November 30, 2022
I gave this talk as part of a speaker series at St. John Vianney Church in Gladwyne, PA.
After ordination, I served at a parish in Cherry Hill. I once ventured to the Cherry Hill Mall after Thanksgiving. Big mistake! While looking for a parking spot, a couple darted in front of my car. I braked and watched them run into The Container Store of all places. They were a young couple and I imagined they were anticipating their first Christmas as husband and wife.
That weekend, I prayed the opening prayer for the First Sunday of Advent. I prayed for “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming.” Then after Communion, I prayed that we “walk amid passing things.”
That couple was a great foil to the prayers beginning Advent. We should run for Christ, but walk for passing things. Most of us have it backwards. Actually, there’s a lot we’ve got backwards about Advent. I’d like to set us straight.
A season of preparation
There’s few phrases from seminary I remember exactly. One of them is “Advent is Lent in winter.” It means that Advent is a penitential season like Lent. In both seasons, we recommit ourselves to the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The seasons are distinguished by the motive for these practices. In Lent, we recognize that we need ongoing conversion. No matter how long we have lived the Christian life, sin is still present in our lives. Therefore, we must repent. In Advent, we recognize that we need a greater awareness of the Lord’s presence. There are still places in our lives from which we exclude him. Therefore, we must call out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Both seasons of penance and promise anticipate the following seasons of celebration and fulfillment in Easter and Christmas.
Each year, many devout Catholics complain about Christmas songs before Thanksgiving. I cannot control the soundtrack at Target, but there’s plenty I can do to honor the distinct season of Advent.
In many parishes, there’s so much fuss about the Advent wreath that even a practicing Catholic might think Advent is about nothing more than marking the days. Don’t get me wrong. For Catholic children especially, such traditions teach some truth about Advent. I remember my sister and me taking turns moving the mouse in the Advent calendar.
But these traditions don’t teach us what to do while waiting. Advent is not akin to being stuck in traffic. You can listen to a podcast, maybe you can make a couple of phone calls, but you really don’t expect the waiting to be productive.
In fact, let’s drop the language of waiting. Advent is not a season of waiting for the coming of the Lord. It’s a season of preparing for him.
I don’t feel I deserve Easter unless I take Lent seriously. Likewise, I don’t feel I deserve the joy of Christmas morning without serious Advent preparation. I ask you now to commit with me to make this Advent our best Advent ever.
Our Advent preparation can be the same as our Lenten practices:
- Sacramental Confession
Let me repeat: the difference lies not in the types of preparation but in the goal of our preparation. In Lent, the focus is repentance: removing the sin that still remains in our lives. In Advent, the focus is inviting the Lord to reign in those parts of our lives from which we previously excluded him.
Every churchgoing Christian welcomes Jesus to control our Sunday mornings. But do we invite Christ to reign Monday through Friday in the classroom and in the workplace? Do we invite him to join us Friday and Saturday nights? Or have we said to him: “Stay out of my life when I’m at school or work or enjoying myself with friends. I’ll see you in church.” Do we invite Christ to guide our choice of friends? Do we invite Christ to guide our choice of reading or TV shows? Have I asked Jesus what he thinks about my use of free time?
Drawing on the liturgical prayers for the First Sunday of Advent, I propose that Advent should find us running to invite Christ to a new part of our lives. Strip the image and I will put it plainly: in Advent, we should eagerly apply Christian values to a new area of life.
I recognize there are objections to this serious approach to Advent. How can I prepare in Advent like I do in Lent when Advent is only between three and four weeks and the culture starts the Christmas festivities before Advent has even begun? Lent is not only longer but it occurs over the month of March when there’s little more than St. Patrick’s Day and college basketball to compete for my time.
I think the answer is focus and perhaps some sacrifice. Decorating, shopping, cooking, baking, hosting a party and attending others are unavoidable social obligations for most of us. Plus we may need to maintain a normal pace at work. Some workplaces are actually busier at the end of the calendar year. In the face of such demands, we should probably focus our Advent efforts on a single goal. Into what area of my life should I invite the Lord? Not areas – one area.
Set a goal
Maybe it’s school. Do I act like a Christian at school? Does the school benefit from my Christian faith, or would they be surprised to learn that I am a practicing Catholic? Do I pardon myself for cursing, gossiping, dressing immodestly, ignoring people, and cheating because of peer pressure? Do I cynically claim that such behavior is just the reality of school, whether we like it or not?
