Tag Archives: Advent

A Light in Time

Advent St. JIt is a season of renewal, a time when we review the old year and make resolutions for the new one. We judge our time, our spending of time, our use or abuse of the year 2015. Each year is a gift. It is a unique segment of our lives, a year we cannot retrieve and a year that will never be repeated. We are given only one chance with our lives, only one chance with the time given.

And so we look back and consider what habits to discard and what to keep, what to repent and what to repeat, what to affirm and what to deny. Sometimes confusion reigns even in hindsight, and the better path not obvious even from this vista point, perched as we are on the cliff at the end of the year, getting ready to jump into 2016, a new segment of time granted to us, this new year. 

“She had the time of her life.” We say this to emphasize a moment of great exuberance and joy, a peak time amidst the other valleys. But all time is of our lives. All time is holy.

As I look back on my year, I do indeed see confusion and chaos. A good friend and mentor left our earthly time and entered eternity, leaving us behind. Another friend is getting ready to leave, in hospice care. Her bags are nearly packed and she is peacefully waiting the chariot.

In the past year there have been many risings to occasions and putting best feet forward and keeping stiff upper lips. There have been duties and responsibilities not always heartfelt, actions ordered by God’s law of love. There have been dark times in shadowy valleys where answers could not be seen, where the fork in the road had no signpost, or the sign had been lost, thrown into the bushes.

And yet looking back at 2015 I also see clarity and order. My good friend and mentor in Heaven left me many gifts that live on bridging our separation, gifts of wisdom and love, ways to see and believe, the necessity of humility and its fruit, repentance. My friend waiting for her journey to Heaven continues to gift me in her last days, but I can see clearly now that her friendship itself was given to me to make sense of my own time.

The risings to occasions, the duties and responsibilities not eagerly engaged, rewove my own heart to be of stronger stuff, not so easily thwarted by dismay and danger, informing my soul again with God’s law of love. The dark times through the journey of 2015 led me to the altar of my local church, pushing me to my knees in penitence and prayer, and when I re-entered the world I found myself on the top of a mountain of light with a clear view of the surrounding countryside.

We do indeed live behind the veil of eternity. Some of us glimpse the brilliant color and catch the fragrance and sensory delight on the other side. Some of us hear the music, the choirs of angels and the songs of the saints. Some of us don’t know how to lift the curtain or even believe that it can be lifted or that it is there at all, thinking this world is all there is.

And so as I stepped through the dark days of Advent, those short wintry days, I watched and I prayed and I worshiped God in his Church, calling for Christ’s coming, singing with his people. Slowly, a light shined in the darkness, revealing my place in the world, my place in my moment of time. I observed the rituals and rites of Christmas with their sacramental signs, knowing they would lead me to the light to see again.

I garlanded the evergreen in our bowed window and strung twinkling lights through the branches. Ornaments from the years of my life were resurrected from tissue nests in boxes, where they had lived since last Christmas. The figurines and balls and tassels hanging from bits of wire released memories from the prison of my mind, giving them air, and a stained-glass gathering of family and children and loved ones crowded happily with one another in my heart.

In the days before Christmas – after the parish pageant on Advent IV – I set up our large crèche figures on the hearth and dangled a golden star from the mantel. Fresh white candles found holders in all the rooms so that I would not forget the great light coming soon to the world to banish the dark, the darkness of winter, the darkness of my soul.

So the confusion of life, after all, I learned once again, can be cleared. There is a way to lighten the darkness, as described by St. John whose feast we celebrate today:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

John 1+, Gospel reading for Christmas Day

And in one of John’s letters to an early church:

“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”             I John 1+

And so, as my good friend in Heaven taught me, one must walk in the light – that is, penitently – in order to see in the darkness. He also gave me the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ, that leads me to the light. For only by entering the doors of Christ’s Body can we experience clarity amidst confusion. Only by walking up the aisle to kneel at the altar can we know the love of God and his forgiveness. Only by observing our time, each day, hour, minute, within the seasons of the life of the Church, can we find our way forward into the New Year that awaits each of us.

