Imagine that your best childhood friend, whom you haven’t seen in years, is coming back to town and planning to stay with you for the holidays. Although this is an incredibly busy time of year, you’re very excited about your friend’s return, and you set aside time to prepare for his arrival.
Most people would spend the weeks before such a visit making elaborate preparations. Similarly, Catholics spend the weeks leading up to Christmas — or the liturgical season of Advent — preparing for the coming of the Lord.
“It’s meant to be a time of joyful anticipation and preparation,” said Mary Ann Fackelman, spiritual director at the Borromeo Prayer Center in Greece.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word for “the coming,” Fackelman said. It refers not only to Jesus’ coming into the world as an infant on the first Christmas, but also to his eventual second coming. No one knows when that will be, but Catholics are called to be prepared, as is pointed out by the first Sunday of Advent’s Gospel reading from Mark.
While many Catholics are familiar with the physical rituals of the season — such as the lighting of Advent wreaths — they may not know how to spiritually prepare themselves. Longing for God is one of the key themes of Advent, said Father Robert Smith, one of the chaplains of the Cornell Catholic Community at Cornell University. The Advent season provides an opportune time for people to examine their lives and discover the ways God is working in their lives and what they are doing for God, he observed. This examination is important because the longing for a closer relationship with God may at first glance appear to be a desire for something else.
“St. Augustine said our hearts are made for God and will be restless until they rest in God. We’re made for God,” Fackelman concurred.
Although we’re “hard-wired” to long for a close relationship with God, such a relationship won’t develop unless we set aside quiet time to spend with God, Fackelman said. God always loves and reaches out to us, but we have to be receptive to him.
“To be in a relationship with anybody you have to spend some time with them,” Fackelman said. “Try to pay attention to what God might be inviting us to do and cooperate with that. You can’t do that if you just keep on pedaling.”
It can be hard to slow down and make time for God in today’s fast-paced world, but that is exactly what Catholics are invited to do during Advent, she said. People should take time during Advent to rest, reflect, reach out to others and contemplate their relationship with God and what it means to them.
“It’s much harder to do today because … we’re moving so fast and we’re responsible for so many things. More and more you hear people say they just need a little space, a little time, because everything is just so full,” Fackelman said. “Advent is (also) about Christ’s gifts being love and peace and joy, and sometimes we just have to stand still and receive them.”
This goes against the grain of today’s culture, said Sister Jody Kearney, RSM, director of the Mercy Prayer Center. She’s noticed people seem to be increasingly interested in learning how to make time to be quiet and still, but society doesn’t support this idea, she said. But people who do set aside quiet time for the Lord will soon discover that this practice changes the way they view life and approach decisions, she said.
“When we take the quiet time we can let our faith and our spirituality inform the decisions that we make,” Sister Kearney said. “It is a practice that I think needs to be developed throughout our lives, and I think Advent is a good time to practice it. We need to be in some kind of stillness in order to keep our hearts and our minds on what we’re really celebrating.”
Advent is a time of great joy and anticipation, but it can also be one of busyness and fatigue. Although they often complain that Christmas has become too commercial, most people get caught up in the hectic holiday cycle of shopping for presents, mailing cards and packages, and preparing for family gatherings, Father Smith said.
Rather than moan and groan about the state of the world we live in, however, we should use it to our benefit, he added. Instead of grumbling about the things that distract us from the true meaning of Christmas, we should use those very distractions to help us remember its meaning.
“One of the things everyone does during Advent is buy presents for other people. Every time you wrap a present, pray for the person you’re wrapping the present for,” Father Smith suggested.
He suggested saying a prayer of thanks to God for bringing a person into one’s life, praying for that person’s needs or praying that the individual comes to know a deeper relationship with God, he said. In this way, something that may have been a chore has instead become something beautiful and spiritual. Catholics can also deepen their faith by praying the Our Father each day and reflecting on the prayer’s meaning, he said.
“I would suggest every day when you wake up, say, ‘Thy kingdom come in me; thy kingdom come in my family; thy kingdom come in my parish. Thy will be done in me; thy will be done in my family; thy will be done in the parish; thy will be done in the country,'” Father Smith said.
This part of the Our Father reflects our longing for God, as people say “I want the world to become heaven. I want the world to be filled with Christ,” he said. If one does this consistently, it will become a habit even after Advent is over, and Jesus will begin to fill one’s consciousness, he added.
Likewise, Fackelman suggested that people reflect on the words and meaning of the Advent song “O Come O, Come, Emmanuel.” The lyrics use a different title to refer to God in each verse, and each verse asks for something different. She suggested that people think about which title has the most meaning to them and which verse they would choose for their own prayers.
“If we just take the time to think about what it really says, people really connect to it. It gets people attentive and reflective,” Fackelman said.
Catholics can also deepen their Advent experience by reflecting on Jesus — who is light for our dark world — while they’re lighting the candles in their Advent wreaths, Sister Kearney said.
“Jesus is light in the midst of all this darkness. Jesus has the power to bring and does bring light to those places of darkness,” she said.