In the three-year cycle, the Gospels for all four Sundays of Advent have a common theme for each week, and it is in seeking what they say to each of us that we may recover a sense of “Advent” — a “coming to” — and that we may find an antidote for the tinsel and the enforced and artificial jollity that surrounds us in this holy season. Without Advent, our “Christ’s Mass” will be a spiritual desert. It is my hope that these four reflections may serve as an oasis to refresh us on our journey.
THE FIRST SUNDAY: “Be Alert”
The problem with God is that He does not do what we expect. Just as we become warm and comfortable and contented, something happens to us that is totally unexpected and wrecks it all. This is the Prophets’ problem the Prophets. God said He was going to do something, but He did not say what. So the message that begins Advent is to “watch”; to be alert for what will be unexpected, and worse, unimaginable.
To do this we need discernment — the ability to read signs. For me, this means to remove all that distracts me, all of the frenzy that follows Thanksgiving, and in simplicity of life to be able to see the unexpected and so to prepare myself for the unimaginable. To do this, I need to distinguish between what I need to do and what I want to do, because I need to be a Christian. This means I want to do God’s will. If I simplify my life, no parties, no TV, no cell phone, I find that I have time to pray without distraction. I also have time to go to Confession, properly and devoutly.
Simplifying your life is up to you, but one thing I find useful is my Advent List. I list the things for which I am truly grateful. I list the things of which I am ashamed. I list the people for whom I need to pray, family, friends, benefactors, and for those whom I have caused to dislike me, for those who have asked for my prayers, for those (I hope) who pray for me.
Each of our lists will be very different. Uniting all of them is the need to discern within each of us who we really are, and where we will be when the unimaginable happens.
THE SECOND SUNDAY: John the Baptist the Forerunner
The thing that fascinates me about John is that he has all of the attributes of the Israel of faith. He is born to an old woman — like Isaac, Samson and Samuel. He is the first-born, and, under the Law, “holy to the Lord.” His father is a priest, and therefore (in Israel) so will he be.
He is chosen, like all of the prophets, and like all of the prophets he will infuriate the self-righteous and the evil. He will be murdered. Like all of the prophets (like all of us) he knows something is going to happen. God tells him so.
But like us, he has no clue as to what will happen until he sees it. John is at the Jordan baptizing and among the crowd of the curious is an ordinary person, like us. Nothing makes this person stand out, but John sees beyond the ordinary to the unimaginable. “Behold! The Lamb of God!”
At Passover, as a believer, you took your lamb to the Levite to be slaughtered. It was your lamb, a substitute for yourself, as in the sacrifice of Isaac. John sees Jesus as God’s lamb, given by God to be sacrificed in place of us, condemned for our sins.
John sees the unimaginable, God giving the One Whom He promised not to snap His fingers but to die for our sin. John sees the Son of God — unimaginable in itself — coming to him for Baptism. He sees the new Noah who will rescue humanity from the waters of death and bring them safely to land.
If Advent is anything, it is in discerning in Jesus what He means to each of us — to imagine the unimaginable, to expect the unexpected, for in Jesus that precisely happens: We become transfigured from creatures of sin into children of grace.
THE THIRD SUNDAY: Who is He?
The answer to the question, “Who is He?” will depend upon you, because you are unique: different fingerprints, DNA, upbringing, experiences, education, skills, and the list goes on and on. Only you can answer it for yourself. No library can do it for you, because we are not concerned with definitions. We are concerned with flesh and blood — our flesh and blood which we unite with His flesh and blood. Remember it is living.
The Mass is not a feast of dead things. It is joining ourselves in the entirety of who we are to Jesus and all that He is. We join our bodies. We join our minds, our wills, our emotions, and our souls to Him in the Blessed Sacrament.
The whole point of the Temptation of Christ is that He rejects anything that can make us believe. Stones to bread? Throwing oneself off the Temple before a cast of thousands? No, that compels you to believe intellectually.
Up on the mountain, clap your hands, and, presto! — the world is Catholic. This is not faith but coercion. Alas, there is no easy answer. You must decide for yourself Who Jesus is to you. If you decide that Jesus is truly what His name means, “God saves,” then He saves you — but He saves you from what? Yourself, of course.
THE FOURTH SUNDAY: Mary the Mother, the Exemplar
I have written about the unimaginable. For me this is a stumbling-block. I can imagine Jesus — in a way. I can believe Him and His promises — somewhat. I can follow Him — somewhat, But, He is so different.
Mary is not different. She is the bridge between the unimaginable and the real. She is a young (16-year-old?) girl faced with an archangel. As would anyone be, she is terrified.
Instead of hiding under the blanket, she has the courage to be curious. The message to her is dreadful. You will be pregnant, and you new husband will not believe you. Would you believe her if you were he? Only an angel can convince Joseph.
Mary lives in a small town, filled with small-town gossip. The angel tells her that she will be different from everybody else who has ever lived. She will bear God’s Son. (It is hard enough for a wife to bear her first-born and know how to deal with the child, but bearing, and dealing with, God’s Son?)
She will have to live a normal life, with all of its difficulties, distractions and temptations, and still be the Mother of Jesus. She will experience great joy and deep sorrow. She will be hunted by those who want to kill her Son. She will be a refugee in a foreign land. She will live the imaginable, and with the unimaginable, and she will survive.
Mary, in faith, says, “Be it done to me according to your Word.” How I wish I had the faith to say that! How I wish I had the faith to say, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.” Yet in a yearning semi-hypocrisy, I pray each day, “Thy will be done.”
Forgive me, Lord, and help me mean it. Holy Mary. Mother of God pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.
CHRISTMAS EVE: We Shall Adore
On Christmas Eve we are at the end of Advent. Each of us has used Advent differently, for slightly different reasons. Each of us has used Advent because of our own personal needs, but each of us has discovered that the whole and entire point of our journey is love.
Love is the need of every human. Every human yearns for love. Love ties us to God, to family, to friends, to enemies, to neighbors, to the poor. If our Advent has depended upon an individual search for love, we shall, at the end, discover that it is anything but personal: it is God, it is others, all bound up in the communality of love.
Advent has been painful, and if it has not been painful you have not done it properly). We have had to confront that most terrifying vision of all — ourselves. We have had to view ourselves in all of our squalor and waste. In our disgust we have had to realize the image of God in which we are made. We have had to clean our image, to pick ourselves up from the sty, as the Prodigal Son lifted himself, and return to our loving Father.
Tonight we truly shall celebrate Christmas: “Christ’s Mass.” Tonight we shall hear, in the Gloria, the song of the Angels. Tonight we shall join with the Angels in their song of praise, “Holy, Holy, Holy. . .”
With our Blessed Mother Mary, tonight we shall wonder. With St. Joseph we shall behold the Son of God. With the shepherds, we shall adore. With the Magi we shall worship, and with the world we shall see in the manger, Jesus the Lord, the only source of hope, love and truth.
Father Brainerd, a native of Montreal, Canada, was ordained a priest of the Anglican communion in 1970. After serving as an Episcopal priest for 25 years, Father Brainerd converted to the Catholic faith and was ordained a priest in 1987 for the Archdiocese of Washington. He retired in 2008.