I look back upon 2015 and see a map of love through time. I want to follow that path that journeys with Love incarnate. I look forward to 2016, every minute, every hour, every step of the way, lit by the light and love of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us.

Advent Editing

writingSince signing a contract with eLectio Publishing earlier this week for the publication of my novel, The Fire Trail, to be released May 10, I have been rereading the manuscript, polishing, fine-tuning. Words and phrases are deleted and replaced, sentences are shaved and reshaped, paragraphs and pages and chapters judged as honestly as possible.

It would seem an appropriate work to tackle during Advent, a season of penitence and preparation as we wait for the celebration of Christ’s advent at Christmas. For like the examination of my words, Advent is also a time to examine my heart, to see what should be deleted from my life and replaced, discouraged or encouraged, torn down or shored up, what should be shaved and reshaped, what should be confessed, judged, and absolved. It is a time when we ask that God’s law be written on our hearts.

For Advent is about change, about the editing of our lives.

When I edit a manuscript I measure it against certain standards. I’ve learned and hopefully continue to learn the craft of writing fiction, the structure of the novel, the way words, story, plot, and character weave together. I try to fill my ears and eyes and mind with good writing, to absorb vocabulary and symbols and images, to improve my own attempts to hold my manuscript up to a standard. I listen to language, the rhythm and syntax and flow of dialog and description, attending to the music of words and their dance, be it a minuet or a waltz.

Editing is about choice, choice based on a standard. And for mankind those standards were given to us when God wrote his law on tablets of stone, and Moses carried them down the mountain to God’s chosen ones. That law was fulfilled, filled with fullness, made perfect, when Jesus the Christ was born in a hillside cave outside Bethlehem. That law was fulfilled with his life, his death, and his resurrection from death into life, his shattering of the veil between man and God, his making them at-one, in his Atonement.

In the season of Advent we look to Christmas, to the celebration of the birth of Our Lord. We do this by editing our lives using his standards, his rule of law, his law of love. We want to be ready to receive him into the words and pages of our days, weeks, years, to welcome him to live in our chapters and breathe life into our own stories. To be ready we need to edit ourselves.

Some of us think we have nothing to delete or add to our lives. We are fine the way we are. The problem of sin is for others, not us. It is time then to begin with beginnings: the Ten Commandments. Curiously, they are difficult to keep in today’s culture of distraction. The first four are considered sins against God; the last six are sins against one another. Today we’ll look at the sins against God. These will be challenging enough to suggest a robust humility:

  1. God spake these words: I am the LORD thy God; Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
  1. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them; for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and show mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my commandments.

Do I worship false gods? Do I spend too much time, talent, or treasure on anything that is not to God’s glory, not a part of his plan for me? Has my own selfishness hurt my children, and taught them how to be selfish too, to in turn hurt their children, my grandchildren?

  1. Thou shalt not take the Name of the LORD thy God in vain. 

The everyday use of “OMG” today is astounding. The commandment not to use God’s in vain would seem the easiest of all, and yet saying the name of God frivolously, without meaning or reverence, that is, in vain, is a common transgression. We say it. We hear it. We read it. Bestsellers and mainstream movies use this language liberally without thought to the power of words, whether spoken or written. I can edit my tongue, and edit my reading list, but it is more difficult to edit what I hear. A friend’s solution to this oral pollution was powerful: when someone says “God!” or “Christ!” my friend offers up her own prayer by adding “be praised!” The addition, I’ve found, invites holiness into the moment, making each word spoken precious.

  1. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day.

For Christians, Sunday is the Sabbath, celebrating Christ’s Resurrection. I must confess I don’t always feel like going to church on Sunday, but I’m always glad I went. I’ve found that regular worship edits my soul, fine-tuning it, regulating its rhythms and guiding its dance. What happens in that simple hour of song and Scripture and sacrament is mystifying, miraculous. I am changed. Words do not fully explain it but I’ll try a few: I enter disordered and leave re-ordered, I enter guilty and leave absolved, I enter sorrowful and leave joyful, I enter depressed and leave enlightened, I enter dying and leave reborn. Keeping Sunday holy by uniting with Christ’s Body is crucial to the editing of the soul.

