Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
It’s mid-Advent almost and from reports I have been hearing, it’s not getting quite as crazy out there as it usually does at this time of year. At least not yet. Winter is still two weeks away and the weather so far is not threatening icy fury, though we did have some thunder and lightning last week as we move toward the December solstice. 

As the commercial cycle revs up, I’m for anything that slows us down. To be honest, I am something of a Taliban of Advent. I have banned any display of Christmas in the house, and we have christened the small fir in our backyard, garlanded with white lights, as the “Advent tree.” In our house, there is an Advent wreath, with thick red candles that are part of the European tradition I learned to love during my student days abroad. I like the ritual of lighting one candle each week. Too much light at once leaves spots in my eyes like an old flash camera. I like to savor the value of little sparks that remind us of the proverbial good things that come in small packages.

As we contemplate the first Nativity — if I may call it that — when the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became incarnate nine months before his birth, I am thinking that the dawn of hope really happened at the Annunciation. God was present in the flesh in this world long before he could be seen in the person of Jesus Christ, when Mary and Joseph and the animals witnessed his unspectacular entry in that humble cave somewhere near Nazareth.

It is a historical fact that tends to repeat itself, that God’s presence in the world is barely noticed because of the way God goes about being close to us. It’s very different from a fireworks display or blare of trumpets that might seem befitting for the birth of royalty. But then this is no earthly king that comes to us. 

The depth and breadth of God’s love is not a show to wow the masses, but a gentle invitation to every heart to hear the voice crying in the wilderness that is all too often thick with howling sounds. This was how John the Baptist presaged the coming of the Messiah, by himself retreating to the hinterlands, so as to give us an example of how best to prepare, with an attitude of simple, humble poverty of spirit. Rather than gorging ourselves with so many creature comforts at this stage, the best way to prepare is to empty ourselves of too much of anything — which is often, truth to tell, too much of nothing, which gets thrown out the day after.

We naturally think of Christmas as a gift-giving season. The custom is tied to the story of the Magi, those mysterious astrologers from the East, who followed the star to Bethlehem, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, symbolic of the royal and sacrificial priesthood that Jesus would embody in his death and resurrection. Advent itself, the period of waiting and preparation for the comings of Christ — in time, at the end of time, and in between as we welcome him into our hearts — is an invitation to give in a different way, by unwrapping what we cling to, by letting go and letting God.

We can give the gift of our time and of our ears, opening our hearts to the voice of God in prayer and in the cries of the poor among us, often muffled by the noise of “the holidays.” Yes, the little bell of the Salvation Army folks at the entrances of stores is a gentle reminder not to forget the poor and marginalized of which there are so many in our midst.

This season is particularly difficult for those who have lost loved ones during this time. Survivors of any kind of violence or abuse, where family lives have been shattered and innocence violated in the most intimate circles, find it so difficult to put those memories aside even as carols announcing “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night” may well up. This is an opportunity to give the gift of listening from the heart to those who might well be better consoled through prayerful accompaniment than material gifts. 

I find myself hearing from many who bear burdens of unresolved conflicts, painful memories, lost or broken contacts, alienation from faith, friends or family. The pain is often very close to the surface and may need to find a space to be voiced or vented. The free and quiet gift of gentle presence is a wordless language that speaks more warmly than the busy — sometimes compulsive — exchange of presents.

It is true that correspondence often picks up at this time of year, much of it driven by custom, habit, feelings of duty and obligation, but also motivated by a sincere desire to reach out and catch up with persons we may not have been in touch with for months or even years. For those with the time, energy and resources to follow these traditional “holiday” practices, I offer nothing but my prayer and admiration.

For many, however, the challenges of keeping up with desires and expectations, may only bring more pressure and anxiety to already stressed lives and schedules. One longtime friend had a practice each year of sending 25 Christmas cards. That was his chosen way of participating and responding. He would pray and list the names of those who came to mind, then take the time to write a heartfelt message on each card to this year’s chosen ones. An odd way to deal with limitations perhaps, but creative and beneficent, nonetheless.

However you may choose to prepare, celebrate and reach out this season, remember that Christmas does not have to happen the day after Thanksgiving. The tree does not have to be decked out by this week’s end, and all the presents wrapped by Christmas Eve. The Christmas season, liturgically speaking, actually begins only on Christmas and extends as far as Feb. 2, the Feast of the Presentation. Even a shorter version — the “twelve days” as in the song — runs till Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. 

Meanwhile, there is an Advent of four weeks, a holding pattern, a time to prepare and listen, which gives us the freedom to pause and pray, to hear the voices of those around us who may be lost, neglected, lonely or abandoned in the mad rush that so often escalates at this time. No reason to guilt or frustrate oneself for choosing not to do “everything” this year. Listening to one soul in need may be the greatest gift one can bring to another. In fact, it may be the only way that Christ may reach someone: through you or me taking the time to BE present through the gift of oneself. Isn’t that Christ’s way?

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