Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Last week, we celebrated the feasts of Christ the King and Thanksgiving. Now our thoughts are already turned to Christmas, with decorations going up, holiday music in the stores, and expectations that we shop for gifts and plan party menus for family and friends. In these weeks of Advent, we certainly anticipate the coming of the infant king, but do we continue to embrace the spirit of gratitude and humility that a deeper interior preparation for his arrival needs?
Advent is a period of preparation for Christ’s coming among us. In the past, he came to Israel with liberation from slavery in Egypt, and with the law and the covenant. Then, he came in his own person, the perfect fulfillment of the covenant, taking human flesh and spirit from his mother Mary and joining it to his own divinity, in order to save all of us from slavery to sin.
And when he had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, he promised to come again, to complete the salvation of the whole world. And each day, he comes to our hearts and minds, through our prayers, the sacraments we have received, and our pious acts of charity and mercy which imitate his perfect love.
Our preparations for his coming again, in each of these senses, need to be more than merely external. It is very nice to celebrate the season, even in anticipation, with lights and cheer, with family and food. God does want us to be happy, and he does give us wealth and material blessings to serve our needs. Of course it is not wrong to take delight in these things, in the many ways in which we have traditionally celebrated Advent while already looking forward to the Christmas it announces.
But, our delight, our happiness, must not be only in these things. We are called to go deeper, to experience a deeper gratitude for these blessings, and a deeper charity in response to God’s abundant generosity. We are invited to recognize how much more powerful are the spiritual blessings we have received. We are invited to decorate our souls, not just our houses, with the true light and cheer of divine love.
This means taking stock of our sinfulness, our toleration in ourselves of whatever kind of lack of charity or clinging to harmful habits, such as anger or taking God’s name in vain, or even taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. There are so many sins which the world not only tolerates but even encourages.
Are we caught up in these things? While we are preparing for the birth of Christ, do we ignore in our own hearts a pattern of sin which rejects and denies him?
If we are indeed getting ready to celebrate Christ’s arrival again at Christmas, we must examine the hidden recesses of our heart, and let his light shine there, in the nooks and crannies where attachment to sin can cling and fester.
When we welcome Christ into our heart, into our life, he sweeps out all these places, giving us the desire to change our sins and truly become his holy and happy home. Then, in this deeper way, we can be joined again to Him, giving Him birth in our heart in a new and more powerful way. This is the beautiful paradox of faith: we become little children, nestling in God’s fatherly protection, by letting him become a newborn infant, nestled in the depths of our heart.
We must renew, then, our commitment to prayer, to living the sacramental life, and to doing good works of mercy and love for others. In prayer, we spend time with God. How much time do we spend each day, talking to our friends, our loved ones, because we love them? If we love God, we will want to talk to him, too, and also let him talk to us.
In my 41 years as a priest, no one has ever told me that they prayed too much! An active and vital prayer life does not have to be a burden, it simply has to be a priority.
If you don’t already pray every day, I encourage you this Advent to renew a commitment to daily prayer. Take five minutes in the morning to say a Hail Mary and an Our Father, and offer God the work and intentions of the day. Ask him how he wants you to serve today, and let him sanctify your day in this way.
At the end of the day, take another five minutes, examine what you’ve done and not done during the day, and offer God sorrow for your sins and your desire to be a better person, in the image of Jesus Christ. If you have a 20-minute commute, turn off the car radio and say a rosary. Sign up for one of the email services that sends you a daily spiritual reflection or Bible verse and take just a couple of minutes to read it and reflect on it.
If you already have an active prayer life and want to make it more vital and meaningful, I encourage you to slow down in prayer. Let God talk to you more. Go to Adoration, or daily Mass, or weekly confession. Read a passage of the Bible every day, and take 10 or 15 minutes to chew it over. Sit quietly with God for a few more minutes.
We can grow in the same way with how we live the sacraments we receive, especially our vocations of baptism and, for so many of us, matrimony, and in how we carry out the works of mercy and charity which are appropriate to our vocation and state in life. Christ wants to come to dwell in us, especially as the little and vulnerable infant king, so that we too can become like little children before him, and enter the kingdom of heaven.
May the joy and blessings of the Advent season fill your heart and life with his light and grace, and may you share the same with all those around you in the weeks to come. Most joyful Advent prayers!
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City