And so the manuscripts of Me and You are works-in-progress, to be published in Heaven, on our personal release dates, our new birth-days. There is, for me, much to work on, many areas to refashion and rebuild. The editing is ongoing, with the help of sacrament and song and Scripture, with the advent of Christ in history in Bethlehem, the advent of Christ today in the Eucharist and his Spirit in daily prayer, and the advent of Christ at the end of time.

Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

Gaudete Sunday

???????????????????????????????The heavens opened early Thursday morning, and rain poured upon our California soil, slaking the thirst of the earth but soon bursting gutters and filling low places with floodwaters. In drought-plagued California, we didn’t dare complain, but were thankful.

We live in the foothills of Mount Diablo, and while our house is on bedrock, our northern hillside falls steeply into a ravine. Friday morning we noticed part of the fence was missing, and it had taken some of the landscaping with it as it slid to the bottom of the hill. I thought, as I have thought many times, how suddenly nature makes short work of man’s efforts to tame her, shattering our pride.

The earth is drying out now, and this morning we headed for church, bundled up for temps are in the low fifties (cold for us). The skies had changed from threatening to sudden beauty, with white clouds scuttling against brilliant blue patches, the low sun clarifying the air as though trying to fit more light into shorter days.

And in this winter-scape we prepare for the light of the Incarnation, to me always a stunning event, one repeated in a different way on humble altars in glorious Eucharists. It is Advent, and we prepare for Christmas, the coming of the Christ Child, God becoming one of us, with us, Emanuele. We celebrate the love, sacrificial and humble, of a God who loves his creation so much that he would do such a thing, that he would be born in a manger-cave, among animals, to a poor, devout Jewish couple who believed in his angel messengers and obeyed them.

And so, stepping into the warm nave of our parish church, the symbols of the space textured this story of miraculous birth. The Virgin Mary and her holy Child stood to the left, Gospel side, a bank of votives flaming at her feet. Three of the four Advent candles in their bed of greens had been lit (two purples and one rose). The American flag stood proudly, a testimony to our freedom of worship. Against the red brick apsidal wall, the white marble altar was draped in purple, and six tall tapers burned on either side of the purple-tented tabernacle. A crèche set in greenery, to the far right, Epistle side, told the humble story of glory, this huge contradiction, one of many fascinating ones in our faith, of glorious humility. Somehow true glory can only be found, we are told, in true humility. Somehow true joy can only be found in true sacrifice. Somehow the Creator must become part of his creation to save it from itself.

I love Advent III, called Rose Sunday, Gaudete Sunday. We light the rose candle along with the first two purple candles. Today is Gaudete Sunday because of the opening prayer, the Introit: Gaudete in Domino semper, or Rejoice in the Lord always… Rose Sunday is a break in the penitential purple of Advent, and this is the only Advent Sunday we have flowers on the altar. We emphasize the joy of anticipating Christmas rather than the penitence of preparing for Christmas.

In the daily readings of the Morning and Evening Prayer offices, the mood is definitely one of penitence and preparation. Most of the readings have been Old Testament prophecies, warnings, and judgments in Isaiah and the Psalms. We read the early chapters of the Gospel of Mark, of the beginnings of Christ’s ministry, but not the Christmas story, not yet. But most fascinating are the chapters in Revelation, or The Apocalypse, the great vision given to St. John on the Island of Patmos, detailing the end-times, the last days, the Second Coming of Christ.

We have been immersed in these daily prayers, not reflecting the coming of Christ to Bethlehem but reflecting the Second Coming of Christ in Judgment. We are “woken up” with these future realities, these warnings and visions, given a “heads up.” Are we ready for Christ to come? How will we fare when judged? Have we loved enough? Have we cleaned out our hearts to receive him? For he will not enter a cluttered heart fettered with sins, the detritus of selfishness and pride, envy and greed. There will be no room for him in such a heart. We need to make room for him.

