The Dawn From On High

November 27, 2018

Throughout the liturgical year, the Church meditates upon the entirety of salvation history. At the beginning of the cycle, the season of Advent, we are called to think about the beginning–the creation, the fall of humanity, the time before Christ’s birth, and our need for Christ to come as savior. At the end of the liturgical year, we are called to meditate upon the end–when Christ will come again, creation will be renewed, and the kingdom of God that began with Christ is fulfilled. This past Sunday, the Church celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It was the last Sunday and this is the last week of the liturgical year, so the time has come to look to the end and prepare for a new beginning. 

Much like how popular culture celebrates and embraces the new calendar year with resolutions of self-improvement and optimism, the Church looks to the beginning of a new liturgical cycle as an opportunity for beginning something new–to take up a new prayer practice, commit to deepening one’s understanding of the faith, or cultivating a virtue that, upon reflection, could help remediate a particular fault or shortcoming. The difference is that these resolutions should be spiritual in nature, and Advent is the perfect time to start this resolution. However, before we get too ahead of ourselves, it is important to remember that it is not Advent yet.

This last week of the year should play the role of an inventory, a time where one takes stock of the moments throughout the past year starting with the last Advent and honestly reflects on himself and his spiritual growth. Each individual should take time to answer questions like, “Did I, in fact, grow closer to God?” “Do I know and understand more than last year?” “Have I conquered those bad habits?” In other words, “Have I truly and completely subjected myself to Christ as sovereign king over every aspect of myself?” This is what it means to truly celebrate this feast. It is a widely accepted maxim that changing the world for the better begins with the individual.

As St. Paul reminds us, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (I Cor 15:25). Christ will have placed every “enemy” under his feet when every soul has purged itself from every inclination contrary to charity–divine love. It is up to us to desire and seek the perfection that God desires to give us. Unless a soul can truthfully say it has been perfected in love, there is work to do; and as true love will always say, there is more to do (cf. “Love never says, ‘I have done enough.'” -St. Marie-Eugene of Jesus). 

As a preparation for the preparatory season of Advent and for the new liturgical year, it behooves the faithful to ask themselves, “What areas of my life do I need to subject to Christ’s kingship?” It may be our memories, our habitual self-deprecation and/or self-disparaging thoughts or beliefs, or possibly some desire that we have not fully entrusted to Him yet. Perhaps it is time that we stop waffling on the general, luke-warm desire to “pray more” and actually pick a specific prayer plan and stick to it. Or, if one is feeling inspired to do something heroic, such a soul might want to take up a particular practice that has fallen into disuse popularly speaking, particularly during Advent, which is to begin a regular penance. Whatever resolution one may resolve to make, now is the time to reflect on what within ourselves do we need to work and work out how we can realistically follow through on those plans.

If you’re not sure where to start now is a good time. And, from my experience, it makes sense to take a basic spiritual inventory. I personally like to follow the sage and simple advice of St. Francis of Assisi, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible. Suddenly you will find yourself doing the impossible.” An inventory might begin with the general question: “Am I doing all that I should and avoiding what I shouldn’t be doing?” Once that is taken care of, then attention can be turned to, “What can I do better or more?” 

By what is necessary I would begin with the Precepts of the Church ( 1. Go to mass every Sunday and Holy Day; 2. Receive communion at least once a year if only once, preferably during Easter; 3. Go to confession at least once a year, if only once, then preferably during Lent; 4. Fast on the prescribed fasting days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent; and 5. Provide for the material needs of the Church which generally means to put something in the offering). The precepts are the basics. For some of the precepts, you might say to yourself I definitely do that more than is necessary and that is good. Generally, those who go to mass also receive communion. For such instances, maintain or increase where possible. But some us might say, “I could do a little better to do as prescribed.”

If you do all of the precepts already, then see where it is possible to do more. If you’re like me, confession once a year will not cut it; not even twice. My wife and I go once a month and that is the general recommendation of spiritual directors unless there is a need to go more often. You may want to try such a practice if you don’t do so already. There are some Catholic families with the tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays throughout the entire year, not just Lent. There are a lot of possibilities as the quote suggests but, of course, start with what is necessary then move on to the possible. 

To this spiritual program, St. Francis adds, “Suddenly you are doing the impossible.” What he refers to here is the work of grace–God taking what you offer and making more of it than had God never touched and blessed it. Like the child who offered Jesus a few loaves and fish to feed the multitudes, Jesus takes what little steps we take done in love for Him, and makes it more than what it would have been under our own power. This is the realm of miracles.

Just to illustrate, here is a little example. My wife and I make the effort to pray before every meal, just the simple grace before meals, especially with our two-year-old daughter. While it is far more comfortable to do so within our own family because we’ve nurtured that little practice there, it is a little different within the homes of our own parents simply because the same was not necessarily cultivated. On the occasions where the larger family gets together and as we sit down to eat, it is our daughter who reminds everyone it is time to pray. It is not awkward for her and in effect, it removes the awkwardness of the pre-meal “are we going to pray?” silence. Because of the simple practice of habituating prayer before meals, a two-year-old became an occasion of grace and prayer where there might not have been. 

My suggestion is to start where you are at. Here we are at the end. Look back through the year focusing more on the spiritual side of things. Start with what is necessary. Don’t be too hard on yourself but rise to the occasion and allow yourself to be challenged. And as a final practical suggestion, have a “fail-safe” plan, meaning that if you fail, get back up and start again. Don’t think about it too much, go to confession if that is what your failure entails, and resume. Again, Christ can take your meager offerings and feed thousands with it. You have but to offer it to Him.

Jeremy Mallett, M.A. Theology, Catechist, and Teacher–If you would like to read what Jeremy has to write on this or related topics feel free to leave a comment with suggestions or questions. 

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