The Advent season is one of the spiritually richest times of the year. It contains unique spiritual mysteries and opportunities that truly prepare our heart, mind, and soul for the coming of Jesus, not just in the historical way, but for His return at the end of time. It is in this regard that we need to expand our thinking: Advent is rich in prayer and meditation on the events surrounding the coming of Jesus, but it is also a time in which we are encouraged to assess that which we possess and the call to generosity in order to ensure that our priorities are in the right place. In other words, we think of things like gift-giving, sharing, and reaching out to the poor with more focus during this season. It is a good thing, indeed, but true entering into the season of Advent means that our hearts are not merely moved, but that they are changed. It is a time to discern what is within our means, but also to reflect upon our attitudes toward giving. What I mean is that sometimes even in our giving we are not truly generous. An example might help. Many years ago I was experiencing a time of financial challenge. At one point, a relative kindly sent me a little bit of cash and I bought a much needed item of clothing with it. When I thanked her, she was aghast at what I had bought as if somehow I had squandered it. I was very hurt by her reaction, but it also taught me a (painful) lesson: once we give to someone, we are not to judge what they do with it. True generosity of heart is about giving freely and knowing that once it leaves our hands, it is truly no longer ours, we no longer possess it. But if we judge what the recipient does with it, we are still trying to possess what is really no longer ours. Thus, Advent calls our attention to what it means to give humbly and with a truly generous disposition.
During Advent it is good to pray with the birth narratives contained in Matthew and Luke, (as well as with all the Scriptures of Advent.) We will see that each of the holy ones had a heart open to God, a generous disposition, allowing God to change what they had expected to be the course of their life. They gave in a way that may not have been noticed at the time, but was indeed a huge response of love to God. A common thread among them is that each of the ‘Advent figures’ spent time silently pondering what God was asking of them and how they were to respond in order to give from their hearts. Thus, each one gave in the way they were called, which means they gave of their time as well as from the storehouse of their personal spiritual gifts, most especially of their love. They shared unreservedly from their resources and did so freely.
This time of year Santa Claus is often a highlight, whether for children or for adults who simply enjoy the festivity. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we keep our focus centered upon Christ; all of the music, decoration, and the ‘joyful uplift’ are a part of life and should not be discounted. We also turn our attention to giving Christmas gifts to friends and family, and some will even think about providing a meal for those less well-off. Of course, giving is part of Christian love, but the origins of Santa that are tied to Christmas gift-giving are also Christian: there really was a St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas of Myra, (also called St. Nicholas of Bari), a true imitator of Christ according to the way in which he was called. He was a 4th century bishop, and it seems that it was from him that the tradition of gift-giving arose due to his characteristic generosity. The most prominent of the stories stems from help he offered three daughters of a poor man in Myra. Apparently, the man was unable to provide the dowries needed for his daughters to marry and consequently they were considering prostitution. To help them, on three consecutive nights Nicholas stealthily threw a bag of gold coins through their window, saving the daughters from that fate and enabling them to marry respectfully.
The story of St. Nicholas, though enlarged over the years, builds upon the truth of Jesus’ teaching about giving generously. Therefore, if we look to him as one who lived the gospel, and if we meditate upon the mysteries of Advent, the two do work together to emphasize the same message of humble giving: we give freely and without fanfare, as we are each called. When we are generous like the holy ones, we teach the gospel through every deed, and perhaps even our words. To be generous is to live Advent. The reality is that when we give, we love; it is a disposition of the heart, not limited to one specific season or kind of action. Thus, it can mean a gift of time, talent, or treasure, (or perhaps a combination of these).* But whatever it is, think of Mary’s yes, Joseph’s understanding, Elizabeth’s faith, Zechariah’s compliance, John the Baptist’s courage, and St. Nicholas’ giving without expectation or judgment. It would be most fitting this Advent if, like each of those holy ones, we would prepare a generous heart as an offering to Jesus at His birth. Happy Advent!
May we grow in a disposition of generosity of heart! May we look to the holy ones of Advent as inspiration for humble giving that is free and without expectation! May we offer our love in whatever way we are called! And may we trust in the Lord that even a small gift given with great love is a treasure! Let us meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace! Come, O Lord!
©Michele L. Catanese
*And remember, it is not about the quantity, but the quality of our giving; giving small things with great love is a tremendous gift.
1. Painting, Give Drink to the Stranger, Water to the Thirsty, by Olivuccio di Ciccarello. (1365-1439)
2. Icon, Mother of God Waiting in Adoration by Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, an Advent card, for example), you can find it at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-waiting-in-adoration-248-william-hart-mcnichols.html
3. My photo of an ancient painting, St. Nicholas giving to the daughters of the poor man. I took this photo in a church in Locorotondo, Puglia, Italy.
4. My photo, a bowl I purchased in Israel with the pattern of loaves and fishes from the Shrine of the Multiplication of Loaves in Tabgha, Israel. Jesus' act of multiplying loaves and fishes was a magnificent example of the generosity of God.
5. Clip Art, Advent Candles for Week 1.
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Heart Speaks to Heart