So Advent, often called “Little Lent,” reminds us of the four great events, the adventures, to come to us: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. How will we – our lives – be measured?

This morning I entered the nave of our warm parish church and knelt in a pew, giving thanks for the clergy, the people of the parish, and the freedom to worship. I asked God to clean out my little heart, to remove all the obstacles to his advent in my soul. My gaze fell on the purple-draped tabernacle and knew that this weekly ritual, this rite, would set me right with God. I knew that the habit of confession would serve me well in the time span of my life, would ensure that I have the time of my life, ride the waves of glory in this great adventure. I knew that, encouraged by the words of the liturgy – confession, absolution, the great action of the Mass, Holy Communion – I would unite once again with Christ, in bread and wine placed on my tongue. I knew that each Eucharist prepared my heart and soul, mind and body, for the great Feast of the Lamb that would await me in Heaven. And I wanted to be ready. I wanted as many Eucharistic feasts as I could manage before then, readying my heart and soul. I want to sing with the angels and the saints.

I also love Advent III because we usually practice (after Mass) for the Christmas Pageant. Young and old gather together to portray our story of redemption, beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve and ending with the Nativity of Our Lord, the beginning of our salvation, the antidote to the Fall. Lessons are read and carols sung. We rehearsed today; next Sunday we don costumes and prayers and wings (I get to be an angel, and yes, even with wings…) We have a five-year old Mary and an eleven-year old Joseph.

The days are wintry and short. We prepare to celebrate Christmas, the year of our Lord, Anno Domini, A.D.  Some of this sense, this pairing of season with humble glory, has been captured by the poet Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

 

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

 

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.

 

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

 Christina Rossetti (1830-1895), “In the Bleak Midwinter”

 

 Yes, Advent is a time to give him our hearts: clean, ready, and open.

Thanksgiving for Hana

HANA-LANIThis Thanksgiving weekend we spent giving thanks for Hana, Maui. We arrived in the dusk of Tuesday evening, flying low along the coast from Kahului to Hana. Darkness was descending quickly and a thick fog enshrouded our small nine-seater plane. I knew that Hana Airport had no radar, and if we could not land due to poor visibility we would turn around and return to Kahului Airport, where we would need to rent a car for the two hour winding trip to Hana.

Suspended in the fog, it seemed we were floating. I began to pray. Then I sensed the plane had curved out to sea searching for visibility pockets, but it was actually making a different approach, coming in from the south. Soon we saw the coastline of land and sea, the gentle green shape of Ka’uiki Head reaching out from Hana Bay, with its lighthouse alight and welcoming, and soon we heard the wheels touch the landing strip. We rolled between the lights flaring along the sides of the runway. Safe. With bowed heads we maneuvered through the exit door and climbed down the rope ladder to terra firma.

The pilot explained he used GPS (I suppose I should not have worried) but when he said that he missed the “twilight cutoff” by one minute I asked what he meant. “I’m not allowed to land at the Hana Airport after twilight.” “Oh,” I said. One minute? My prayers were needed after all.

The temps have been on the cool side even for this rain forest on the eastern shore of Maui in the middle of winter, but in spite of winds and gray skies, rain has been mostly at night and we have been able to walk a bit. But the loveliness of Hana isn’t just the tropical temperatures, the palms, the roaring surf, the little drinks with umbrellas, but rather the people. Over the years we have come to appreciate this village that nestles under the volcano Haleakala, that is protected by Fagan’s Cross standing like a beacon on one of the green foothills.

And so I wrote Hana-lani, a love story set here, and in the dreaming and the courtship of words and phrases and sentences, as I married language that reflected the many colors, sounds, and fragrances, with the family and faith of Hana, I’ve been blessed by the warm hospitality of the folks that live here. We return to Hana, it is true, to rest, relax, and listen to the surf (and sip a few Mai Tais) but also to enjoy the people.

