Reflection: First Sunday of Advent
I recall one Thanksgiving weekend at my sister’s house when her children were about 4 and 6 years old. On the Friday after Thanksgiving the family tradition was not to go out shopping, but to look around the house for things that they could give away and share with others. The kids’ rooms were cleared of toys they no longer played with and the family went to Vincent de Paul at the local parish to donate all of the items. This year my niece and nephew were old enough to do their own sorting and choosing. Each was given a box and told to fill it with toys, books, etc., they no longer needed or played with. Within about a half hour my nephew had his box filled and went outside to play.
Three hours later my niece was still in her room and had one small Pokemon card in her box. The sorting process had reminded her of how attached she was to everything in her room. She wanted to keep it all and play with it all. Other children who had less than she had did were not a real part of the thought process for her. It was such a wonderful study in contrast for all of us, and an opportunity to help my niece broaden her perspective.
In that moment at the age of 4 my niece could not move to a more generous sense of self and away from her attachment to her things. The promise of what was to come was not enough. Instead, she was presented with the notion that her room was already so full of stuff that Santa would not be able to bring her any gifts larger than the Pokemon card she had put in her box. Santa would see how full her room was and only bring her new underwear and pajamas, but no more toys. She, of course, already had her list ready for Santa and it did not include underwear, pajamas, etc. Once she understood that her Christmas gifts could only be the size of whatever was in the giveaway box, she filled the box to the top. She was willing to trade the old for the new, but she was not quite ready to simply give up the old, the familiar, the comforting things in her room.
I tell you this because we are here at the convergence of Thanksgiving weekend and the start of Advent. And the readings today remind us to focus our attention on the true light, the light of God that offers true peace and a place where justice flourishes. The first reading ends with a call to “… come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” The second reading calls us to “… throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly and, … put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” And in today’s world there are many other lights constantly vying for our attention, our energy and our time. Every one of our devices – our phones, radios, tablets, laptops, TVs – light up and can draw us in to a world of distractions and attachments. These distractions may be interesting or worthwhile – a new book on a Kindle, beautiful photos on the internet, poignant stories and videos online – but only if they do not distract us from the true light and life that we seek. Perhaps we too need to clear out some of the clutter of our familiar and comforting things in order to create the space to receive the new gifts of Christ this Christmas. Is the promise of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us, enough for us?
I am not much of a believer in the end time rapture as described in the Gospel, where one person is taken up and another left on earth, but I believe the Advent message to stay awake, pay attention and remain focused on what is most important is as relevant today as it was in the early life of the church when people thought the earthly return of Jesus was imminent. We, like the early Christians, want to remain focused on living like Jesus did. And yet we seem to have endless possibilities for distraction, some of them good, but they can be distractions nonetheless.
This call to stay awake and pay attention describes a very active form of waiting that Advent invites us engage in during the weeks leading up to Christmas. We want to wait in openness and remain alert for the new light of Christmas and the new call to be the incarnation, the presence of God on earth to those we meet. We may need a reminder in this very busy season that the most valuable gifts in life are relationships, the relationships we have with God, with other people and with all of creation. And the greatest gift in a relationship can often be the gift of time with a loved one, and time spent together can remind us that every relationship is sacred. This is what is being offered to each of us this Advent season – time with God, time with those we love and the light and life that flows from those relationships if we are awake and paying attention.
In spite of everything that is happening in the world today, the Advent message is timeless. It was relevant in the Dark Ages, during world wars and it is still relevant today. I like Verse 3 of the song “In Every Age” that can be our prayer for Advent. It says
“Teach us to make use of the time we have.
Teach us to be patient even as we wait.
Teach us to embrace our every joy and pain.
To sleep peacefully, and to rise up strong.
In every age O God, you have been our refuge.
In every age O God, you have been our hope.”