Monday, December 3, 2012
The season of Advent is upon us; it’s intended to be a season of preparation for Christmas. Despite all the Christmas music filling the airwaves and Christmas decorations everywhere (or at least everywhere the ACLU hasn’t yet sued), many people aren’t aware that in the Catholic Church the Christmas season doesn’t start until Christmas Day. Catholic churches are not yet decorated with trees or lights; that will happen on Christmas Day. If there is a manger scene at the church, most often the Christ figurine will be absent from the manger until Christmas Day; that’s when He comes. Advent is the season for preparation of His coming, for His birthday. Preparation includes confession, an increased focus in prayer, and meditation on how He came --- and WHY. Advent, like Christmas, has many symbols unique to the season, like the Advent wreath and its four candles, for the four Sundays of Advent, and it evergreen symbolizing never ending life. And its color purple, a symbol of penance.
All these thoughts about preparation went through my mind as I prepared for the beginning of it, the mass on the first Sunday of Advent, and so when I glanced up from my hymnal and watched the priest ascend the altar naturally I thought:
“Hey! That’s mom’s favorite color!”
Do you think my pea brain is on some heavenly plane all the time? More often it’s like a plane in a death spiral, wandering all over the place and going nowhere. And so noticing the color purple, for me that was natural to think of it as mom’s favorite. EVERYTHING in mom’s house is the color purple: her clothes, her slippers, her socks, her blankets, her sheets, her curtains, everything. And she often comments: “Oh, that’s so pretty. Purple is my favorite color.” She OFTEN comments. And so it was natural that it came to mind when I saw the priest’s purple vestments of the Advent season.
But my mind didn’t stop there (it never seems to stop).
Purple is a color, and only a color. It is not the essence of a thing, only an attribute. A purple dress is primarily a dress, with the purpose of clothing and warming and protecting the body. The purple part isn’t important. I thought back a couple of weeks ago to when my friend Jeanne was in the hospital. Most days, if she was feeling well enough for a short walk, she would ask: “Find me my purple socks, and put them on my feet.” Of course, it was easy for me (and anyone else) to notice that the socks she referred to were in fact brown. My friend knew this, but the strong drugs she was on affected her brain, and she saw them as purple in color, even though she knew they were really brown. And so she called them what she saw, not what she knew. Like her, for all of us seeing is believing, and often seeing overcomes what we know to be true.
We celebrated the feast day of St. Andrew recently. He was St. Peter’s brother, and it was Andrew who first saw Jesus, and then went back to get Simon Peter (Jn 1:40-42). I thought it interesting that Andrew said to his brother: “We have found the Messiah,” and he brought him to Jesus. But there were no words in the Gospel from St. Peter at this point. What was he thinking? He may have believed that a Messiah was coming, but with his eyes he probably didn’t see one. Did he doubt? Did he question? Did he have to study the situation to understand it more before he could believe? Did he have to PREPARE to believe? I think this was kind of the beginning of an Advent season for St. Peter; his faith needed to see, his reason demanded some proofs, something he could see to support his faith. That’s why the Catholic Church has sacraments, visible signs of spiritual things/blessings/grace happening, so that people might more easily believe and understand what is happening spiritually to them. Advent is a time for us to look at the signs around us, the proofs given us, about who Jesus is, and why He came to earth.
Advent is a time to focus on eternal life, the reason for Jesus’ life, and for ours, and not just on things of material pleasure going on in the culture around us. They can be illusions, like the color purple, hiding the essence of things. Unseen eternity and heaven are real. Science says they can’t exist because it can’t prove it, but science only proves facts about material things it can see and measure. By definition, it can’t prove heaven exists; it is not a material place. There are many visible signs of heaven’s existence, like the signs that Jesus was God, but at some point we need faith in what we cannot see, and we need to not let that faith get softened by things that we DO see.
We pray the Nicene Creed at mass: “I believe in God … (and) He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Really? Do you really believe what you say you do? “And I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Really? Do you believe and consider the implications of that belief? Or is your “belief” clouded by what you see all around you?
Considering what we believe is important, and perhaps most important is considering WHY we believe those things. Advent is a time for consideration of the key points of our faith: God came to earth in the form of the man, Jesus. He came for a reason: us, and our eternal happiness. He offers us heaven, and shows us the way to get there; He issues an invitation. And then we can get to the heaven He offers: if we believe Him, and if we think eternal life is more important than our temporal life here on earth --- and the things we can see.
It’s hard to have faith in Jesus’ promises and heaven. I wrote recently of my saving throughout my life for retirement, and the astonishment of another person that I would (or could) do that. But it’s not an astonishing thing, to have to do something (maybe even a difficult thing) to get a reward later. Didn’t your mother ever say to you: “Eat your vegetables or you won’t get any desert?” We learned about doing something for a later reward very early in our life. How did we forget --- especially considering how great is the reward promised by Jesus?
Advent is a time to prepare for the blessing and celebration of Christmas. It is a time of prayer and meditation. But, like my distraction over the color purple at mass, sometimes prayer doesn’t come easy. My friend Fr. John Riccardo says that: “prayer is not intuitive; it is as acquired as a teen-ager’s conversation on a blind date.” The conversation starts with: “my name is John; what’s yours?” And then what do you say?
The silence may then be awkward for a while, but you needn’t worry, the words will come to you.
Mary’s faith was strengthened by the words of an angel --- it could have been a dream, but God grew within her. Do the words you hear, in Scripture, in prayer, in the wind, seem any less of a dream? And what is growing within you? Have faith! Do not be anxious! He comes, even to the likes of you.