Or maybe it’s investing. Do I pay attention to the ethics of the companies in which I invest? Or am I only concerned about my financial return? Does it even occur to me that my Catholic faith should influence how I make money? Do I rationalize that I will tithe on my returns, therefore atoning for profiting from unethical business?
If we want our best Advent ever, I think we need to set a goal. Nothing fulfills me like achievement and I cannot note an achievement without first setting a goal. The goal must be realistic, which is why I suggest we only invite Jesus to one new area of life. Yes, we have kept him from more than one area, but there will be other Advents. We should also manage expectations. If by Christmas Jesus gets his foot in the door of the chosen area of life, we have done well.
At first we may be unsure how to invite Christ or how to apply Christian principles to this area of life. The answer is found in the wisdom of tradition, in the four penitential practices I named above.
Before I continue, I offer a disclaimer. The preacher is always challenged to be relevant, to speak to real-world problems and to recommend concrete action. But the preacher is also expected to inspire more than to exhort. Everyone likes inspiration, but no one likes unsolicited advice. I remember a call from a priest friend who had read my article about tithing in the diocesan newspaper. “So you want to tell me what to do with my money,” he complained, I think only half-seriously.
Forgive me for offering particular suggestions. The preacher does so at the risk of turning off some people. Some may seem unrealistic, others may seem simplistic. I ask that you listen to everything and keep only what may be useful.
Recently I met with our Confirmation students to discuss this final step of their Christian initiation. Confession came up and a couple of students were curious: to whom do priests confess their sins? I joked – more for the sake of the adult catechists – that just as many lay Catholics go to confession at another parish, priests go to another diocese! In fact, I do take advantage of travel but I have also regularly visited one local priest for confession. Since childhood, I have enjoyed an incredible feeling leaving the confessional, even if I entered it nervously.
Fortunately, in my experience, parishes recognize that Advent is as much a season fit for confession as Lent. For instance, my parish and two others organize a regional penance service in Advent and Lent. Likewise, the middle school students in my parochial school go to confession in lieu of religion class in Advent and Lent.
If you cannot go to a penance service, then, for sure, time is against you since the vast majority of parishes only offer Saturday evening confessions – and there won’t be many Advent Saturdays to make it. But most parishes also offer confession by appointment.
But it’s not always just the time that keeps us from confession. Sometimes it’s that same feeling we have about an upcoming dentist appointment. “I know I need to go. I know it’s important to my health. I know I’ll feel relieved after I leave the office. I still don’t want to go.” But we make it to the dentist office. We also need to make it to confession. Sometimes clergy give up too much ground on such comparisons. They say that the toothache is always obvious but spiritual aches are often hidden. Nevertheless, they say, we must still heed them.
Are spiritual aches really less obvious? Is it because of toothaches – and other physical pain – that there is so much loneliness and depression in our world? Or so much hate and division? I think constant news of mass shootings and drug overdoses are very obvious symptoms of our spiritual aches. Confession is a powerful remedy. We need to make more use of it.
When we think Christmas, we think gifts. Some of us take a lot of care in choosing the right gift for the people in our lives and then we wrap the gift just right. In the Eucharist, we offer to God the gift of ourselves. In Eucharistic Prayer III, we pray to God the Father, “May [Christ] make of us an eternal offering to you.” Confession is the sacramental way of making ourselves a beautifully prepared gift for the Lord.
In our Advent confession, I suggest that we give particular focus to sins of commission or omission related to our goal. If it is living the faith at school, let’s be sure to mention the sins we have committed there. If it is investing, the sins may be less obvious because turning a blind eye to the unethical business practices of others does not necessarily implicate us in a traditional sin like theft or fraud. But perhaps we should confess greed or admit we could have been a better steward of the resources entrusted to us by divine Providence.
It’s really a shame that fasting may be considered old-fashioned in the Church even as it’s trendy in health circles as intermittent fasting. Although fasting is considered a health discipline, it is almost ignored as a spiritual discipline except on the mandatory occasions of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. By fasting we heed God’s counsel, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). Should we really demonstrate our faith in these words only twice a year?
Since the sixth century the month before Christmas was a time of fasting. Keep in mind people of every age have celebrated. Can we seriously argue that our modern celebrations somehow absolve us from fasting? Why should our seasons of celebration exclude all possibility of penance from the calendar? Since Advent’s territory has been invaded by modern Christmas, should we retreat and fast in…November? When we’re munching on Halloween treats in the beginning of the month and celebrating Thanksgiving at the end? No, we need to reclaim lost territory. We can do this without hindering our social calendars by carving out time in December to fast – DMZs or “de-merrymaking zones” if you will. These are a couple of consecutive days when we don’t attend parties or let baked goods into the home. If we can do this, we will surely be on the fast track to holiness.
