In the preface of his book of poems, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.” Wonder is worth praying for. It brings excitement at the sight of a supermoon or a meteor shower. Wonder elicits hope that the present wondrous thing is only one wondrous thing among billions of marvels yet to fill us with delight. Wonder keeps us simple and child-like. Wonder keeps us open to new possibilities and expectant that our spirits will soar and expand. Some say Christmas is a time for wonder. It is, but our prayer for wonder can be answered every day.
The Gospel passage for December 18 begins “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” We are familiar with Joseph’s taking Mary as his wife. And throughout the next few days the familiar story continues. . . Zechariah in the temple . . .Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. . . Mary’s Magnificat. But we don’t know how the story will end. Scripture tells of Jesus’ public life, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. The New Testament continues with the details of the early Christians and the letters of Paul, John, and Peter. But we still don’t know how the story will end. Eons of chapters will continue before we know the end of the story, but we can guess how the final chapter will begin: “This is how the fullness of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ came about.” Will it tell how “All things hold together in Christ”? (Col. 1:17). Will its climax show Christ as the future of the universe? Will it portray how the Incarnation has been completed in us? Will it prove that the mystery of Christ is our mystery? Come quickly, Lord! We can’t wait to see how the story ends.
What a week this will be! Christmas plays and parties. Shopping and wrapping gifts. Sending cards and singing carols. Advent Vespers and penance services. With the Fourth Week of Advent being only one day this year, the Third Week of Advent makes Christmas very near. What do you need to complete? Baking? Grocery shopping? You might be ready for the big day celebrating Jesus’ birth. But don’t forget that the Incarnation needs to be completed in us.
The Church designed Advent for inspiration, but often December is a time for frustration. Tangled strings of lights, tilting trees, off-key concert pieces, burnt cookies, and long lines at the cashier cause more than one frustrated “Bah! Humbug!” Someone told me that she starts Advent in mid-November regardless of the real date. The extra two weeks give her some quiet time before Advent coincides—or clashes– with holiday busyness. That’s something I’ll need to remember next year—taking time for some extra inspiration. And maybe there will be a little less frustration.
Advent readings in Isaiah abound in nature images. “Streams will burst forth in the desert.” “The burning sands will become pools.” “I will set in the wasteland the cypress.” And why? “That all may see and know, observe and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Is. 41:20). From the first moments of creation billions of years ago Christ immersed himself in the heart of matter providing an energy of love in every aspect of creation. Ever since, Christ’s love energizes our expanding universe.
Although Isaiah was written hundreds of years ago, the writer gives a glimpse of the creative love of the coming Messiah whose energy cured the lame and the leper. The prophet also gives a glimpse of the future of the universe when all will be one in Christ. Whatever has been and whatever will be is life, and where there’s life, there’s God. This message is repeated in the prologue of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…Through him all things came into being… Whatever came to be in him found life.”
Although Advent is described as a time of waiting, it’s also a time for doing. How are we life-giving? How are we energizing our world with love?
A family of four walked the red trail ahead of me. I passed the baby carriage and the mother who told me the baby was a boy. Ahead raced a father and a little boy about three years old. As I caught up to these two, I said to the boy, “In a couple years you’ll be able to race your brother.” He just looked at me while the father translated. Then the tike put a thumbs up with a huge smile. The father explained that his son didn’t know much English yet. The father then added, “At first I thought you said that I was the brother, and I took that as a compliment.” I responded, “I guess we’re all brothers and sisters.” As I walked on, I wondered what the father thought of my statement, since the family were perhaps Muslim. Maybe the father felt as sad as I did that millions of persons around the globe cannot begin to think they are anyone’s brother or sister after years of refugee camps, ethnic cleansing, and so many other evils. The family and I took the same path, and it made all the difference.
I am blessed with the ability to play piano, a gift my family gave me. My older sister taught me the basics, and eventually my parents paid for lessons. I have not become a “real” musician, for I have never had the chance to study theory or even a college course beyond the two basic ones demanded of elementary school teachers. But I have the ability to accompany. Cantors and choirs sing easily with me, for I play as people sing and not exactly as written. Because the main responsibility for singing is with the congregation, I let my hands “breathe” with the assembly. This creates unity between singing and accompanying, and thus accompaniment becomes real companioning.
Accompaniment that is easy to follow is reassuring, thus inviting participation. The feeling in the congregation becomes “I can do this,” and all can become companions to each other in the singing of hymns or ritual music. Moreover, the assembly can more easily join themselves to the action of Christ through the priest, especially in dialogues and acclamations. May all feel welcome in the song of Christ.
We Sisters of Notre Dame have a custom that each province celebrates a special feast, usually one of Mary: Immaculate Heart of Mary for Covington, Our Lady of Good Counsel Indonesia, the Visitation in India, and so on. We in Toledo, as well as the Sisters in Tegelen, celebrate the Immaculate Conception on December 8. As Sisters of Notre Dame (French for “Our Lady”), we have a common feastday around the world—the Annunciation on March 25. God’s request to Mary through the Angel Gabriel was answered by a courageous yes. It is that yes to God that all of us sisters wish to imitate. Mary Immaculate, pray for us.
Whether Hallmark movies and mysteries or round-the-clock Christmas programs, you can be sure to find a movie that’s predictable. A chance meeting leads to living happily-ever-after. Persons in grief or depression have bright eyes and big smiles by the last two minutes of the program. Yet the first Christmas was anything but predictable. A virgin bearing a child? God born in a cattle shed? The lowest caste of shepherds receiving news of the Messiah first? Kings coming to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere? No predictability in the Nativity story!
And what about Advent now? Predictable? Hardly. While some have tried to ascertain the date of the Second Coming, no one has succeeded. We are certainly clueless about the time or manner of the Parousia. We can’t even be certain about the day or hour or even minute. No wonder the Church keeps telling us “Be ready! Stay awake!” Attentiveness is the real hallmark of Advent.
With a few mild days of autumn left, I have cleared the yard of dead vegetation by cutting back perennials. Whatever was decaying or dead came up easily. The living part—the roots—remained in the ground, the energy tucked in and dormant until spring. All creation shares the energy, the energy of the Big Bang, the energy that is Love. Love is the passionate force at the heart of the Big Bang universe. It is the fire that gives life to matter. In effect, the physical structure of both the perennials and the universe is love. Love is the source and the goal, the root and the plant, the Big Bang and the universe. All is directed toward fullness of life. All is directed toward more love.
If love is at the root of the dying plants around our house, then isn’t it our obligation to let love be rooted in ourselves? The letters of Saint Paul tell us the same—to be rooted and grounded in love.