The archbishop's column this week is excerpted from his remarks to the Orange County Prayer Breakfast, December 7.
Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, the only Son of God, the Word of God made flesh. We believe that He was born in poverty in Bethlehem in order to grow and preach God's kingdom, and suffer, die and rise from the dead — all for the sake of our redemption, because God loves us.
Christmas is a feast of love, but it is God's love first that makes it possible. Christmas begins our deliverance from sin and death. That's why St. Leo the Great called it the "birthday of joy." What begins in the stable ends in our salvation. That's why we celebrate Christmas, and it's the best and only reason the human heart needs.
Catholics observe these last few weeks every year before Christmas as the season of Advent. It's a time when the Church asks us to prepare our lives to receive Jesus the child at Christmas, and Jesus the king at the end of time. How can we best do that? The tradition of the Church tells us by vigil and by prayer.
The season of Advent is a vigil. The word "vigil" means to keep watch during normal sleeping hours, to pay attention when others are sleeping. It comes from a very old Indo-European word "weg," which means "be lively or active." So to keep vigil or to be vigilant does not mean passive waiting but active, restless waiting, expectant waiting for the Lord. It means paying attention to what is going on in the world around us, and not being asleep. It means acting, living out our mission to be God's agents in the world.
The Advent tradition of the Church is vigil and prayer.
There are two places in the New Testament — 1 Corinthians and Revelation — where we find a prayer in the Aramaic language, the Semitic dialect spoken by Jesus. Since this prayer is in Aramaic it must come from the very earliest days of the Church. The prayer is "Marana tha" and means "Lord, come!"
St. Augustine tells us that God is indebted to us, not because of anything we have done, but because of His promises. God always keeps His promises. So we call on Him to come again.
Our Advent prayer is "Lord, come!"
Lord, come — into our world!
Lord, come — into our lives!
Lord, come — and purify our longings!
Lord, come — to free us from our compulsions and sins!
Lord, come — into our relationships!
Lord, come — into our work!
Lord, come — into our sufferings!
And into the darkness of our troubled world.
We speak these words — "Marana tha" – with a real and confident urgency, not only for ourselves and our personal lives, but also for our Church and our nation.
Twelve months ago, on Christmas Day, Pope Benedict XVI published his first encyclical. He called it "Deus Caritas Est" — "God is love." Here's a line from it that I want to share with you as I close: "The Christian program — the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus — is ‘a heart which sees.' This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly" (31, b).
Being faithful to your spouse and family; defending the unborn child; helping the poor; visiting the sick; respecting the immigrant; protecting the dignity and meaning of marriage; working for justice; leading with character — this is the Christian program, the result of hearts which see.
What I ask God to give to you and to me, to our nation and to our Church this Christmas, is the one gift that really does matter: Hearts that see, and see clearly.
God grant all of us a blessed Advent and a joyful Christmas.