Friday, December 23, 2011

Advent 2011, Morning Prayer, and Feasting

I love Advent. A handful of years ago I really had no better clue than a church-going 8-year-old might why celebrating Advent was significant, but in recent years, the Lord has expanded my heart to hold more and more. This year I feel like I have taken a quantum leap, not so much in "understanding" Advent as being inside it, experiencing it, if that makes any sense to you. And this leap has been facilitated to a great extent by regularly joining some of my neighbors to pray morning prayer.

Here's how I can explain it. I've shared in another place about my conversion to Catholicism which had its apex at a Christmas Eve midnight Mass. I liken it to being invited to a huge banquet. The first year, all I could do was walk in the room and look at the banquet with my mouth hanging open in shock. The next few years, I came in and stood quietly in the back of the room. Year by year, in celebrating the banquet that is the feast of the Nativity, I was seated, pulled up a plate, ate some of the food, looked around at the other guests, began chatting, enjoying, and really celebrating. Even exploding with joy.

This year the image that fills my heart, largely growing out of my experience of praying the Liturgy of the Hours in community, is that I am witnessing, am in on, all of the feast's preparations. I see the prayers, the longing, the penances, the sacrifices, the seeds sown by God in and through His Church, that made that banquet something that I could "see," something that I could walk in on in shock 20 years ago. I realize that prayer that has been ascending through His Church for the salvation of my soul. I realize the gift that other Christians have given to me, someone nameless and unknown to them. The love, the longing, the sacrifices of others called down God's graces onto me.

Suddenly I feel myself as if in a kitchen buzzing with cooks and surrounded by mounds of potatoes and flour, raw meat, and ingredients of every sort. Advent is about the preparation of a feast of grace for the world, the poor, starving world. And picking up those potatoes to peel makes me want to weep with gratitude for being not only among those God feeds, but among those called to feed others with His life. None of this belongs to me. It is lavished on us by our Father who generously provides even for those who can only gape at Him in disbelief in return.

I've prayed the Liturgy of the Hours on and off for those 20 years. A breviary was the first thing I purchased after deciding to become a Catholic on December 26, 1991. But I've not regularly prayed it in community. For me, this is an incredible grace that surpasses anything about aesthetics. Our particular group was often made up largely of children. That probably sounds romantic to those of you who are not currently parenting children. Children teach adults so much about ourselves: one day one might say something spiritually profound, and the next might slap the one sitting next to him or be obnoxious in some other way. If we cannot see that until we learn to accept the Lord's discipline, we are all like this (only usually in more restrained, socially-polished ways that hide our obnoxiousness and suppress our profundity) then I think we never grow beyond a sterile sort of community experience where everyone is more concerned about being nice than being holy. Community life teaches us that we need each other and challenges pride which would have us believe we are better off standing alone, or with a group of me-clones. I cannot say why this community experience has been such a huge grace for me, other than to say that praying this way is simply God's will.

Here we are during one of our first gatherings.
My heartfelt gratitude to Keith and Iwona Major for opening their home and their family prayer time to all who gathered.

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