the end of time.

Is Mary Just TOO Catholic?

Overheard at the post office last week as a woman ahead of me was buying Christmas stamps:  “Oh that’s so beautiful,” she said, holding up this year’s Madonna and Child stamp.  “But I can’t buy those — it’s just way too Catholic!”  Huh?  Exactly what is “too Catholic” about a 16th century Raphael painting of the baby Jesus in the arms of His mother?  What struck me most about her comment was that, on some very real level, this woman had been taught to equate the Virgin Mary with the Catholic Church.  On one hand, this gives me great joy.  For my Church to be so closely identified with the mother of our Savior is a blessing to me as a Catholic.  From the very earliest days of Christianity, the Virgin was looked to for guidance and comfort and seen as the best example of the Christian life.  But mostly, I feel sad for this woman and for the many other Christians who don’t have a relationship with Christ’s mother.  And maybe it’s our fault as Catholics for not doing a very good job at explaining the role that Mary plays in Catholic spirituality. 
Many Christians believe that Catholics worship Mary, almost as if she’s a kind of fourth Person of the Blessed Trinity.  Once and for all, we do NOT worship Mary or the saints.  We worship the Lord God Almighty in the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.  But we do ask Mary and the saints to pray for us to the Lord.  While they are no longer alive here on earth, we believe that they are alive in heaven as members of our family of faith.  Just as I might ask my earthly family and friends to pray for me, I ask Mary and the saints to pray for me, too.  For Catholics, Mary is the perfect Christian example.  God Himself chose her to be His mother.  As the angel’s greeting reveals, Mary is “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) — which means she is full of the Lord, with no room for sin.  This perfect vessel cooperated with God by becoming the mother of our Savior.  From that moment, her life centered completely on Christ — from the infant in her womb, to the baby in the manger and throughout His life, to the very end — Mary’s eyes and heart were fixed on Jesus.  In her quiet and humble way, Mary leads us unerringly to her Son.  This is why we love her so much.  The last words spoken by Mary in Holy Scripture sum up her life’s purpose and contain the central truth of Christian spirituality:  “Do whatever He tells you to”(John 2:5).  That’s the heart of Mary’s role for us:  to remind us to keep our eyes on Jesus, no matter what.  Unite your heart to His heart.  Keep Him at the center of your thoughts, your words and your actions.  Stay with Him at the Cross and share in His suffering.  Mary’s model is for all Christians, across all times and all cultures.  Welcome her into your faith life, not just at Christmas, but every day of the year.  Ask her to pray for you and ask the Lord to reveal His mother to you.  Read the Gospels again and pay attention to Mary’s model life as it unfolds with His.  Jesus loved the Blessed Virgin Mary as He loved no other person in His life.  And if she’s so beloved by Him, embrace Her as He does.  Even if you aren’t Catholic.

Behold the Lamb!

“Change” isn’t a word you immediately associate with the Catholic Church.  But starting in just ten days, on the first Sunday of Advent, American Catholics will begin using a new translation of the Roman Missal.  This is the book which contains all the prayers used by the priest and the people during the Mass.  These changes are the result of many years of work by scholars and liturgists from around the English-speaking world.  Their work was commissioned by the late Pope John Paul II for two purposes:  to make the English translation of the Mass more faithful to the original Latin and by doing that, to allow the beauty of the original Latin to shine through.  There’s been some debate in the Catholic community about what we’re going to be saying, but most people seem to recognize that the changes in what we pray are an improvement.
Personally, I think the translation is a good thing for us.  It will make us pay attention at Mass and really listen to the prayers.  It’s been 40 years since the words we pray have changed, following the Second Vatican Council.  Some of us might have gotten so comfortable with the words that we’ve forgotten what actually happens at Mass — that Jesus Christ comes into our church and into our midst in a real and physical way when the bread and wine become His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  At Mass we’re in Christ’s presence just as we will someday be in His presence in heaven.  And in the new translation there’s one new word we’re going to pray that I think beautifully illustrates this profound experience, and that word is “behold.”

After the priest has prayed the words that Christ used at the Last Supper, he breaks the bread and holds it up for us to see.  In the old translation, he’d say, “This is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.”  In the new translation, he’ll say, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him Who takes away the sins of the world.”  It might seem like a small thing, but what a different experience we have when we hear the word “behold” rather than the mundane “this is.”  In fact, this announcement by the priest are the same words used by St. John the Baptist when he first sees his cousin Jesus approaching the Jordan River to be baptized. “Behold the Lamb of God.”  It connects us to the reality and mystery of what has just happened before us:  that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity has come into the sanctuary and that we are in the very presence of God.  It reminds us of the question Isaac asked of his father, Abraham as they walked up Mt. Moriah.  Abraham had been asked by God to sacrifice Isaac as a seal of the covenant He was making with Abraham.  As a man of faith, Abraham was willing to do the unthinkable for his people and His God.  He was going to kill his son.  Isaac knew about sacrifices, but didn’t know he was the intended victim.  As he looked around for an animal to be used, he said to his father, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb?” (Genesis 22:7) Nineteen centuries later, John the Baptist provides the answer:  “Behold the Lamb!” (John 1:29).  What an amazing God we worship.  And by reclaiming the word “behold” at that profound moment in the Mass, we’re transported to the river as Christ is first proclaimed Savior and Messiah by his cousin, which is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants God’s own people forever and from them, to give the world Salvation.  We’re there to encounter Him as the Lamb Who was slain for us in order that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Behold!