We are in our gentle years and not quite as active as we once were, but the paths that meander over the lawns of our hotel are kind and beckoning, with views of the sea and the spewing white foam. And from our veranda we can see Ka’uiki Head, the same scene that’s on the cover of my novel. At night, surf pounds and rain rattles the roof. In the day, we read and rest, and I create my next scene in The Fire Trail. And all the while, I say my prayers of thanksgiving as we slip into Advent and the marking of a new Church Year.

St. Mary's Hana compOur time in Hana has been appropriately bracketed by Eucharists celebrated on Thanksgiving and today, Advent I. We climbed the white stairs to St. Mary’s and entered through an arched portal into the airy space where prayers mingle with breezes wafting through open windows. It is a white church, set on a green hillside, Fagan’s Cross higher up, and the volcano behind that, and today the chancel was splashed with purple hangings for Advent. Four Advent candles nested in their greens and the Lady altar had been lovingly decorated with flowers (we joined in a Rosary before Mass). The polished wooden pews have comfortable kneelers, and for this I am grateful, because I like to kneel when I pray.

They say that gratitude is a good cure for depression (and drug-free), forcing one to turn outward and less inward, becoming a bit more selfless and a little less self-centered. I think there is truth in this, and it is also true that it is a good preparation for penitence, a cleaning out of the heart. For when I am thankful for the blessings of each day, beginning with the blessing of waking to the day itself, I am humbled. And in the humbling I see places in my heart that need cleaning out… dark corners where envy, pride, idolatry, sloth, gluttony, wrath, and all their many many relatives, have hidden. It is good to give my soul a good sweeping, to let the fresh air in, just as the breezes blow through the windows of St. Mary’s.

In this holy season I will re-learn the Advent collect in the Book of Common Prayer

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

I will re-memorize these words and place them in my newly swept heart. I shall hold them close, so that I may retrieve them at any moment in any place during this holy season. They are words that sum up our hopeful faith and faithful hope, these sixteenth-century phrases of Bishop Cranmer. I would like to have that armor of light. I would like to rise to that life immortal. 

Advent St. JSo we trundled up the stairs to St. Mary’s and worshiped God with the lovely people of Hana. Many ages formed the congregation, and while I was pleased to see so many children, I was equally pleased to see the respect paid to the elderly. No one was left out, and we visitors were greeted with vine leis, a sweet kindness.

Sometimes we sang together in Hawaiian, sometimes in English, as we accomplished the “work of the people,” the Holy Liturgy, joining together in the great action of the Mass, with Scripture, sermon, creed, confession, consecration of the bread and wine, communion. In this huge prayer we took part in a drama enacted throughout the world and throughout time, and we sang with the angels and saints in Heaven. I think God was pleased with the offering of his children in Hana. 

We have entered Advent, the season of the coming of Christ Jesus among us, humbly as a child who donned our flesh and shared our sufferings, so that he could unite with us and carry us to Heaven. We now look to Christ’s coming again, his second advent, in glory to judge the living and the dead. Will we be ready? We are told it could happen now, tomorrow, the next day. So we practice penitence, as we wait for that glorious advent; we cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.

Giving Thanks

prayerToday is the last Sunday of the Church Year and the Sunday before our national Day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the best antidote to selfishness and the best prescription for selflessness and thus leads naturally to the First Sunday in Advent.

Melanie McDonagh in the November 1 issue of The British Spectator makes the profound observation that the “cult of mindfulness” is largely a cult of self. It may or may not bring peace, alleviate stress, even heal depression, but it is an isolated lonely cult in which the focus is on one’s inner self. She is correct that the idea of living in the moment is pure Buddhism, and like Buddhism, the idea encourages us to escape suffering rather than face it, wrestle with it, and create meaning from it.

I have found that Christianity and Judaism pull the believer out of himself. It is through being self-less not self-ish that we find peace, and indeed, it is an inner peace that we find. How does this strange contradiction work? It works because in prayer we are focusing on the God who made us, and yet who also lives within us. Without belief in this objectively real God, we are merely wallowing in our own selves. Christianity brings the believer into community with all sorts of folks unlike him or her, different in age, gender, race, class, interests. We rub shoulders, we share tea, we are solicitous of one another. Most of all, we worship God (not ourselves) together, sharing this common outward vision, as we act out and re-present the great liturgical drama of church or temple.

