For lots of Christians in the Western world, the season comes at the traditionally busiest, bustliest, frenetic and frazzled time of year: The Holiday Season, or preparing for Christmas. For many other people in the northern hemisphere it is also a time of sadness, loneliness and depression, no doubt partly fueled by people's dark-days-induced lack of vitamin D. It is also fueled by a vague sense that at Christmastime, everyone is supposed to be happy. The depth of everyone's loving connections, the warmth and empathy that surround us are all supposed to be on display, caressing us and making everything bright and wonderful. Solving our problems. Giving us hope. But what often happens instead is that either our vague hopes get dashed, and we are sad once again, or the hearts we have turned to steel against all such soft feelings over the years get revealed for what they are, and we reject notions of warmth, love and empathy either outright (bah, humbug), or in more subtle ways that go mostly unnoticed, even to ourselves.
And in the midst of it all, we find Christians who feel guilty because they are so busy trying to prepare for Christ's birth that they hardly feel like they are living Advent at all.
I've been listening inside my own frazzledness, and I think I hear hope for us.
I draw this hope from my own lived experience of conversion which I've blogged about extensively, so if you'd like to read the stories, just follow the links.
I've written about the Christmas Eve midnight Mass 22 years ago which was the turning point in my conversion to the Catholic faith. The liturgical timing of that moment of conversion was absolutely prophetic for me; God chose it to teach and form me in a very deep way. I've also written about another major turning point in my life that happened only five years ago (almost) on the feast of Epiphany. Because that one is far newer I am still very much still writing the story, so to speak. But I know that it is about mission. And the mission is one God has taught me about in the context of Advent, but also in the context of my Carmelite vocation.
And because of all those experiences, it feels clear to me that my spiritual purpose in Advent is to pray and offer sacrifice for the conversion of souls. We like to give gifts to those we love at Christmastime, and we really like it if we can find a gift that really brings joy to another person. What greater joy does Jesus ever have than the conversion of a soul who has been cold towards Him? His nature is love, and nothing pleases Him more than to be able to have that love received and enjoyed by a soul who has been without. And when you consider the end-time focus of Advent, every Christian's thoughts should immediately turn toward the eternal salvation of those who have lost or who are in grave danger of completely losing sight of God's love. And we should also keep solidly before our eyes remnant Israel, humbled, anawim, waiting, expecting. Israel, which has learned that salvation comes from God alone. Israel, who has endured suffering and trial, whose hope is not in its own might but in the One who makes and will fulfill His promises.
So, I lay in to everything I want to do to be in Advent and prepare for Christmas, and I find, oh dear!, obstacles! Stress! A crazy schedule! A grumpy attitude! Doubts about whether it is worth it, and, if I'm honest, creeping resentment towards some of those people I'm supposedly wanting to make happy!
What is happening?!
It's just Advent. Welcome to your normal life, with all the potential for sacrifice highlighted.
It will get easier if you stop thinking you find a holy Advent somewhere else. Your holy Advent is in embracing the few extra weights in your pack as you climb this mountain. The weights, the stresses, are not evidence convicting you of failure. They are your share that you can chip in to give Jesus what He's always wanted: your heart, and a path to the heart of others.
Holiness does not come in feeling "together," or in being so in control that nothing ever bothers us. That's stuff of the flesh. Holiness comes only from union with the Lord, and feelings are no sure indication of that union. Holiness has a lot to do with simply showing up for duty, with no consultation with our sense of competence, let alone perfection. Perhaps it is when our feelings register "ain't got nothin'! but Lord, here I am" that Jesus can be biggest in us. When we are all offering, taking upon our lips and into our lives Christ's prayer to the Father, He can be all Gift through us.
That is Advent prayer and sacrifice. God does tremendous work through His Church. When we Christians humbly count ourselves members of Him, as we are, we become His outposts in this world through whom He achieves the salvation of souls.
So, back into the list of things before me today, and you too.