I was going to begin by asking what you were going to give up for Advent, and then Father Paul said: “No, it’s Lent when we give things up, not Advent.” Thanks for straightening me out, Father. Of course, Advent and Lent do have something in common – both are periods of preparation and anticipation. But in Lent, we await the Passion, Death, and resurrection of Christ, and we make some sort of sacrifice as a way of repenting for the fact that our sinfulness is part of the reason for those events.
In advent, our preparation is different – we wait in joyful anticipation for the coming of Christ into the world. Imagine that – Christ, who is responsible for the fact that we are here – who is God – became a human person. That’s a very difficult thing to get your head around. Whenever God does something that is so amazing that we can’t understand it, we call it a mystery. And so we await the mystery of the Incarnation – God becoming man.
I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember the movie: “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” I thought about it because there’s a re-make coming out next month. In the movie, a being who is not from earth, comes to earth to share some of his knowledge so that our civilization can be better. But even though he was a peaceful person, he was met with fear and hostility.
Imagine someone not from this earth coming to earth to bring us something incredibly valuable. Well, that’s what we’re preparing for during Advent – and that’s why Advent is not primarily a time of penance, but a time when we prepare for the most amazing event the world has ever witnessed.
But there are some similarities with Lent. Although Advent is not primarily a time of penance, our preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas requires us to look at ourselves and ask whether we’re ready. The Gospel today spoke about a man who went away and left his servants in charge of his house. The servants were instructed to protect his house from thieves, and to make sure the house would be ready when he returned – whenever that was. I don’t think he told them when he was going to be back.
I watched a TV program last week – and there was a couple preparing for Thanksgiving dinner (American Thanksgiving). His parents were coming over for dinner and she spent the entire week before frantically cleaning, rearranging, shopping and organizing. She even cooked a practice turkey to be sure it would turn out just right. Well, that’s a bit over the edge, but you get the idea. When someone important is coming, we have to do something to get ready – and that’s what Advent is about.
The Christmas season tends to get all confused with people preparing for the gift-giving part while still trying to prepare spiritually for the birth of Christ. The news reports lately have been telling that the economy is so bad that many people will have to cut back on Christmas gifts. I wonder if the thought of giving fewer gifts or more modest gifts might actually allow us to focus more on our true preparation for the coming of Jesus. After all, gifts are supposed to be a symbol of love – an outward sign. Even if there are fewer symbols, it doesn’t mean a lack of love. Perhaps our challenging economic realities might allow us (or even force us) to show true love to our families and friends – and our God.
In that TV show I was talking about, the woman cleaned and rearranged everything in sight – up, down, and sideways. Why did she do that? Well, yes, she was trying to impress her in-laws, but if you think about it, she was trying to make her house reflect the person she wanted to be – or at least the person that she wanted her in-laws to think she was.
Does your house and do your behaviours reflect the person waiting for Christ? It’s the question that Jesus was posing in the Gospel today – were the servants protecting their master’s house, and were they keeping it in a way that he could return any time? And it’s an important question to ask at this time of year. We spend lots of time and money decorating our houses for Christmas, but would someone coming into your house over the holidays be able to tell that you’re preparing for the birth of Christ? And even apart from Christmas, does your house reflect your Christianity? I remember talking to Laura many years ago after we had just moved, and saying: “You know, a person coming into this house would never know that we were Catholics.” There were no crucifixes, statues, pictures, candles – nothing!
We can do many things to prepare ourselves and remind ourselves that we belong to Jesus. When I do baptisms on Sunday afternoons, I often talk to the parents about reminding their children that they are Catholics. When you watch Father Paul baptize children at Mass, one of the first things he does is sign the child’s forehead with the sign of the cross and then he invites the parents and godparents to do the same. I always encourage the parents to make the sign of the cross on their children’s forehead a part of their bed time ritual – reminding their children that they are Catholics – that they belong to God. And I encourage them to make prayer before meals another part of their family routine – again, to remind their children (and themselves) about their connection with God and their faith. And to show them how easy it is, I demonstrate: “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen:” five seconds, a little longer if you say it with feeling. How many of us go through an entire day without doing anything that reflects our faith?
The story about the woman frantically cleaning and rearranging her house to impress her in-laws reinforces the fact that outward signs reflect (or at least should reflect) our inner reality. The next four weeks will be full of outward signs. What is the inner reality that they will reflect? I spoke about making the sign of the cross on your children’s foreheads before bed. Husbands and wives can do the same for each other. People who live alone can bless themselves. Young couples could bless each other at the end of a date – this might help to keep their relationship consistent with Christian values. I also mentioned grace before meals and spiritual symbols in your houses. If you’re not in the habit of doing these things, Advent is a wonderful time to make them part of your routine – and it should be a routine that carries on long after Christmas.
If Advent is really a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus into our world – and into each of our individual worlds – then that preparation and anticipation should change us – not just for the next four weeks.