And so Christianity and Judaism urge the believer to look around and, yes, smell the roses and live in the minute, for every minute is a precious gift. But these religions do far more. They urge the believer to face and interact with the real world. We call this interaction love, brotherly love. It is the sacrifice of that precious minute given by God, for the minutes are numbered, in order to give that minute to another, a stranger, someone unlike us. We pray for others; we visit the sick, shut-in, and lonely; we support charities that support life in all its facets, joyful and sorrowful. The history of the West is the history of this urge to better our world, to care for our communities.

Within this urge, this still small voice directing us to love, lies judgment. Judgment is not popular today; we are told we must not point fingers. And yet if we do not see clearly the true nature of what is happening around us and within us, we cannot better the world, and we cannot better ourselves.

God has spoken to his creation through his chosen people over many centuries. He has clearly marked the path to glory. The path takes us outside of ourselves so that God can enter those same selves. By shedding “me,” I miraculously find “me.”

One of the ways God has shown us how to do this is through simple thankfulness. The psalms are full of thanksgiving to God. To pray the psalms is to leave no room for depression. To offer oneself up is to know joy. It’s as simple as that. The Lord’s Prayer opens with praise that pulls us heavenward: Our Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come… Thanksgiving lives inside every word of praise.

And so this Thanksgiving Day, I look around me at my world, my nation, my community, my own heart. I try to see honestly, and I see generations of children raised in the cult of mindfulness. I see them highly mindful of their self-esteem, prone to take offense, demanding and self-righteous. They have lost themselves in themselves, as though whirling downwards, pulled into a vortex where depression imprisons them.

But on this Sunday before Advent and before Thanksgiving, I also look around me and see churches and temples where true thanksgiving is offered to a very real and loving Creator. I see voices raised together, not always in tune, singing thanksgiving and praise. I see love weaving among these communities of true believers who thank, not the stars, but the living and Almighty God for their very breath. I see islands of faith that show us how to be free from ourselves, not enslaved by ourselves. We do this by giving thanks to God for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today is called in our Anglican tradition “Stir-up Sunday,” named after Thomas Cranmer’s powerful Collect, the collecting or gathering prayer for this day, written in the sixteenth century:

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This is one of the many prayers that have formed the Western tradition. In this prayer we are called to act, to care for those around us, and through the caring itself we are interiorly rewarded. We will be changed.

And so, we look to the season of Advent, the four weeks that proclaim the advent of God becoming man, the Incarnation, the Christ child born in a stable. How do we prepare ourselves for this great coming? We give thanks, and in the giving thanks we receive God, we know joy. It is his chosen path. The way is clear.

Healthcare of the Soul

I’ve been exercising more and feel the better for it. I have chronic low back pain and exercise helps a great deal, stretching and strengthening those tiny but crucial muscles around the vertebrae. 

And during this holy season, these holi-days, of Advent, I exercise both body and soul and feel the better for it. 

We all know that we must fight fat and cholesterol and carbs and calories and sugar in order to be healthy. We must do thirty minutes daily of aerobics so that our heart rate will rise and our blood move freely through our arteries to feed our flesh and return through our veins and into our pumping heart to begin again the journey of circulation. We know now, in this modern world of ours, through words on pages and in media of all kinds, lots of “how-to’s,” lots of self-helps. We know that “natural” is good (although the definition of natural remains elusive), that fish is better than meat, that baked is better than fried, that fresh is better than frozen, canned, or cured. Dark veggies and bright fruits should fill our plate. We must avoid fries, hamburgers, hot-dogs, and pizza. I fear that we what we really want is white rolls rather than brown, white rice rather than whole grain, fast food rather than slow. We know a great deal about how to have healthier bodies. 

