I am not sure when my delight for Advent began. When I look back at my seminary days, which seem like ancient history in comparison to Fr. Lou who is fresh out of seminary, I think Advent mostly meant finishing up papers, preparing for finals and looking forward to Christmas break rather than a four-week journey of preparation for the coming of our Savior.
As a missionary priest in Tanzania, Advent was always associated with the longing for and hope of the short rains. After no moisture since the end of April, the land was brown, barren, dry, thirsty and longing for the first drops of rain. When the rains would come, not only would the landscape change from brown to green in a matter of days, but people’s moods were transformed from desperation to hope renewed.
Unlike us who simply go to the grocery store when we need food, they had to raise their own. If the rains did not come, it meant hunger, sickness and yes, even starvation.
For the 12 years I lived at St. Martin’s Abbey, Advent bore a special depth of silence. When I would awake in the early morning darkness and pray, I often felt as if I was surrounded by other silent brothers whose hearts were filled with longing for the Savior. I was never alone.
What about you? What are your memories of Advents past?
Advent was very different for me last year. Having just received my diagnosis of ALS and having spoken about it to only a few close friends and the Archbishop, my mind was filled with fearful scenarios of my future, not unlike the Gospel images today: “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
My Advent darkness was fear of the disease itself and of not knowing what the future might hold for me. My heart, mind and my spirit were shaken.
“But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” Little did I know the hope of those words last year and what strength they would give me this year.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, last year’s Advent held a similar diagnosis for a 55-year-old grade school teacher and fellow parishioner, Tim Bittrick. I only became aware of this after I announced my diagnosis to you all last January. We have journeyed together these past months.
Our journeys have been very different. Being 70 years old, I anticipated that the progression of my disease would be rather rapid especially in light of the statistic that 50% of ALS patients die within the first three years. I figured that I needed to make plans because things would move quickly. That has not been the case.
Tim on the other hand, has experienced rapid deterioration with his ALS. He can no longer, as our Gospel says today, “stand erect or raise his head.” Tim’s muscles continue to deteriorate quickly. His hands and arms, legs and feet no longer work. He has a feeding tube because he can barely swallow. Tim can no longer talk. His breathing is becoming more and more difficult.
Fortunately for Tim, he has the support of family and many friends from the school community where he taught. Folks from the parish visit him weekly and bring Holy Communion. Many of us hold him in prayer daily.
Why do I share this with you? Because Tim’s faith is so strong. In the midst of his “apocalyptic condition,” he looks to Jesus to be his strength. Jesus is his hope. Jesus is “the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent,” as our gospel tells us today.
Unlike Tim, God seems to have other plans for me, far different from those I imagined last Advent. My call to vigilance this Advent is different than Tim’s. I sense that God is calling me to an ever deeper daily faithfulness and attentiveness to do His will, to not give up, to not let my pride get in the way so as to be afraid to ask for help when I need it.
As my arms and hands slowly grow weaker and it takes more and more effort to do the seemingly simple, it seems that I am not being called to the dramatic or the traumatic. I believe I am being called, as I have been all my life, to daily faithfulness, to the seemingly mundane step by step journey to holiness and hopefully to heaven.
Might this daily faithfulness be what God is asking of you as well this Advent?
As spouses, to daily die to your own pride, need to be right and selfishness and to lay down your life for the other?
As parents, to be daily examples and guides of holiness for your children?
As Catholics, to not despair with the brokenness and sinfulness of some members of our Church, but to pray ever more fervently for renewal and transformation?
As Catholic citizens to work for justice for those who are struggling and oppressed: for the migrants at our borders; for the undocumented in our midst; for the homeless on our street corners; for children whose lives are torn apart by divorce; for the unborn; for those struggling with mental illness; for the elderly weak and lonely?
What do you long for, hope for and pray for this Advent?
Here are a few helps for your Advent journey:
- get up 10 minutes earlier and read the daily Scriptures for Mass
- each evening gather with the family, light the candle on your Advent wreath and sing “O come, O come Emmanuel” and then pray for those who are in need.
- follow Matthew Kelly’s “Best Advent ever” series online
- read Bishop Barron’s daily gospel reflections online
- use our SMP App for other daily reflections
- plan to spend some time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament this week. Come alone, come with your spouse, come with your family. Come early in the early morning or late at night. Come during the days you pass by the parish. Whenever it might be, come.
Whatever we do to make this Advent special, let us hold one another praying for one another as did St. Paul for the Thessalonians:
“May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before God our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and all his holy ones. Amen.”