The journey of Advent is one of hope and longing for the arrival of a savior in the world, the direct intervention of the eternal God in human history by way of the Incarnation.
The hope that accompanies Advent is well founded in the sense that Christianity is a spark that can always burst into flame in the world, providing much-needed light and warmth. But it’s also a spark that often is buried under the materialism and distraction of this season. The Christian symbols are there — manger scenes, wreaths, angels with trumpets, Christmas stars — but one can be forgiven for wondering whether they have lost their potency in the culture, whether they are being drowned out or, worse, appropriated into a context that doesn’t carry with it the evangelizing charge of the Gospel.
Pope Francis recently provided a stunning answer to this Advent quandary. On Dec. 1, near the end of his visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, he met with a group of Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. In the presence of this group, he spoke of the urgent need to care for refugees and reminded everyone of how God identifies with the weakest and most vulnerable. “The presence of God, today, is also called ‘Rohingya,’” he said.
For those who wish to find God incarnate in the world today, this is a profound reminder we must first know where to look. On that first Christmas night, the angel told the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel where to look: They would find God as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. One could add: among a family that had nowhere to go.
And this illuminates why, for many Eastern Christians, Advent is considered a “little Lent.” The practices we use during Advent to prepare to welcome Christ into the world are the same as those we use to prepare our hearts during Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Prayer: taking time out of the commotion and materialism of the season to speak and listen to God.
Fasting: restraining oneself from rushing right into the celebration of the Christmas holiday and using this time the Church has given us to experience hope and solemn waiting for God.
Almsgiving: responding to the urgent need to see Jesus Christ incarnate in the most vulnerable people around us. This could be the poor in our communities, whom we serve with donations of toys and clothes, as well as with the direct distribution of meals and other personal encounters. It could be the persecuted Christians around the world with whom we stand in solidarity.
And it could be, as Pope Francis reminds us, people who suffer persecution and exile, even though they do not yet know Christ. It’s an issue he has brought to greater visibility with the launch of the global Share the Journey campaign for migrants. And in a 2016 letter to bishops on the feast of the Holy Innocents, it’s a struggle he tied directly to the infancy narrative of Jesus:
“The same thing is asked of us pastors today: to be men attentive, and not deaf, to the voice of God, and hence more sensitive to what is happening all around us. Today, with St. Joseph as our model, we are asked not to let ourselves be robbed of joy. We are asked to protect this joy from the Herods of our own time.”
This Advent, as we seek to foster the joy of Christ in our midst, may we know where to look and be mindful of the ways in which we are called to protect him.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young