As I rolled along on the elliptical machine, pushing and pulling, I thought of these things. I thought how lopsided our society had become, as though we walked with one leg instead of two, dragging the weak leg, the spiritual leg, behind. We seem to be unaware that we limp, listing to one side. We don’t notice the odd rhythm of our step, the scraping noise of our sick soul pulled along, for we are used to being unbalanced. Then we wonder why we feel a sad pain in the ignored area of our souls, our hearts and minds, why we get depressed, why life seems overwhelmingly meaningless. We look to pills and other self-help mantras, rather than diet and exercise suitable for souls. 

We ignore our souls as we exercise our bodies. We starve the spirit and feed the body. We are unbalanced, undernourished, weak. Just as we feel physical pain, we feel spiritual pain. How do we exercise and feed our souls to assuage that pain, that longing for something (or Someone) greater, that anguish that weaves through life, ambushing us unawares? I for one want to walk straight and tall and without a limp. I want to assuage my spiritual pain. I want a soul regimen, one with good diet and exercise. 

Exercise and feeding of the soul, of course, must be practiced with as much care as that of the body. There are exercises that help and those that hurt. There is healthy food and unhealthy food. How do we know? 

Just so, the Church defines and illuminates how to exercise and feed souls. She shows us, like a good mother, the healthy way, the care-full way, the diet to grow our souls. Our spirit-muscles strengthen with her commandments as we feed at her table, God’s altar. As we follow her teachings, we learn to love.

And this learning to love is what Advent is about. We await the coming of Love Incarnate in Bethlehem and as we look to Christmas Day 2013, we feed on Scripture, learning that love does indeed have a definition. Love is doing good – not doing harm – to our neighbor. Love is the summary of all law, the distilled essence of the Ten Commandments. For the Ten Commandments give us love’s recipe, guidelines to nourish us. The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses so long ago on those clay tablets on Mount Sinai, are the prescription for how to love and how to heal our spirits. 

It has often been said that if mankind followed the Ten Commandments, we would live in a peaceful utopia. Probably true. We would worship only God and keep Sundays holy. We would honor our parents. We would not kill one another, we would not sleep with another’s spouse, we would not steal, we would not lie, we would not desire what is not ours. In a sense the last five – those commandments about how to love one another – are largely about taking what is not ours to take, are all forms of theft, whether taking life, illicit sex, another’s goods, another’s good name. And we are not supposed to even desire these things for that transgresses the commandment, thou shalt not covet

A friend once told me that when he couldn’t think of things to confess, he would confess that he hadn’t loved enough. For me I can always confess covetousness, a sure sign of not loving enough. I don’t often covet other’s material goods, but other odd and not-so-odd things I often covet – clear skin, thick hair (I have mottled skin and little hair); energy (I am slow-moving); good vision (always a problem even with thick glasses). I covet more serious things too, more painful things. I envy women with many children, although I am not childless. 

Just making this list is bitter for me, for I know the other side, the true side, to these complaints. My mottled skin reflects my many years outside in glorious sunshine, lucky me! My thinning hair means that I have been graced with a long life. My low energy allows me to reflect and write. My poor vision has been balanced with acute hearing and miraculous attention to aromas, breezes, conversation, melody and song. And my few children? I have a wonderful son with a wonderful family. I’m a step-mom to three more sons and their wonder-filled families. I have eight grandchildren, with a great-grandchild due in April. How can I complain? I can’t. I am ashamed of my covetousness.

So coveting is a nasty thing, a tightening of the heart, a blinding of the soul to blessings. It is un-love for it treats others as objects to be owned. Perhaps it is the opposite of thanksgiving. 

But my sins against God’s law of love are forgiven in the sacrament of confession, through the Incarnation of God’s (only) son, through this redeeming intersection in human time on the Cross, through his glorious resurrection. And with confession and forgiveness, my own pain and shame vanishes. I am washed clean. I often leave church with a happy smile on my face. Joy has replaced the pain in my heart; I know true happiness. 

So I try to exercise my soul at least as often as I exercise my body. I want to walk straight and tall, with no limp, balanced. I want to be pain-free, full of hope, to learn to truly love my neighbor as myself.

