As you read this reflection it is a week before Christmas, but as I write it, the Thanksgiving holiday has just ended. The day before yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, and I am still getting my mind and heart around preparing for Christmas. Advent has sometimes been a puzzle for me because we read and reflect on scriptures that were written as if the events of Jesus’ birth had not yet occurred or were so recent as to still be a wonderment to the early Christians. After 2,000 years, it is difficult to avoid the “been there, done that” attitude and not to see the full meaning of the Nativity. It doesn’t help when pundits suggest that the fate of our U.S. economy, and with it the whole world, rides in the balance of how much we spend for gifts this Christmas season. And the wackiness of how far out of balance things can get is evidenced by the events of this past “Black Friday” when three people were killed in shopping related incidents. It reminds me that as we shop this season, we should remember the line from Sgt. Esterhaus on the 80’s TV show “Hill Street Blues” – “Let’s be careful out there!”
And so I have been reflecting on the meaning of these readings in the context of what is Advent in the year 2008, and what freshness can I take from the experience of again revisiting the miracle that was the birth of Jesus. Two separate events have come together in my mind to provide that newness of insight for me.
On this past Saturday Roc O’Connor, SJ shared a homily in which he suggested Advent can be viewed not just as the coming of Jesus but also as a reminder that God is with us. Matthew indicates today that Emmanuel means “God is with us” – not “God will soon be with us” or “God is on the way” but is now, has been and forever will be. This constancy is something we take for granted and so Advent can remind us of the importance of being in connection with the God who is always with us at all times in our lives. Jesus comes to us in a special way through the Nativity, but God has been there through all eternity.
The second event that touched me was a visit I made to my aunt. She is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (http://www.bvmcong.org/) who is living in the order’s retirement facility at Mount Carmel, in Dubuque, Iowa. Over 200 remarkable women of varying and distinguished professional accomplishments live in this facility, and another 350 members of the order remain in a variety of active ministries around the world. But, just as with many Catholic religious orders, there are few newly vowed members and as a result, after over 175 years of service, the order is slowly (and literally) dying out. Those of us who have visited retirement and assisted living homes might not be surprised to encounter some frustrated, lonely, perhaps bitter, people in such a situation, but in fact it was just the opposite! Every sister I met was warm, pleasant, and genuinely happy. They take great care with their personal appearance and their surroundings, but more importantly they enthusiastically engage their world as they find it. Many of the sisters have physical infirmities, but with the assistance of each other and the staff, they are able to lead lives of reflective purpose – they know they continue to make a difference for each other and for all those they encounter, whether in person, through correspondence or the internet, or through prayer.
So how does my road trip fit into the readings today and Advent 2008? Reflecting on our conversations, the meals we shared, our daily mass, our encounters in the hallways, and seeing the little favors they do for each other, I realize the sisters’ Advent is not seasonal but part of their personal spirituality. On average, one of the sisters dies almost weekly, and their cemetery is on the grounds of their retirement home. Yet they don’t dwell on their ending of their own and their communal lives, but live each day in service to God and each other. They feel and practice the meaning of Emmanuel – God is with us – in all they do. Observing them reminds me of how blessed each of us is. God calls each of us, not just vowed religious and priests, to live lives of great wonder and discernment. The Sisters of Charity of the BVM have much to offer and share, especially in this twilight of their existence, and they are so grateful for the opportunity to share. We too have much to offer, and to share, and need only to unlock our potential by realizing Emmanuel in all we do every day, not just at this time of the year.
And so my prayer for today is to be aware of God being with me – that God always has been and always will be with me, and always comes to me, not just at this time of the year – wherever I am and whatever I do, and that as my own life winds down I can be as strong as my aunt and her sisters in living every day in the knowledge of God’s presence in all that I do.
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