Before Easter, the Church universally prepares for the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord with heavy fasting, extra prayers, and almsgiving. The thought is, given the solemnity of such a celebration, everyone should be adequately prepared for such an event, so we examine our lives, see what needs to be converted, and purify ourselves for our Lord’s day. It can be a bit grueling, but we’re better for it.
As we enter the season of Advent, the time of waiting and preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s Nativity, I want to call attention to the lack of preparation we do as a Church. Sure, we light a candle each week; we sing O Come O Come Emmanuel; some of us might keep an Advent calendar in anticipation. Things are definitely different, even special, this time of year, but is there any significant preparation? I may be mistaken, but it is my experience that Advent is not taken too seriously: the Christmas season begins immediately after Thanksgiving with Black Friday shopping, insufferable Christmas music on every station, and Christmas decorations everywhere (including three different trees at the Catholic University of America… C’mon! Even the school run by the bishops doesn’t get Advent!) There is very little waiting involved in our “season of waiting” and even less preparation, at least in comparison to Lent.
So what should we do? Should Advent be just like Lent? Well, no, not exactly. While both are times for conversion, they have completely different focuses and responses. Lent, a preparation for celebrating our salvation, focuses on the reason we need for a savior in the first place, our sinfulness, and calls us to turn from our vices. Christmas is quite different. Even though some say that it is merely the precursor to the Salvation event of Easter, as a Franciscan, I can’t help but marvel in the Incarnation as an event in itself: The invisible, all-powerful, largely unknowable Creator became the created. God became human. Seriously, think about it: how incredible is that? It is something that many Franciscans have argued would have happened regardless of our sin because God always intended to reveal godself to us. (For more, I wrote a post on this last year.) Our response to such a wonderful gift? I think our reflection during Advent should be more like John the Baptist’s: Prepare the way of the Lord. It’s a time to add virtues rather than remove vices, to open ourselves up to the joy of the Incarnation rather than the need for our salvation, our sinfulness.
For me, that meant looking at my life and asking, “What could I add to my life that would improve my relationship with Jesus?” My answer was quite simple: give Him more time. As a Franciscan, I know that I am first and foremost a man of prayer. Everything that I am and do must come from my relationship with God. And much of it does. I pray morning and evening prayer everyday without question. I evaluate everything I do against the life of Christ. I try to find time for private contemplative prayer each day. But I could do better. Unlike school work, ministry, and exercise, things for which I set schedules and commit to without fail, prayer often gets relegated to “free time” and is the first thing dropped when I’m busy or tired. (I have also written about this before.)There we go, my Advent preparation: spend thirty minutes in private prayer every day, without question. Make it as important as food and sleep. Commit to it like a workout plan or school schedule.
So far, it’s been going really well. (I say “so far” because it’s been a month. Since Christmas was arguably the most important feast for Francis, he had it written in the rule that all friars were to prepare for Christmas for two whole months: “Let them fast from the Feast of All Saints until Christmas” (Rule of St. Francis III.5).) For me, the difficulty is not praying for thirty minutes; this is something I do very often anyway. What’s difficult is committing myself to this each and every day, even when I’m tired, busy, or just don’t want to pray. This is something that I had in novitiate and unfortunately lost. Commitment. Being present to the God that is always present to me. Giving time to accept the grace that is always and already present in everything I do. I just have to show up.
For me, Advent is all about preparing the way of the Lord. I guess the real question is what do we mean by that: are we preparing the way because Jesus would otherwise not be able to make it us, or because we’re not prepared to welcome him in? Our Lord is coming whether we’re ready or not. May you be ready to welcome him when He comes!