Advent has begun, propelling us into a new liturgical year. It both readies us for our celebration of Jesus’ coming into the world, and it reminds us that we need to be prepared for His return. Advent is literally pregnant with mysteries which can be contemplated at great length, and of which I never tire. Every year we are at a different place in life, so no two Advent experiences are the same. Whether it is a time of difficulty or a time of calm in our lives, plumbing the depths of these mysteries reveals something new every year. Not only are we different, but the readings for the Sundays of Advent are different from one year to the next, rotating on a three year cycle. Therefore every year brings something different for us as we prepare.
This Sunday the readings once again emphasize that we must be ready for the coming of the Lord. Jesus can come at any moment so we must stand firm against the evils in the world by doing acts of love and relying on our faith. Interestingly, the readings from the prophet Isaiah which follow in the weekday Masses begin by reassuring us that God will help us to come to His Kingdom of peace. We are invited to go to the mountain of the Lord to be instructed by God. We always have access to God, but if we cannot make it to His holy mountain, He will send messengers to speak His word to us. Even if we cannot find our way to Him, we know that He will come to us. Advent is about anticipating that coming.
There are many people in the world who do not know the way to the “mountain of the Lord,” which is to say they have not been exposed to the truth of the faith we hold dear. Many do not know the message of Jesus or that God is inviting them to come into the Body of Christ to be part of the Kingdom forever. There are people all over the world who have never heard the message or who have had poor teaching. Therefore we need to take the message to them. Pope Francis has declared this to be the Year of Consecrated Life (those who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). This is why I feel it is important to begin the liturgical year by highlighting one of the most famous of all missionaries, St. Francis Xavier, whose feast day is December 3. Missionaries are those who, in imitation and service of Jesus, bring the mountain of the Lord to the people.
St. Francis Xavier was born into a noble family in northern Spain in 1506. At the age of 19 he went to Paris to study at the University. Soon, he met St. Ignatius of Loyola who worked hard to get him to see that there was more to life than worldly ambition and that the Lord was calling him to something greater. During the process of praying about what Ignatius was teaching him, Francis decided that God was indeed calling him to join with Ignatius. Along with a small group of men, he became one of the first Jesuits.
With Ignatius as their leader, the group hoped to go to the Holy Land to preach, but when that did not materialize they instead went to different cities to work with the poor. Francis Xavier went to Venice and toiled so intensely at a hospital there that he almost worked himself to death. He returned to Rome where he regained his health. Soon afterwards, the King of Portugal begged Ignatius to send two Jesuits to a Portuguese colony in India to minister to the people. At this point, there were only 10 Jesuits, as the order was in its first days, and so there were not many people available for him to send. He chose Nicholas Bobadilla and Simon Rodrigues. Immediately before they were to leave Nicholas became very ill. With little time to spare, Ignatius asked Francis Xavier if he would go instead, knowing that if he agreed they would never see each other again. Given that they were very dear friends, this was quite a sacrifice. Francis Xavier had no previous desire to be a missionary, but he said yes without hesitation. When all was said and done, his greatest desire was to serve God.
For the next ten years Francis Xavier traveled all over India, then to the East Indies and Japan, bringing the message of the gospel to the people. What made him so successful was that he adopted the dress, culture, language, and customs of the people in these lands in order to become one with them and therefore to better understand them. Once he became part of the culture he was able to present the gospels in a way that the people could comprehend. He converted many to Christianity, also helping them to better lives through education without forcing a foreign culture upon them. He understood that the best way to teach them about Jesus was to meet them where they were, which is a hallmark of Jesuit spirituality and education.
St. Francis Xavier was said to live very simply; he ate little and only thought of those to whom he ministered. This took a toll on his health. In 1552 he attempted to go to China, but never made it there, dying on an island off the coast. Though he died in his mid-40’s and had a relatively short ministry as a missionary, he founded many churches and formed men in the religious life. Francis Xavier had not begun his own religious life hoping to be a missionary, but went where the Lord led him, bringing the gospel to the people simply by living it, offering it to those who were attracted to what he lived.
Another saint we celebrate this week is St. Nicholas of Myra, (died ≈345 AD), a bishop who was known for anonymous giving and who in many ways was also a missionary. The main story told about him is that he helped a father with three daughters who could not afford their dowries for marriage by throwing bags of money through their window at night. Other stories indicate that he helped needy townspeople by putting money in the shoes they left outside their doors. While we do not know if those stories are true, we do know that St. Nicholas traveled all over the region fighting heresy and paganism. He was subjected to torture at the hands of enemies and was tireless in his work for justice. He worked to help the poor and he helped those unjustly imprisoned. He was known for mercy and compassion, but there is far more to this man than the quaint stories which morphed him into Santa Claus. It can be said that St. Nicholas was a missionary even though he did not travel as far as St. Francis Xavier. He brought the gospel to many, making their lives better.
In many ways Advent is about being a missionary. It is a time to prepare for the return of Jesus by reflecting on what he taught and by living it. We are to bring the mountain of the Lord to others by loving them through acts of generosity and kindness. This season is about forming a habit of giving to others, bringing joy (and even peace) to them. It is about coming to understand that it is in giving that we most imitate Jesus, who came into the world as one of the poor among the poor. All of us are called to be missionaries of a sort by imitating Jesus. He was the first real missionary leaving His home in Heaven to come to a new place, our world, to minister to us.
It does not matter how much we have or what we give, so long as we give love and care to those who are in need. We do not have to travel far, but rather we come as a missionary of Christ to every person whom we encounter in our daily life. Let us think of ourselves as missionaries, getting in the missionary spirit this Advent as we prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus at Christmas. Let us think outside our circle of comfort and give more than just a bit of change in the kettles in front of stores. Let us bring love to the lonely and homebound, to those ill and marginalized. Let us give to those around us by being more patient and kind. Let us think of the hungry and needy who live from day to day, hand to mouth. This is what St. Francis Xavier and St. Nicholas did for those to whom they ministered, which is to say, everyone they encountered. We, too, can be missionaries of Advent, living the true reason for the season.
May we be inspired by missionaries and those in consecrated life who bring the gospel to those who might not otherwise be exposed to it! May we become missionaries in our own cities and in our own homes, bringing kindness, mercy, and generosity to those we encounter! May we be generous and cheerful givers! May we be grateful for that which we have received! And may we find much blessing and insight as we quiet our hearts this Advent, preparing for the coming of Jesus! Marana tha! Peace!
© Michele L. Catanese
The first icon is called The Burning Passion of St. Francis Xavier, SJ by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/144-the-burning-passion-of-st-francis-xavier-sj
The second icon is a traditional Russian icon which depicts St. Nicholas throwing a bag of coins through the window, as mentioned above. This icon and others of St. Nicholas can be found at http://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/11/22/all-about-nicholas-well-not-quite-all/
The photo of the mountain at the end is one of mine. It was taken in Colorado, near Copper Mountain.
Heart Speaks to Heart