Advent is Not Christmas

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Psalm: Psalm 85:9-14
Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-14
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Advent is not Christmas. It is a season uniquely its own, very much like Lent. Each day of Advent has its own proper Mass, pertinent readings, antiphons, and responses. It is four weeks of celebration and preparation – weeks that focus on the past, the present, and the future: Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ will come again. It is a glorious crescendo increasing in power and intensity until it climaxes on a midnight outshone only by an Easter Sunday.

On the other hand, for most of us, Advent is “no big deal.” And how could it be otherwise? How can you make a big deal out of Advent, when you have a full-time job, a family to feed, your favorite ball games and tele-novela to watch? How can you concentrate on Christ, when every commercial seduces you with gifts that seem far more necessary for human living – from reducing pills, breast enhancement pills, and the latest fads through TV and internet, to fruitcakes, ham, and castañas, to Asti and Chivas Regal. Time enough to celebrate Christ only, when Midnight Mass comes around.

So, how can we break through these barriers? – in a practical way, a layperson’s way? I suggest for this Sunday, let Mary be your Advent Guide. Perhaps three sentences from Scripture from St. Luke’s Gospel might bring fresh meaning to your Advent without much pain and paranoia.

First, a sentence in Luke – after the shepherds have hurried to the stable to pay homage to the Savior “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” As previously, the angel in Nazareth, so here before the shepherds in Bethlehem, Mary was puzzled. She had to ask herself what all this, what each incident might mean: conceiving a child without the benefit of a human father, giving birth to the Son of the Most High in a manger, later fleeing like a refugee to Egypt, watching helplessly as her Son moved firmly toward the death he predicted. She had to wrestle with all these happenings.

And so for you and me, my first Advent suggestion: Take 15 minutes out of each day to ponder, to reflect, to puzzle over, to wrestle with what the Lord has told you about His Son-made-man, a reverent pondering each day over the overwhelming affirmation in John: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should have eternal life”; pondering over a Son of God, who chose to take our human flesh, become what we are, experience our fragile human existence, die our death.

What does it mean to you and me? What child is this? In your day to day living, is Jesus Christ real to you as your ninong and ninang, as Michael Jordan, Shaq O’Neil, Gloria Macapagal, George Bush, Osama Bin Ladin, the Abu Sayyaf, as the man or woman you love? Let the image of Jesus, Son of God in swaddling clothes; trigger your thinking – about him, about you, about the other people touching your life or those whose life you touch.

And at some point stop thinking! Just gaze and contemplate. Have a long loving look at Jesus. Don’t analyze. Just feel the scene. Picture yourself kneeling at Bethlehem’s crib, become a child again, touch little toes as real as any infant’s, let naked reason disappear, let Christ simply be! Just look … and love.

Fifteen minutes a day – on the event that changed history forever, the puzzle of puzzles. Let your beeper, your cell phones, your CD sit in silence; let your stereo and karaoke wait. For 15 minutes let the rest of the world go by; let the rest of the world make sense – in Christ.

Second, a sentence in Luke after the angel departed: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” The point is: What did this teen-age Jewish girl do when the angel left her – left her with God’s Son in her body? She did not sit down to plan what hospital to book to deliver her baby, or who should be her doctor, or how to notify her friends and relatives, what kind of party to have.

The Gospel tells us that Mary heard from Gabriel that her cousin, Elizabeth was six months pregnant. And Elizabeth was old, and “advanced in years.” What did Mary do? She went “with haste” to visit Elizabeth, walked briskly to a town in the hill country of Judea, walked perhaps 67 miles. Not to spread her own good news, not to compare child with Elizabeth, not to rave over “my son, the Messiah.” She went simply to help – for three full months, till Elizabeth’s child was born.

As soon as Mary greeted her kinswoman, the Gospel tells us – little John the Baptist “leaped in [Elizabeth’s] womb…” leaped for joy, leaped at the coming of Christ, sensed miraculously the presence of God’s Son in Mary’s womb.

And so for you and me – Contemplation is good – focusing mind and heart on a Christ who walks the earth no longer. But Advent with Mary calls contemplation to action – focusing mind and heart on a Christ, who is still moving from Bethlehem to Calvary. Not far from you is a brother, a sister, akin to you in the bone of humanity and the blood of Christ, someone, who needs you, someone who hurts, someone, who finds it difficult or impossible to enjoy life, because “life is cruel.”

A short story writer, who died of lupus at 39 years, once wrote these words from her own incurable cross: “You will have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s sufferings and not your own.” Do that, be that, come with your Christ, with your cross, to someone too poor, too naked, too sad, too crippled to joy in Christmas, and the miracle of Mary’s visitation will be repeated as it has been through the ages. The person you touch in love will leap for joy from the barren womb of sorrow. A 15- minute contemplation… hasten to some hill Calvary… what is left? Only the rest of your life.

The third Advent text about Mary stems from the public life of Jesus. “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, `Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you fed on.’ But he said, `Blessed rather are those who listen to the word of God and keep it!'”

Jesus was not denying that Mary was blessed in her bearing of him. Of course, she was. What the woman cried from the crowd was true – but only part of the picture. St. Augustine expressed it powerfully, “Mary was more blessed because she laid hold of faith in Christ than she conceived the flesh of Christ, Her motherly relationship to him would have been of no use to Mary had she not carried Christ in her heart more happily even than she bore him in her body. She “conceived Christ in her mind before she conceived him in her womb.” “It was by faith she gave birth, it was by faith she conceived him.”

In Luke’s story, Mary is indeed to be praised – simply because she gave birth to Jesus, but because she too listened to God’s word, believed it, acted on it – from the glad tidings brought by Gabriel in Nazareth to the days in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension, when the apostles “with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus…” That is why we see Mary most profoundly when we see her as the first Christian disciple, the model and pattern of Christian discipleship. She listened to what God was asking, and she said yes – not only to the bliss of Bethlehem, but also to the sword that pierced her heart on Calvary.

And so for you and me, Advent, the “coming” of Christ, is not simply a season, four weeks out of your year. From contemplation to action – You must face up to a fact at once frightening and encouraging: God is constantly speaking to you. Not too often through angel, more often through human events. Not only through the Ten Commandments etched in stone, but in a law of justice and love written into your flesh and spirit. Not only through a document from Rome, but in the sad starved eyes of children of the victims of calamities and wars that meet your eyes on the TV screen. Not only through the “word of the Lord” from the lectern, but in the grim silence of the homeless huddled in the kareton on the sidewalks. Not only through a pastoral letter on peace, but in the undeclared wars that divide the rich and the poor, male and female, ordained and lay, the powerful and the powerless. Tune in to the God within you and the world around you. Ponder – puzzle over, what you hear. At some point say yes, even if what you hear is not all clear. Then, with the profound faith of a perplexed Mary, act…do something…carry Christ somewhere, to someone.