We have begun the great and holy season of Advent, a yearly time of renewal and focus of our faith. I will not bother you with another sermon about the dangers of materialism in the lead-up to Christmas, but if you really need to be reminded about the true spirit of Christmas, the following thoughts may help you to find that balance of living in the world but not of the world.
Advent is a season of preparation. It is not a season of penance per se; it is that only to the extent that penance may be an element of preparation for the coming of the Great King. It is, rather, a season of focus on something interior, something hidden, if you will, to get to know it better; it is much like a woman focusing on a pregnancy for nine months. At first she takes it on the faith of a pregnancy test that there is a new baby developing inside of her. She cannot feel the baby, but she knows by certain signs, i.e., changes in her own body and emotions, that he is there. As time goes on, she begins to feel him more distinctly and can have a more direct relationship with him who she cannot see — yet. As she waits to give birth, she focuses more on the baby and can be continually aware of his presence, consciously or subconsciously. At the end of nine months, she finally sees with her own eyes the one whose presence she previously had to discern by signs and feelings!
Advent is like that. It is a time to re-establish our focus on that hidden Presence within which we do not always see as a concrete reality. To paraphrase Pope Leo the Great many centuries ago, Christ's first coming was seen by the people of His day after long preparation. His second coming will be seen by all creation after long ages are finished. It is His third coming which Advent prepares us for; namely, His personal coming into the heart of every believer in every day and age. That is something that only the believer himself can prepare for, and that is why the Church gives us a whole season to prepare for it.
And how do we prepare best for His coming? Simply by praying more. That may sound trite, but it is meant as a true spiritual challenge. The type of prayer we seek in Advent is not just a pious thought of God every now and then or a petition to heaven in a moment of need. Those are fine, but they are not enough. Advent prayer is a deep reflection on the sacred mysteries of our salvation, something that needs time and repetition to bear fruit. We cannot appreciate such a mystery as God becoming man unless we have a serious commitment to prayer.
Prayer of this sort is a discipline of the will (i.e., the deepest core of the person). It is a conscious decision to stop what one is doing and put oneself outside of the regular day-to-day travail so to enter a realm of grace and pure light. With reason, Jesus told His disciples to go into their rooms, close the door and pray to their Father "in secret." He was telling them to make the conscious decision to free their souls of the workaday mindset and submit their consciousness to a radical, transforming encounter with the Lord — every day.
The real discipline of the Christian life, especially in a season of spiritual "preparation," is the discipline of prayer. It comes down to a decision — made every day — to let go of our passionate involvement in the things of the world, as necessary as these things are, and to go into the inner sanctum of the heart, one-on-one, alone with the Lord. That is where we become transformed, interiorly, by grace and see things as God sees them. That is where we really prepare to meet Christ in a new way at Christmas.
Here is my Advent challenge: pray every day during Advent, and you will be treated to a Christmas in which you "see" Christ like never before.