Stay Awake!

November 27, 2016

It is Advent again! It is a new liturgical year, a new cycle and another opportunity to grow in–well, to grow!

In the Julian calendar, in tandem with secular culture, a new year is perceived as a chance at a fresh start. People fill themselves with the hope that this year will be different because of the self-promises of being different; hence, the custom of a New Year’s resolution. Sadly, most resolutions never make it past the first week in February. For Catholics, Advent is the beginning of a new year, a season of preparation and has promptings commensurable to those found in the secular customs of January 1.

This past year, as Catholics, we experienced the jubilee year of Mercy, prescribed by Holy Father, Pope Francis. That whole year was the Church’s hopeful call and beckoning for the world to turn to God and experience God’s generous and merciful love. It was a call to repentance and a call for change. If there is anything that the U.S. polls of November 8 revealed, it is that people are starved for change. The deciding factor behind the election of Donald Trump, according to various political commenters from left and right, was that the general public did not want another politician, someone who is already part of the incumbent “system.” Desperate for a different America and a different life, for better or worse, Donald Trump is the president-elect.*

This deeply rooted desire and affinity for change is a search. This searching is not a recent development in a supposed evolution of human consciousness. This search is there in our human nature and has been there from man’s beginnings. This search for change is the same in us today as it was for, say, the people of the Roman Empire, for the people of Monarchical England or for the Puritanical pilgrims of the New World. Such a deep-seated search is rooted in some end–a good that will eventually satisfy. Catholics understand this to be the soul’s search for God. Being that God and God alone satisfies this particular appetite, nothing we try to substitute for God will work. Some things may help, that is, external changes that make coming to God easier. However, whoever we elect president, whatever laws we may pass, or whatever improvements to the economy we may make will not satisfy our hunger. What will?

The Gospel message of Christ on this first Sunday in Advent tells us, “Stay Awake!” In other words, be attentive and observe closely yourself, your memories and the world around you. Be willing to subject yourself to the analysis of the Spirit. The root meaning of the word, “analysis,” is to “break apart”or “loosen up.” In this context, much like a biologist may analyze a frog through dissection, Advent is a time to analyze yourself: your desires, attachments, relationships, habits and personal goals. But for what are we looking? To what standard are we to evaluate these aspects of our lives?

Secular culture fails to answer this question in a clear and worthy manner which is  why the majority of New Year’s resolutions fail. The best answer I can surmise from contemporary culture is that one changes in order to move toward a vague notion of self-improvement, happiness and general well-being. I can only surmise because there is no cultural authority to appeal to, and nothing really being celebrated on a New Year’s day except that our calendars reset to 1.1.xx. The Catholic faith and culture, on the other hand, has clear ends in mind. Advent literally means “coming,” that is, the coming of Jesus. As we examine, analyze and ask ourselves, “What needs to change?” we must do so through the lens of Christ’s coming. St. John the Baptist as the voice of Advent echoes the prophecy  and call of Isaiah, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight his paths!” This is the sum of the call of Jesus to “Stay Awake!” Be prepared. Be Ready for when Christ comes. Do your desires, attachments, relationships, habits and personal goals make the road easy for Christ to come to you or are they obstacles and roadblocks? Surely, Christ will come again in glory. The question is not “If?” or “When?” but, “Are you ready?”

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Practical Suggestions

As a way of making this a more accessible reflection on Advent, here are some practical suggestions for the Catholic version of New Year’s resolutions as we begin a new liturgical year. As a note of application, I want to echo Pope Francis, in light of the Synod on the Family and his document, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). He wrote that the graces of God sometimes have to be integrated gradually into the life of the family. These suggestions are better served one or two at a time not all at once and should be adhered to for the duration of Lent, keeping mindful that this is spiritual preparation for Christmas day.

In no particular order:

  • Have a family advent wreath with candles, and light the candles as a family each Sunday. Accompany this with prayer. If your family is ready for nightly do it nightly there are some good resources and prayer books for that. If not, even just weekly on Sunday as a whole family is a good start.
  • Treat Advent as a kind of “Winter-Lent” just as certain other Catholic communities do. Lent is the Church’s 40-day preparation for the paschal mystery ending with Easter. Similar practices are appropriate in preparation for Christmas. Such practices include abstaining from luxuries (meats, sweets and treats), prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
  • Pray the readings of the Church during days of Advent. The USCCB.org website has a calendar where one can access the readings from any day of the year. It can even be set up to be sent to your email. Entering into the spirit of the season is easier when you hear God himself telling you how to prepare.
  • Try increasing your attendance at daily mass. Yes, Church’s have daily mass often times in the morning. They tend to be markedly shorter (about 30-40min) depending on the celebrant. Making the time will seem difficult at first but once it becomes a habit, it will not be long before one understands “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It will become a treasured part of the day. Start with one extra day during the week, in addition to Sunday (this is presuming that Sundays are already understood as non-negotiable “gotta-go” days. If they are not that in your mind, that can be your Advent focus.)
  • Meditate frequently upon the themes of Advent. There are many themes but pick one of the mysteries of the Catholic faith and spend time wondering about it, pray about it and praise God for it. Themes of Advent are the Incarnation, the first coming of Jesus, the second coming of Jesus, the cry Maranatha, Old Testament prophecies of Jesus, The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, Mary the Theotokos, et al.

Hopefully, this was helpful and/or affirming for anyone curious about the traditions of the Catholic faith, whether Catholic or not. Do you have any Advent practices, for the individual or the family, that you find helpful for preparing spiritually for Christmas?

*As wishing to speak from a faithfully Catholic understanding and perspective of things, I do not endorse or reject any particular political view as such. This is strictly and simply a social observation based on the results of the recent U.S. elections. 

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