As we inaugurate a new liturgical year with this First Sunday of Advent, let’s recall a phenomena that’s been taking us by storm these last nine months. As Pope Francis has been in our midst, he’s gotten a lot of press concerning his style: the way of his simplicity; his very gentle, humble words of love and acceptance; his challenge to put the gospel into action rather than allow it to remain words on a page or in a book. And earlier this week, he published his first pontifical text on “the Joy of the Gospel”. As I’ve begun to read it and attempt to assimilate his instruction into my own life, I am finding it very challenging and rewarding at the same time, and I would like to reflect on it with you over these next weeks of Advent. One of the initial images that strikes me is the idea of “contrast”. Let me see if I can help make sense of it and the value “contrasts” might have for us.
From our opening prayer and all three of our readings, we sense that the Advent Season is inviting us to move from one place to another, from one time to another, from one way of being to another…and to do all of this with great haste. Our opening prayer began, “Grant your faithful, we pray, Almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ….” From that very invocation, we sense that we are apart from Christ; that Christ is then coming to us; that we are to move quickly toward Him. We are asking to be transported, if you will, from an existence without Christ to being with Him. And no wonder: recall that 2013 years ago, all the world—all times and places up until the Incarnation—had existed without the real presence of Jesus Christ in their midst. Even today, as we look around and see all that by which we are busied, and all that by which our world is distracted, we are constantly tempted to move away from Christ and His virtue. For example, can we not take even one day to give and receive thanks among our family and friends? …to rest in the gratitude of one other and our gratitude for God, without having to go out and shop til we drop? Instead of ‘being in thanksgiving’, our culture tugs at us and drags us into acquiring ‘stuff’ in order to distract us. This presents us with a contrast, does it not? Much of our resolve is directed toward the world and its goods versus God and our ultimate Good.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah points to a future vision, one not yet fulfilled, when he says, “…in the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.” Isaiah’s vision evolves further and further as more and more faithful stream toward God, toward instruction, toward justice…when they come at long last to lay aside arms and seek to build, to generate, to “walk in the light of the Lord!” Yet, even in this last month, we’ve seen such contrasts, haven’t we: as we were proclaiming Our Lord Jesus Christ is King of the Universe, there were young hoodlums throughout several cities violently beating innocent elderly people for absolutely no discernible reason. This dramatic lack of respect and dignity for another, this desire to harm the other is much more than disturbing…and it provides a backdrop of contrast.
Last week, a young teenage girl was reported in the news as having been bullied in school for years, and she was finally speaking out. What was the reason for the violence and terror slung at her? She has a facial tumor, a kind of exaggerated dropsy along the whole right side of her face. She has done nothing wrong; she is surviving her terrible affliction. But not only is her deformity a cause of suffering, but the bullying alienates her, thus causing her even greater pain. Now, at the exact same time, however, Pope Francis—at a midday general audience—was faced with a man who suffers a similar disfigurement. Basically since birth, his body is riddled with tumors and lesions. Francis’ response to this man? He embraced him gently and with haste; he calmed the man and caressed his suffering. A further contrast.
St. Paul’s letter to the Roman’s distinguishes light from dark, day from night, all to demonstrate what it means to live life with the Lord Jesus. And throughout this season of Advent, the contrasts will continue.
So, what are we to take from such images? First, I believe we need to pause for a moment in order to take stock of our existence. Step away from the everyday humdrum or the hustle and bustle. Right now, kick everything else from your mind and take a measly 30 seconds to consider an image with me:
Advent must be filled with tensions and contrasts. Advent is, first of all, the season of our original religious instinct: while we are apart from God, we are still able to be a part of God. Never will we experience our primeval homesick yearning for God more actively, more acutely, more alertly than in this season. For it is in this season of Advent that God announces Good News that will be for all the people; it is in this season where we acknowledge that we need a savior, that we need one to establish, finally and forever, justice for us and through us…that we cannot do it ourselves; it is in this season when our hearts grow expectant for a new ushering of God’s prevenient grace by which we might then be able to respect one another with a holy deference and thus serve well the good of the poor, the lowly, the suffering and the afraid. This is the season where we acknowledge a longing for True Love…that True Love who bears the name: Jesus Christ…Emmanuel.
These are the mysteries of the Season of Advent. May we explore them more and more deeply in these coming weeks, as Christ grows closer and closer to us.
May you know full well that God loves us all.