A week ago I was at the Gulf shore and I attempted to take a series of setting sun photos. I do it at least once with every trip to a shoreline always hoping to get that "just right" photo. The photo to the left was taken for fun and actually has become one of my favorites. It is totally untouched. The only thing I used was a UV filter. But the illusion that is there was created by the window through which I shot it. It was double-paned, and so the reflection was caught by the window, and subsequently my camera.
A friend who saw the photo remarked that it reminded him of the four weeks of Advent. The rest clicked for me: the coming of the Son! Those who know me know I love a good pun, so why not a visual one? But more than just something that might elicit a groan, or even the thought that it is somewhat corny, I think the Advent meditation that has since come from this "fun photo" is worth sharing.
In our liturgical celebrations Advent comes in softly, and with each week the intensity heightens until the Son indeed comes. I want to make an important distinction, however. In the commercial, consumerist world, the weeks before Christmas do not come in softly at all. They come in with a flash and a roar, usually well before December. In fact, the secular world does not acknowledge Advent at all. What I am reflecting on here is not the commercial holiday shtick we get on TV and in our "rush, rush" shopping days until Christmas. This is about the true, and incredibly rich, season of Advent. It is about the season of quiet expectation, a season that is pregnant with possibilities for our spiritual growth as we prepare ourselves for a deepening in our relationship with the Son of God and for our return to Him at the end of our days.
In Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, which generally means the Second Coming of Christ. There was a time when Advent was considered a penitential season and so fasting was in order. The idea was that it was a way to participate in the longing for His coming that the people of the time before Christ experienced and also to heighten the longing for His Second Coming. Today we do not fast during this season, but it is a time when we should carve out a few extra minutes every day to reflect on what it is we are preparing ourselves for: it is not Santa Claus or big feasts and parties, all of which have their place, but are not the reason for the season, as the saying goes. It can be a frenetic, hectic time if we let it be so. But if we take a little time every day to reflect on the readings from Mass, or a bit of the prophecies in the Old Testament referring to the coming Messiah, we can hand over the weariness and stress of the weeks of practical preparation and immerse ourselves in the quiet world of inner preparation.
If we meditate using the photo's "four suns", we can see each of the weeks of Advent slowly building to the coming of the glory of the Lord. The image of the sun on the right in the photo, nearest the water, is barely visible and so we begin Advent with words of expectation. In the prophecy of Jeremiah we read: "The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. I will raise up for David a just shoot...." (Jeremiah 33:14). In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 Paul says: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all....” And in the Gospel Jesus is warning us to be ready for His coming. (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) Week one is saying: "Be ready, be ready, be ready." Christ is coming. It is inevitable. But we do not want to be unprepared.
Just as we see the second image of the sun appearing to be more obvious in the photo, in week two of Advent we begin to feel the joy a bit more. We hear from Baruch who reminds us that our robe of mourning is to be taken off and that we are to put on the splendor of glory from God forever. Stand up, he says, look to the east. (Baruch 5:1-9) St. Paul tells us he prays with joy for his people. He reminds us of the things that matter: "This is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ...." (Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11) The Gospel presents us with John the Baptizer who is crying out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. (Luke 3:1-6) Salvation is near! There is much joy in these messages, but again we must continue to prepare.
Week three begins with Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, and is the week when joy takes center stage. "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O Daughter Jerusalem! ...The Lord your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals." (Zephaniah 3:14-18) St. Paul continues in the Letter to the Philippians (4:4-7): "Rejoice in the Lord always!" And the Gospel, (Luke 3:10-18), is about baptism. John says: "I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming.... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!" So, too, in the photo we see the third sun emerging from behind a cloud, blazing with fire.
We are only days away from the Nativity when week four begins. The prophet Micah tells us that the Messiah will be peace (Micah 5:1-4). And at last, the story of Mary becomes the focus. (Luke 1:39-43) Mary sets out and travels to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, where the baby in Elizabeth's womb "recognizes" the baby in Mary's womb! He leaps for joy and Elizabeth cries out: "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" The Magnificat is sung! The sun is blazing at its brightest, but is still a little obscured. It is about to be fully revealed.
I have outlined the four weeks very briefly, but I encourage everyone to read the Scriptures from the liturgies of each day of Advent and let them speak to you from the very first day through Dec. 24. You will find many possibilities which are presented in these mysteries. I suggest that we focus on preparing our hearts a little more intentionally for Christ to dwell there. He is a personal God, and He desires a personal relationship with each one of us. Let us meet Him in the quiet of our hearts to deepen that relationship, which is the most important relationship in our life. As Advent progresses, maybe we can let Jesus make what is rough within us smooth. He can help us grow in self-awareness and recognition of our weakness and sinful tendencies so that we can let Him heal and strengthen us to be good disciples. We can also spend time remembering our own baptismal graces, allowing ourselves to experience the joy of such great gifts. We can let ourselves truly feel the joy of His love. And finally we can ask Him to help us to recognize Him better. Who knows? Maybe something within you will leap for joy, too!
There is so much in Advent which can bring us to a deeper sense of the real reason for the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. Maybe a little "fasting" is not a bad idea; not necessarily a fasting from food, but rather a fasting of time. In carving out about 10 minutes every day as suggested above, and letting our prayer invite Christ to speak deep within us, we can prepare for the Christmas season. I remember as a child how much I enjoyed an Advent calendar, always wanting to know what the next day held, but having to wait and learn to savor the message for the current day's calendar window. I suggest that we use the Scriptures like our own Advent calendar, seeking the message for today and savoring it, hoping ahead to tomorrow just a tiny bit.
May Advent be a time of blessing and wonder for us all. May we be like the prophets, alive with the joy of what is to come, filled with hope of newness and salvation. May we be filled with gratitude for what we have, and be moved to share some of it with others. Let us continue to meet in the heart of the Lord for whom we wait.
Heart Speaks to Heart