The Adventure of Advent

This morning in church I thought how rich a season this is, this season of Advent, this season of coming, these four weeks in which we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation, the festival known as Christmas.

I continue giving thanks, thanksgiving that our culture still recognizes the feast of Christmas. There remains among us a spirit of giving, of love, of sharing. True, we are bombarded by ads and the commercialization of this pre-Christmas time, but even so, the ads enjoin us to give, to buy gifts for friends and loved ones. St. Nicholas with his bags of gold for the maidens who wanted to marry returns as Santa Claus in the malls to question children as to their gift lists. His presence (and presents) assures them this is a magical, a mystical, season.

True also, we as a culture seem to have lost the reason for the magical mystery that weaves through these twenty-five days. Yet weave into our hours and days it does, and we buy fir trees to festoon with lights and hang sparkly, memorable ornaments on bits of wire. We light our trees and stack our gifts, mysteriously hidden beneath wrappings and ribbons. These traditions pull us through an unbelieving desert, a parched time, hopefully to a time of belief once again.

Those of us who believe already in the Incarnation of God in Christ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, a historical intersection of eternity with time, sometimes become impatient and critical of the mania that seems to possess the rest of us, according to the media, as though their madness pollutes our holy time. But perhaps we should be grateful that folks want to buy gifts for others, and that retailers offer discounts so that they can do just that.

Those of us who believe already in this God of love and joy and salvation and eternal life need not pay much attention to the crowds storming the stores. We begin a lovely and sensitive time, a delicious time, this time of little Lent, a time of waiting for the great Advent of Our Lord, the coming of this child born to a young virgin in a manger-cave. Today, on this first Sunday in Advent, we begin our prayers fitfully, each evening, saying the assigned Collect, a prayer that gathers us all together, collects our minds and hearts:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

We wait and we watch. We put upon us the armour of light. We lighten, enlighten, our homes to prepare for this great coming of Christ. We teach our children the meaning of the twinkling stars on the sweet smelling branches and the four Advent candles we light in turn each week, as we count the days and wait and hope and pray for our redeemer to come to earth. It is a dark time in a sense, a time of watching for the greatest light to appear among us, a light to banish the dark, a glorious light.

We sing carols to tell the ancient story, a story renewed each year, one that settles into our souls like seeds planted in fertile ground, seeds sprouting from our watering. The carols are part of the watering. Worship in church in Advent is part of the watering. The seeds feed too upon our prayers and the words we commit to our minds and hearts in these holy weeks.

Advent is a great reminder. It is a season set apart from the rush of shopping and decorating, or perhaps a season overlaying this rushing busy-ness. Somehow Advent intersects our time, just as God intersected all time and became one of us. Advent reminds us of the great truth, the great reality, the great love of God for each of us. For a few days and weeks in the cold of winter and the long dark of night we are reminded that our lives have meaning, that each of us is a star in God’s heart. We are reminded that “he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, (and that) we may rise to the life immortal…” We are told once again that God loves us… that he loved the world so that he gave his life so that we might have everlasting life. And it all began in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. It all began beneath a starry sky as angels sang and shepherds knelt and kings offered their gifts.

So too we offer gifts to one another at Christmas. So too we kneel before the manger and before the altar where Christ is rebirthed with each Mass. So too as we receive him in this purple penitential season, our hearts are washed clean and our souls watered anew. So too we sing our praises with the angels on high.

Some call these stories myths. But myths are true. They tell the greatest truths of all, who we are, who we are meant to be. They answer the great questions why and how? They tell of God our creator, of Christ our redeemer. They tell us of love incarnate. These myths tell a glorious truth.

We light our Advent candles, the single purple one this first evening. Slowly, as we learn our Collect by heart, engrafting the words onto our souls, we change into something slightly different than we were before, something slightly more glorious, something slightly closer to heaven, something holy, as we taste a bit of heaven in this holy season.

This is the adventure of Advent, the coming of Our Lord upon earth.