Advent 2023: A Season Full of Grace
COMMENTARY: An invitation to embrace the contemplative spirit …
In the heart of the Advent season, in a span of just four days, we hear Gabriel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace,” as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12). Although Mary is uniquely full of grace because she was conceived without sin and remained sinless throughout her entire life, we too are invited once again this year to experience Advent as a season full of grace.
In parts of our world where winter’s barrenness includes trees bereft of leaves, the evergreen of the Advent wreath offers us a glimpse of the always-life-giving love of our God in this as in every season of the year. The ever-growing light of four candles lit on consecutive weeks is a sign of hope to all of us who can be tempted to see more darkness than light in our world so often marked by war and division.
Scriptures and spiritual reading remind us of two comings of Christ — first, in Bethlehem, and again, on a date and at an hour which we do not know, but which we await in joyful hope. Advent is the season to focus our attention in the Rosary on the Joyful Mysteries in which our imagination aids us in our effort to appreciate with ever-greater devotion the silent and strong faith of Joseph, the loving trust and selfless care of Our Lady, and the ultimately unfathomable mystery of God’s love, revealed when the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
While not a season of penance in the same vein as Lent, Advent is a time when fasting on Fridays and on the eve of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception may prepare our hearts to provide a more hospitable welcome for Emmanuel, who is always God with us. Celebrating the sacrament of penance during this holy season enables us personally, and in the community of the Church, to receive that most precious of all gifts, the mercy of our good and gracious God.
The cultures that enrich our Church in the United States add to the joy of the season: mariachis and mañanitas singing hymns of love and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe; nine days of recalling the humble origins of the Holy Family during Las Posadas; and the traditional pre-dawn anticipation of the birth of the Sun of Justice in our Simbang Gabi novenas.
Decorating our homes, buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, baking, parties and presents are all good and valued customs and traditions … but spiritually, they put us at a crossroads where the path we choose may either be consternation or contemplation.
How often are we stressed about meeting deadlines to get cards and packages in the mail so they arrive before Christmas? How often are we our own worst critics when it comes to how our house is decorated or our baked goods prepared?
We make lists and check them twice (or more), and we beat ourselves up when for no other reason than our human limitations we remember at the last minute that one additional person for whom we need a gift. Does it make sense to be going out to a party fixated on how soon we can leave to get home and rest our tired bodies, minds and spirits?
There is, on the other hand, the road that allows Advent to lead to a more contemplative Christmas. “Contemplative” here is not, for most of us, a Christmas spent in a monastery, convent or hermitage. A contemplative Christmas, made possible by an Advent that is full of grace, is one where we see all that we do, especially all of our preparations for the season, through the eyes of faith. The contemplative spirit is one that moves us, in the midst of our busyness, to pause, step back, and ask why we do the things we do.
When we embrace the contemplative spirit, the Advent wreath in our parish church inspires us to welcome God’s grace in our homes. In our domestic church, this same wreath enables us to experience Advent as a season of grace when the Christmas tree and greens in our homes amplify the light and life of the Lord for our families, friends and the visitors whom we welcome joyfully.
When we embrace the contemplative spirit, the Christmas cards we write enable us to experience Advent as a season of grace when by these greetings we proclaim, like prophets and evangelists, that joy and hope — and light! — shine in the darkness, and darkness will never overcome.
When we embrace the contemplative spirit, we experience Advent as a season of grace as cookies and cakes exchanged among friends become a sweet bread of friendship. Perhaps even more importantly, when we embrace the contemplative spirit, the food we share with those who are poor enables us to experience Advent as a season of grace because the Incarnation in some way is reenacted, as in heaven it is being noted that “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.”
Advent 2023 will be the shortest it can possibly be in terms of length of days — three full weeks of the season, and the fourth candle will be lit only briefly on Dec. 24, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which in so many parishes will quickly give way to the first celebrations of Christmas Mass, which end even before the sun sets on Christmas Eve! Despite the brevity of days, I promise that we will be blessed if we believe that Our Lord’s word to us will be fulfilled: If we embrace a contemplative spirit, we will experience Advent as a season full of grace.
The length of days this Advent is sufficient for us to embark on a journey to Bethlehem, the town whose name means “House of Bread.”
With eyes of childlike faith, may Advent 2023 be a season for us to be filled with heartfelt devotion, recalling the humble first days of the Holy Family in our manger scenes.
Although there was no room for Christ in the inn, may Advent 2023 be a season for us to be sincerely grateful for the hospitality of those who welcome us into their homes and a time for us to welcome into our lives those who most need our time, attention and the gift of our love.
May Advent 2023 be a time when offerings of Christmas gifts and the food that allows poor families to enjoy a Christmas meal in their homes be an occasion of grace for those who will be able to say a prayer of thanksgiving because God has inspired us to be the instruments of his peace.
And may our attention to Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us always in word and sacrament, in the community of the Church and in our world, make Advent 2023 a season full of grace that enables us to recognize that every manger and monstrance, every tabernacle and table, every donation of food and every door opened in friendship is a Bethlehem, a House of Bread, where the Son of God, the Word made flesh, is still making his dwelling among us!
Father Tom Ferguson is the pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia.