Thursday, December 06, 2007

Seeking the Star

Forgive the silence, gang -- hope your (liturgical) New Year's off to a great start.

No worries -- everything's fine, the Boss has semi-miraculously rebounded to her usual self (take-no-prisoners temper and all), and no words could offer sufficient thanks for the prayers, kind words, gifts and "Are you OK?" notes that not a few have been so sweet to take the time to send.

In brief, here's the story: given the constant frenzy (both workwise and beyond) that was November, and in a gonzo attempt to be faithful to the rigor of this season, I decided a couple weeks back to use Advent's first days as a moment to take stock, breathe a bit and, well, hold things up to the Light (none of which, as you've seen, mix well with the rattle of the modern-day news-cycle).

Suffice it to say, I didn't realize I needed it this much... because the stock's still being taken.

Score another one for the wisdom of the liturgical calendar.

It's all too easy to lose your mind at this time of year, whatwith the all-consuming vortex of card-writing, gift-buying (especially for the newer parents among us), party-hopping, decorating, planning, etc., all on top of the usual everything else. It's just as tempting, whatever one's state of life, to want to give everyone else a great Christmas... at the expense of your own.

In a word, be careful about that, and take care of yourselves.

You can't fault anyone for wanting to rush headlong into the joy and richness of Christmas, of course. But doing so weeks and months out is a bit, well, rushed.

There's great value -- seemingly forgotten in not a few quarters -- in the virtues of this, the forgotten (or written-off) season: take in before you can give out; be still before the mad dash; recharge your batteries before stapling the lights onto the house. To use my grandmother's imagery (as delivered in her "broke English"), "You need gas in the tank. You can have a Buick, a Ford, a Mercedes-Benz -- but if there's no gas in you tank, you going nowhere."

Advent as gas station... score another one for the wisdom of the Boss.

This coming weekend, on the Second Sunday, one of the season's great lines is placed before us: "Make ready the way..." Many of the festivities might already be at hand, the gifts wrapped, the cookies baked and the trees lit, and the human response might be to conjure images of paving machines (or, given our recent weather, snow-plows), but luckily (or not), it's not a job for the road crews. More than anything, it just means letting the Gift in... and the ways of going about that are as many as there are the number of all of us.

Bottom line: whatever it takes to clear that path, or figure out how to, give yourself the gift of taking the time to do it -- at least, take a shot. It's all too easy to lavish everyone else in these days, but you can never give what you haven't got.

Back in September in Austria, while the glossy types were busy going agog over the avant-garde vestments the Pope donned at the shrine at Mariazell, B16 used the beginning of Matthew's Gospel -- the genealogy of Jesus: the passage read that day, the stage-setter of the Christmas Eve liturgy -- as the launching pad for his homily there.

For what it's worth, the exegesis makes for a fitting Advent meditation:
The Gospel passage we have just heard broadens our view. It presents the history of Israel from Abraham onwards as a pilgrimage, which, with its ups and downs, its paths and detours, leads us finally to Christ. The genealogy with its light and dark figures, its successes and failures, shows us that God writes straight even on the crooked lines of our human history. God allows us our freedom, and yet in our failures he can always find new paths for his love. God does not fail. Hence this genealogy is a guarantee of God’s faithfulness; a guarantee that God does not allow us to fall, and an invitation to direct our lives ever anew towards him, to walk ever anew towards Jesus Christ.

Making a pilgrimage means setting out in a particular direction, travelling towards a destination. This gives a beauty of its own even to the journey and to the effort involved. Among the pilgrims of Jesus’s genealogy there were many who forgot the goal and wanted to make themselves the goal. Again and again, though, the Lord called forth people whose longing for the goal drove them forward, people who directed their whole lives towards it. The awakening of the Christian faith, the dawning of the Church of Jesus Christ was made possible, because there were people in Israel whose hearts were searching – people who did not rest content with custom, but who looked further ahead, in search of something greater: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph, the Twelve and many others. Because their hearts were expectant, they were able to recognize in Jesus the one whom God had sent, and thus they could become the beginning of his worldwide family. The Church of the Gentiles was made possible, because both in the Mediterranean area and in those parts of Asia to which the messengers of Jesus Christ travelled, there were expectant people who were not satisfied by what everyone around them was doing and thinking, but who were seeking the star which could show them the way towards Truth itself, towards the living God.

We too need an open and restless heart like theirs. This is what pilgrimage is all about. Today as in the past, it is not enough to be more or less like everyone else and to think like everyone else. Our lives have a deeper purpose. We need God, the God who has shown us his face and opened his heart to us....

God has made himself small for us. God comes not with external force, but he comes in the powerlessness of his love, which is where his true strength lies. He places himself in our hands. He asks for our love. He invites us to become small ourselves, to come down from our high thrones and to learn to be childlike before God. He speaks to us informally. He asks us to trust him and thus to learn how to live in truth and love. The child Jesus naturally reminds us also of all the children in the world, in whom he wishes to come to us. Children who live in poverty; who are exploited as soldiers; who have never been able to experience the love of parents; sick and suffering children, but also those who are joyful and healthy....

We want everything for ourselves, and place little trust in the future. Yet the earth will be deprived of a future only when the forces of the human heart and of reason illuminated by the heart are extinguished – when the face of God no longer shines upon the earth. Where God is, there is the future.
For what it's worth, to help place Advent in a bit of spiritual context, I've turned to some unconventional (but easy to come by) material to flesh through: the run-ups to the four decisive moments of my life -- the four "births," if you will; those flashpoints when, in an undeniably clear way, God wasn't just present, but that He meant for me to be where I was, to see exactly what I was seeing as his presence -- the door to the future -- presented and opened itself: always unexpectedly, drastically, freely-offered but, at the same time, impossible to discount or turn away from... simply because, new and unknown as each was, after the experience, that opening, there was just no other way to be.

Each of us has these moments, and my existence is largely built upon the four of them (each of which made possible only by what preceded it). But trying to find a common thread across their lead-ins, the best I can come up with is this: they were the points when everything seemed airtight, when I thought it had all been done and everything was figured out. But even so, I could still feel something better out there: something beyond my comprehension and my reach, out of my league. Reaching or rising seemed futile... and thus wasn't even tried.

And then, all of a sudden, there it appeared, there it was -- the end of everything I thought mattered, forever replaced in one fell swoop by what actually did. The challenge became accepting the sign, rolling with it, staying close and true to it. But in its gift came everything I imagined, wanted, needed, hoped for... often in ways I never realized until after the fact.

Hopefully all that makes sense, but that's the best answer I've found for what, at its purest, Christmas is. All the lights, carols and gifts are merely mementoes of a decisive moment of grace. We can only enter into the trappings of the birth once we've recalled what life was like before it, lest the bulbs flicker into the ether where it counts, the registers ring hollow, the revelry becomes rote, we merely stay the same and, as a result, the Light promised at Advent's end is kept from truly coming into the world.

Some things are bigger than the daily news, they just don't get the attention they deserve. These days of preparation rank high on that list -- they're yours to use, to take in the gift of their quiet richness, even if it's just a minute's mental pilgrimage. So if you haven't already, take a shot, whatever you might have in mind -- your Christmas might just be a bit brighter for it.

Advent comes but once a year, folks, and hopefully that's news some can use.

Again, forgive the down-time and thanks for your notes, your expectant hope... and especially your indulgence. Back to the saddle as preparedness permits.