A number of years ago I had the blessing of a marvelous vacation to Alaska. On the last day we took an excursion above the Arctic Circle to the Gates of The Arctic National Park. We flew to a town called Anaktuvuk Pass in a small US mail plane with the mailbag behind our seats. Anaktuvuk Pass is surrounded by the Brooks Mountain Range; the only way in or out is by plane. While we were in this stunningly beautiful place, we were treated to a trip by ATV through the land surrounding the little 6 block by 8 block town inhabited by native Alaskans. The trip took us out on the semi-frozen tundra and to my utter shock and delight I found that what looked lifeless and dull at a distance, was indeed teeming with life. All that appeared to be almost grey from a distance was indeed full of little plants and tiny flowers. It was indeed alive in ways that I never expected.
The third week of Advent is filled with the surprise of finding life when we may least expect it. Even though we are very deep into the waiting for Christmas in the midst of all the rich Advent images, we stop and exult at the sheer magnitude of what is about to happen. It is an occasion of rejoicing because the time is almost nigh for the entrance into our world of the Long Awaited One. Of course, Jesus has already come, but we are rejoicing not only at that realization, but in the hope of His return when we can all be one in Heaven rejoicing without end. The reading from Isaiah on Sunday proclaims what will take place at the coming of the Messiah: "The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song." (Isaiah 35:1-2) As in my Alaska experience, the third week of Advent reveals to us that there is life even in the most remote place; as we are most harried and things may look the bleakest as if they are nothing but grey, we will find abundant life, teeming and overflowing. And at this our hearts will rejoice.
As we approach the feast of Christmas it becomes easier to become overwhelmed by the ‘doing’ and lose track of the ‘being.’ If only we could just stop everything, brew a cup of tea and have a delightful visit with a friend, a delicious nap cuddled up by the fire, or better yet, to have that tea while visiting with the Lord in prayer. We could even put on some soft music, gazing upon our Nativity set, maybe with a candle burning. The din of the shopping mall would be far, far away. No pressure to write Christmas cards, no stress about what the menu is or when the groceries will be bought. Ah.... the peace of it all. And to this I say, why not? We would be missing the point entirely if we could not even find a few minutes to stop and enjoy the reason behind the season, as the saying goes.
The third week of Advent calls us to rejoice, but to do that we have to think about why we are rejoicing. Just when everything outside of us is calling us to hurry up the pace, the liturgies are calling us to do the opposite: slow down and smell the pine trees! Rejoicing is not always a frenetic activity. The rejoicing that we are called to in this time is to a deep interior joy. It is the kind that comes from being in the presence of God. It is the rejoicing that comes with spending a bit of time recognizing how blessed we are to be loved by such a God that He would bend low to touch the earth and spend a while walking with us in order to give all for us. It is the rejoicing that recognizes that we deserve none of it, yet we do not have to earn it. His coming is sheer gift from God to us. The rejoicing is in knowing we are loved with such an amazing, out-of-this-world love that there is nothing we can do to merit it, or to lose it, or to alter it: we are loved just because He is love and He made us infinitely loveable. Wow!
If you think this is easy for me to say as I sit at my keyboard typing, not so. In the midst of what I thought would be an Advent wrapped in meditations and the choices I thought would be routine, the Lord had a different kind of Advent in mind for me: the most hectic Advent I have ever experienced. It is so fraught with important decisions and the breakneck immediacy of the needs of others, that it is incredible. You see, both my mother-in-law and my father are in the midst of moving to my city. Both have needs that are vastly different and both moves, by necessity, are coming at the busiest time of the year. At present my father lives all the way across the country from where I live, so a trip to visit him during the first week of Advent turned into "Oh my goodness, we need to move him across the country in no time at all." There are too many details to explain why, but at the busiest travel season of the year, we are flying back and forth to facilitate this, calling seemingly every organization known to humanity to turn this off and turn that on, figuring out health issues, etc., and all before Christmas.
Yet in the midst of all of it, shopping for furniture and sundries at the busiest time of the year when I am usually ‘allergically-adverse’ to shopping malls and stores of any type, here I am doing all of it. One might think, "Oh poor dear. There goes Advent and probably Christmas, too." But you know what? I am having the most incredible Advent I have ever had. The choreography has been mind-bogglingly smooth in nearly impossible timing. The only way all this could be happening is by the power of God. And while I would have liked one or two more daily Masses, the Body of Christ is all around me in the kindness of many, many people.
My Advent, while filled with much activity, has been filled with reflection on Mary traveling in haste to the hill country to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth as I travel in haste to get to my father; the difficulty of Mary traveling while 9 months pregnant on the back of a donkey with her concerned husband Joseph, as I wade through the throngs in the airport in line after line; the repeated pronouncement that there is no room at the inn the Holy Family received, when trying to get reservations to fly at a particular time; the kindness of strangers also making the journey to their hometowns to register for the census, while I journey with those who are longing to see their families; the darkness and cold of night in a place where Joseph no longer lived, as I negotiate the bone chilling cold I am no longer used to; the waiting of Zechariah who was struck speechless by the news brought to him by the angel, while I am speechless at the willingness of my father to move to a new city while in older age. Advent abounds with life, just as the tundra, while seeming to be cold and lifeless, teems with abundance.
Advent is not about activity or the lack of it. It is about the state of our heart. Advent waiting is not about stopping still in your tracks. Waiting is an active pursuit, but the reality of it is what goes on within us, not outside of us. We can be running all over the place, yet keep our calm if we ground ourselves in the gift of the season: Jesus. We can have that time to chat and reflect with the Lord in the morning or evening in what might be the space of having a cup of tea. That's all it takes. Just long enough for the Lord to help us to open our eyes to all the places He shows up with Advent beauty in our day-to-day busyness as we are indeed readying for the arrival of Christmas. Advent joy is in being ready to receive Him now, not on one date in the middle of late December. Advent is teeming with life if we but take the time to look and if we let Him open our eyes to it in the midst of whatever it is we are doing. "Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing." (Isaiah 35:5-6)
May we sing the song of rejoicing as we enter into the deepest part of Advent! May we realize the blessings of family and friends with whom we celebrate this time of year! May we find peace in the midst of the busyness of the season, knowing that He is already here! May we let go of the stress of that which is exterior and rejoice in the quiet of our heart! May we rejoice in being loved so greatly, as Jesus comes to us in many ways! And may we find the abundant life and love of God in the midst of all that is around us so that we our heart might leap like a stag! Let us continue to meet in the heart of our Lord! Marana tha! Peace!
The photo is one of mine. It is out on the tundra near Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, facing one of the mountains of the Brooks Range.
The icons are the work of Rev. William Hart McNichols. The first is called Mother of Holy Hope and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/292-mother-of-holy-hope
The second is called Hagia Hesychia Jesus Christ Redeemer Holy Silence and it can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/gallery-views/divinity-and-angelic-figures-gallery/product/283-hagia-hesychia-jesus-christ-redeemer-holy-silence
©Michele L. Catanese
Heart Speaks to Heart