Advent, Counterculture, and Prayer

advent candlesCome Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.

When my siblings and I were growing up, my family decorated the house in Advent and Christmas colors.  The branches of the tree were enticing to the eyes of passersby, glowing with the purples and pinks of iridescent ornaments, gold bows, and white lights, and angels adorned not only the top of the tree but also the walls of our home.  However, by the time I was a teenager, I was almost embarrassed by the different-ness of our decorations, envious of friends’ houses that celebrated a more mainstream “American” Christmas, with the characteristic reds and greens and Santas and Rudolphs.  Trying not to be too sassy, I eventually confronted my mother about this.  “Why don’t we have more normal Christmas decorations in our house?” I asked.  Her reply was simple and speaks to so much more than Christmas.  “Because we’re Catholic,” she said, “and that means we do some things a little bit differently.”

The same could be said of the experience of Advent into which we are invited this liturgical season.  Our readings this weekend bring us face-to-face with two themes that bring the wisdom of my mom’s words alive for us.  They invite us to be countercultural and to make room for Jesus in the process.

From these readings, we learn that part of being Christian includes being countercultural, as we see in the example of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father.  Mary was an unwed teenager when she said “yes” to God and the Holy Spirit came upon her, blessing her with pregnancy with Jesus.  At the time, she and Joseph were engaged, but they were not yet married.  The tradition in their culture around her situation was not an accepting one.  Unwed pregnant teenagers were ostracized, isolated, unwelcome.  Joseph’s intention at the start of the Gospel for today to break their engagement quietly was gentle by comparison. 

But the God of Advent is countercultural, defying our everyday expectations. God sends a messenger to Joseph in a dream, a messenger who casts out the fear in Joseph’s heart that is causing him so much suffering over Mary’s newfound pregnancy.  Joseph’s heart is filled with love.  He has a conversion experience.  He turns completely around.  He accepts Mary into his home.  Because of his faith in our God, he does things a little bit differently, as my mom would say.

Joseph was countercultural when he made room for Mary and in turn for Jesus in his home and in his life.  He let go of unnecessary suffering and said “yes” to God in faith.  With Christmas just a few days away, I think of the unnecessary suffering many of us experience at this time of year.  Some of us may be running around at the last minute, trying to find those perfect gifts for the last few people on our Christmas lists.  The stress of the holiday season upon us, some of us may be worried about seeing that family member or friend with whom we may have had a disagreement this year; some of us may not exactly be excited to sit across the table from that person at Christmas dinner.  Some of us are worried.  Some of us are stressed.  But the good news of the Gospel is that God is with us, wanting to ease our worries, desiring to relieve us of our stress, if we would enter into right relationship with him this day.

This unnecessary suffering that I describe can come from our attachment to things.  As a culture, we suffer from this consumerism, this compulsive desire to acquire more than we need that leaves the economically poor without enough and, ironically, leaves us feeling empty, the more we acquire.  It comes from a place of insecurity, of fear that we will not be seen as “good enough” in the eyes of the world if we don’t have the right “stuff” in life.  The good news of today’s Gospel is that Jesus is Emmanuel, which literally means, “God is with us.”  And God will be with us, if we allow God to be.  Jesus comes to save us from this and from all unnecessary suffering, to alleviate that insecurity, to remind us that we are loved.  His offer of Christian fullness in the face of the emptiness of consumerism is always there for us.  It’s up to us, especially during this season of Advent anticipation, to make room for him, to say “yes” to the promise of new life in Christ and “no” to the empty promise of consumer culture.

And what about the challenges that come of being in right relationship with one another?  This, too, is a place in which we are called to make room for Jesus.  The message of today’s Gospel is that God wants to be with us.  The deepest desire of God’s heart is to be close to us, to have the kind of relationship with us that transforms our relationships with one another and with the world.  So what do we do with that family member with whom we just cannot seem to get along?  How might we approach that dear friend with whom we simply cannot see eye-to-eye?  We bring these situations to God in prayer.  We invite God’s Son in to allow his healing touch to soften our hearts.  We ask God to help us see that person with whom we might be struggling in the way that God sees them—with gentleness and compassion.  While we may not be able to change the actions of those with whom we struggle, we certainly can change the way in which we approach those situations.  And brothers and sisters, I can honestly tell you what many of you already know: prayer changes things.  It changes us; it enables us to see one another with new eyes, can imbue us with patience and generosity, has the potential to give us the calm we need to be fully present in difficult circumstances.  This Advent season is about the way things can change, about the way that faith in things not seen turns the suffering world on its ear. 

I invite you in these days approaching Christmas to do two things that reflect the priorities of today’s Gospel.  First, be a little bit countercultural.  Give the gift of your time, of your presence, to those you love.  And give of yourself to the most vulnerable in our midst.  Make time to look our homeless brothers and sisters in the eye, to share a kind word and some of what God has blessed you with, to proclaim in the way you live your life that God is truly with us.  Second, make room for Jesus.  Put Christ at the center of your experience of Christmas.  One of the blessings of our Catholic tradition is that there are as many ways to pray as there are followers of Jesus.  If you are a contemplative, set aside time, even just five to ten minutes a day, to spend in silence, reflecting on the coming of Christ.  Let Christ’s love be present to you in those moments of silence.  If you are a thinker, read the pope’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel.”  Google it; it’s on the Vatican website.  And reflect on how Christ is calling you to share his love with the world in which we live.  If you are a do-er, share the love that God shares with us this season with those around you.  Be a witness to Christ’s love to those you meet, especially the poor.  Consider connecting with our St. Vincent dePaul conference; maybe talk with Elizabeth House about volunteering with the single moms and their kids who live there in the new year.  Whether you are a contemplative, a thinker, a do-er, or some combination of these, make room for Christ this Advent season.  Invite him in.  Let his love change you.

Thirteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.  What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?  This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”  Brothers and sisters, this is the invitation of today’s Gospel: to be mothers of God, men and women alike; to be in right relationship with Christ and with our world.  In these days approaching Christmas, let us be filled with grace.  As Christmas nears, let us give birth to an infant savior whose innocence and vulnerability challenges the powers and principalities of our day, to a Jesus who came to tend our suffering, to a Christ who wants to turn our world upside down.  “This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”