The final days of the Advent season put us in the close company of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As we prepare again for the birth of her Only Son, the Virgin Mother of God becomes our special companion, sharing with us her anticipation for the Birth of Christ. Since we join in Mary's expectancy, there should be no fear that the glorious promises that Isaiah heard—“Comfort, give comfort to my people” (Is 40, 1)—will not find their fulfillment in us. Divine comfort or consolation springs from our willing conformity to God's providence for us. The Christian people recognize in Mary's fiat, “Let it be done to me according to thy word,” the first expression of their own transforming surrender to God's holy will. As the “New Eve,” Mary can speak for us all.
Advent marks out a time for special graces. We sometimes call them the “graces of the Advent season.” In this unseasonal springtime, we wait for a green shoot to come out of the stumps of our old selves. The Church encourages this expectancy both in her liturgy and through special Advent practices. In one Advent Gospel, Jesus assures us that “it is not part of your heavenly Father's plan that a single one of these little ones shall ever come to grief” (Mt 18, 14). Sinful disorder spells grief, depriving the human creature of the order and truth established by the Creator, and further, of the dignity that God communicates to every person. Because they respect the order of creation and embody the truth about human conduct, the gifts and virtues bring us comfort, thereby ensuring that our lives manifest the dignity that becomes every human person.
Consider the simple example of prayer. Personal prayer is not an optional feature of one's daily schedule. Because we are God's creatures, we owe Him the service of our reverence, expressed in prayers of adoration, petition, intercession and thanksgiving. When we reflect on the Advent promises, we further realize that communication with God, besides establishing a right relationship between Creator and creatures, also initiates a conversation between a child and his Father. Every prayer is made in the name of Jesus. For it is the Incarnate Son who makes it possible for us to address God in the familiar terms that we use every day—“Our Father.” Prayer imposes an obligation, but it also expresses filial boldness, the sense of assuredness that children learn from parents who provide reasonably for their wants. In other words, prayer brings comfort. The sinful neglect of prayer, on the other hand, introduces disorder into our lives to the extent that we become self-reliant and even rebellious toward a Creator who provides lavishly for his creatures and bestows graces even more abundantly on his children. Not to pray means to live a disordered and untruthful life, a life deprived of the dignity that results from conversing with God.
What is true about prayer applies to every virtue of the Christian life. None of them are optional. So we rejoice when we learn that the virtues belong firstly and preeminently to Christ. We rejoice all the more when he tells us that all of the virtues and the gifts are destined to flow into those who are members of his Body. Because we often neglect these gifts and virtues, we are encouraged to receive the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation during the Advent season.
Advent purple signals a time for penance, but Advent sorrow is a joyful discipline. During Advent, we ask for the grace to be formed again into the perfect image of the Only Son. Because we believe that this transforming work is even now active in the Church of faith and sacraments, we pray for the grace to enter more deeply into the “hidden” mystery of God's love. Kings and prophets longed for this gift from God, but it was reserved for us. Advent is a time for transformation.
Since the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II has asked us to live the last years of the millennium as a “New Advent.” He wants the Church to renew her faith in the transforming power of Christ's love. The call is addressed to priests in a special way. Asacramental consecration commits the priest to preach the transformation of grace without hesitancy or equivocation. For this task, “a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord” is given to each one of these “other Christs.”
But the priest, and indeed any Christian believer, will take up the cause of the new evangelization only to the extent that he has first experienced the miracle in himself. In order for this to happen, theories, no matter how well-recommended they come, disappoint. Instead, we need persons. And we return to the person of Mary, who stands at the center of Advent waiting.
This year's solemnity of the Immaculate Conception was observed Dec. 9 to accommodate the Second Sunday of Advent. No one can enter into the joy for which Advent prepares us without pondering the mystery of Mary's Immaculate Conception. When we speak about development of doctrine, we do not mean that the Church changes or invents revealed truth. Rather, the development of doctrine allows the Church to show us more clearly the significance of a mystery for the life of the Church. This is especially the case when we consider the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
The bull Ineffabilis Deus, which proclaims that Mary is immaculately conceived, dates only from 1854. Why did God allow so much time to elapse before confirming the Immaculate Conception as a truth of the Catholic faith? In my view, it has something to do with the nature of spiritual combat in the modern world. Christians of earlier periods surely struggled to resist the allure of sin. But our age creates special obstacles to pursuing the universal call to holiness. In a world where the burden of sin leads people to pursue every kind of extreme, even to plotting their own destruction, we need to embrace the one person against whom the devil's blackmail— the psychological burden of our sins— holds no power. She is Mary Immaculate.
Christmas celebrates Christ's complete victory over sin, which appears firstly and preeminently in the woman who makes the Incarnation possible. Mary, then, appears like the Morning Star, announcing the advent of her Son. The preparations for the Great Jubilee have begun: The new year belongs to Christ, the Incarnate Word, who restores to fallen man the order, truth and dignity that God graciously communicated to Blessed Mary—so that we might see in her, beforehand, the great mystery of our salvation fulfilled.
Father Cessario is a professor of systematic theology at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Mass.