I can put away a lot of food. Through my early 30’s, a common lunch was a footlong Subway sandwich with double meat and all the usual vegetables. Even now, at 40, I have to order a fairly substantial salad or an appetizer with my entree or I actually panic that I’ll leave the restaurant hungry. I do not like fasting. That doesn’t mean I don’t have to fast. Fasting is a penitential practice – it’s supposed to be difficult and even sacrificial! I have serious Catholic friends who fast close to once a week. They’re a great example to me that I should fast, too.
Imagine skipping a meal at school to the notice of your classmates. Imagine skipping a drink at a work lunch or ordering only a small salad. “Are you on a diet?” they will ask. Imagine if you answered, “No, I am inviting Christ into this part of my life really for the first time.”
OK, maybe I can fast between parties, but how do I pray more? The answer is so simple that it may seem tongue-in-cheek: with all the time freed up by smaller meals or skipped meals, you now have a windfall of time in which to pray!
What else would you do? Spend more time checking your social media feed or browsing Amazon for deals on things you don’t need need? Of course the time freed by skipping a meal or taking only a snack should be used for prayer. In this way, we are undeniably spiritualizing our fasting, as opposed to adopting it mainly for health reasons.
The collect for the Second Sunday of Advent repeats the image from the First Sunday: “May no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son.” It adds: “but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company.” Mostly, we learn heavenly wisdom through prayer.
The second Advent preface to the Eucharistic prayer includes these words:
“It is by his gift that already we rejoice
at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.”
In prayer, we both invite Jesus to rule a new area of our lives and await his response. In prayer, we speak to God and he speaks to us. Many times I have prayed for direction and I have heard nothing. But sometimes God does speak to me clearly, mostly in the form of a strong impulse to do something new or a confidence to retry something. Less often God speaks to me through a new phrase that had not been part of my words to him. Whether I hear from God or not, prayer is always a consolation for me, always a charge to confront the challenges of my day.
Most of us cannot simply sit or kneel, close our eyes, and enter a contemplative state. We need a hook to pull us into deep, meaningful prayer. Many of you, I am sure, use a daily devotional like Magnificat. A seasonal resource is available from Dynamic Catholic called “Best Advent Ever.” You can sign up at dynamiccatholic.com to “receive short, inspiring videos in your inbox every morning for free.”
Can you name the secular holidays at the start of the holiday season?
- Black Friday
- Small Business Saturday
- [First Sunday of Advent]
- Cyber Monday
- Giving Tuesday
Like intermittent fasting, Giving Tuesday is a secular trend that matches an ancient religious practice. The Diocese of Camden participated in Giving Tuesday for the second year in a row using the campaign name, #iGiveCatholic. The diocese encouraged parishes to participate. My parish in Haddonfield raised about $50,000 between this year and last. I wish we did not have to do it with modern gimmicks like hashtags and the ubiquitous lowercase “i.” I wish we could have dropped the mention of Giving Tuesday and preached instead that almsgiving is an essential component of a penitential season like Advent.
I also wish I could have some humility! If once in awhile the culture is doing something consistent with Christian values, then I should thank God and go with it. So I did and my parish did and we raised a lot of money for bathroom renovations. I do wish, however, to emphasize that long before Giving Tuesday, Advent was a penitential season and almsgiving is one of the three penitential practices.
In almsgiving, we divert money from our households, where after a threshold it has diminishing returns, to the households of the poor, for whom it has an outsized impact.
How much should we give? Enough so that it hurts. Enough so that I must pull back on some discretionary expense. Enough so I that I must encourage myself with paraphrased biblical words: “I shall not live by money alone.”
To whom shall I give? My favorite rule of thumb is to aim for the traditional 10%, half of it to the parish and the other half divided among favorite charities.
Can you set an example to your classmates or colleagues with an unusually high contribution to the holiday charity outreach at your school or company?
This Advent, let there be no sitting around watching Advent candles flicker. If I have only waited during Advent, counting down the days to Christmas, I wake up on Christmas with hyped expectations and go to bed that evening with disappointment. We cannot have a spirituality joyful Christmas without a serious Advent.
Therefore, let’s replace mere waiting with enthusiastic preparation. Through sacramental confession, let’s tidy our souls for divine Guests, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Through fasting, let’s create space in our calendar for prayer. Through prayer, let’s invite Jesus to reign over new areas of our lives. Through almsgiving, let’s create space in our budgets so God can use us to bless others.