This Christmas Mary Lou, my wife, and I are expecting twenty-five family members to visit our Florida home all at the same time. To prepare for their coming, we have undertaken a major housecleaning. And to make more room for overnight guests, we are clearing years of clutter from our "rec" room, which we sometimes affectionately call our "wreck" room.
Our approach to Advent should be something like this. I like to think of this liturgical season as a great opportunity for a spiritual housecleaning. Every year the church gives us a chance to clear our hearts and make room for the divine guest, Jesus.
This year I am calling on a few saints and near-saints to help me do this. I invite you to join me. With their aid, we can clear our hearts of the clutter of our failed commitments, fallen inclinations, and sinful decisions. Reflecting on their words (which, in some cases, have been slightly adapted), we can prepare to receive the Lord Jesus, who loves us and wants to come to us afresh.
He Does This for Me! St. Gregory Nazianzen, a fourth-century theologian and Father of the Church, urges us to empty ourselves, as Jesus did. How else will we have room for the "wealth of goodness" God offers us?
To help me, God sent his own Word, who was from before all ages, unseen and incomprehensible, having no bodily form. He is Beginning from Beginning, Light from Light, fountain of life and immortality; he is God’s unchangeable expression and precise image, the definition and understanding of his Father.
The Word comes to his own image—to humanity—and takes flesh for the sake of flesh. He is joined with an intelligent soul for the sake of my soul, cleansing like by like and becoming human in every way, except for sin. Conceived of the Virgin—whose soul and body were cleansed beforehand by the Spirit—he came forth as God with the addition of human nature. The opposites of flesh and Spirit were made into one, for the Spirit made the flesh divine, and the flesh was divinized by the Spirit.
The one who makes rich becomes poor! He becomes poor in my flesh, so that I may become rich in his divinity. The one who is full becomes empty! He empties himself of his glory for a little while so that I may get a share of his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness, this mystery that surrounds me? I shared in the image of God, but I did not guard it. He shares in my flesh to preserve the divine image in me—and to overcome death in my flesh. For a second time he shares life with me, and in a way more marvelous than the first. l
Receive His Light and Love. If Gregory’s words tell us about how Jesus did so much for our sake, the fourteenth-century mystic and nun, Julian of Norwich, tells us about one specific dimension of what Jesus has done: his unending mercy. In the following passage, Julian shows how even when he is telling us about our sin, the Lord is full of love and compassion.
In his mercy, our Lord shows us our sin and weakness in the sweet and kindly light that comes from him. He is so gracious, and our sin is so despicable and horrible, that he will not show it to us except in the light of his grace and mercy.
There are four things that he wants us to know. The first is that he is our foundation—the one in whom we have all our life and being. The second is that he watches over us mightily and mercifully when we are in sin and fiercely attacked by all our enemies. (How much danger we put ourselves in, when we give them opportunities and fail to recognize our need!) The third point is how graciously our Lord keeps us and lets us know when we have gone astray. The fourth is how steadfastly he abides in us, never wavering in his regard; all he wants is that we turn and be united to him in love, just as he is united to us. And so, through this gracious process of knowing, we can come to see our sin in a way that is helpful and does not cause us to despair. For truly, we need to see it in this way in order to break with our pride and presumption. . . .
Our gracious Lord also shows most surely and mightily that his love is endless and unchangeable. He shows that, because of his great goodness and the inward keeping of his grace, his love and our soul will never be parted from one another for all eternity. And so . . . I have cause for humility that saves me from presumption. And in the blessed showing our Lord’s love, I have matter for true comfort and joy that saves me from despair. l
Preparing a Place. Lest we think that Advent is only about emptying ourselves, the Catholic reformer St. Charles Borromeo (1538–1584), reminds us also of the limitless grace that is available to us this season. The One who became flesh and came to us on Christmas Day is always ready to come into our hearts more and more deeply!
My dear friends, we are beginning to celebrate Advent—in the words of the Holy Spirit, now is "the acceptable time, the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2), the season of peace and reconciliation. This is the time for which patriarchs and prophets longed with burning desire, the time that righteous Simeon rejoiced to see, the time that the church has always solemnly celebrated. We ourselves should keep this season with an attitude of devotion, praising and thanking the eternal Father for the mercy he has shown us in this mystery. In the immensity of his love for us sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of the devil and to invite us to heaven—indeed, to lead us into its inner chamber, to show us truth itself, to train us in upright behavior, to share with us the seeds of virtue, to make us rich from the treasury of his grace, and to receive us as his children and heirs of eternal life.
Reflecting on this mystery, the church urges us to constantly renew our remembrance of this great love God has shown us. For the coming of Christ was not only for the benefit of those who lived in his day. The power of his coming remains to be shared with us, if we, by means of holy faith and the sacraments, are willing to receive the grace he earned for us and to shape our lives in obedience to him, according to his grace.
Christ came once in the flesh. If we, for our part, remove the obstacles, he is prepared to come to us again at any hour or moment whatever, to live in our souls with the abundance of his graces. l
"God in My Heart." Finally, Dorothy Day (1897–1980), cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, shows us how little children and the "poor in Spirit" are well disposed to welcome Jesus into their hearts. Through the gifts of repentance, eager faith, and obedience, may we all regain the simplicity of the Holy Family as we make our homes and our hearts ready to welcome Jesus.
Christmas is coming and Teresa and Freddy are drawing pictures of the Nativity. Freddy tells the story, as they work industriously at the kitchen table, of the big boss Herod and how he heard about the little Christ baby being born and how scared he was that his temporal power was tottering. Freddy’s father, a Sicilian, is one of those people about whom the Protestants say that Catholics never read the Bible. Freddy’s father doesn’t, it is true, but he listens attentively to the Gospels and Epistles and he comes home and tells them at meal times to his little family. He tells them with reverent love, feeling intensely that the good God sent his Son here to be with us. When Freddy’s father hears Christ’s words in the church, he lays them to his heart and ponders over them as Joseph did. Probably Joseph didn’t do much reading either, but listened a lot.
When I hear Freddy and Teresa tell the story to each other, each filling in the gaps, it comes fresh and clear to my mind.
"And the cow breathed on the little baby Jesus and kept it warm," Teresa says delightedly. "Cows are very warm animals, I know. Father McKenna’s place down in
Staten Island has cows and I leaned against them while the brother was milking them. They didn’t mind at all. I was a very little girl then. I’m sure the little baby Jesus didn’t mind being in the stable at all. Probably there were chickens, too. And maybe the shepherds brought their littlest lambs to show them to him."
Christ came to live with the poor and the homeless and the dispossessed of this world, I pointed out to them, and he loved them so much that he showed himself to the workers—the poor shepherds—first of all. It wasn’t till afterward that he received the kings of this earth. So let us keep poor—poor as possible—"in a stable with cows and chickens," Teresa finished joyfully. "And then it will be easier for me to have God in my heart."
Bert Ghezzi is an editor for The Word Among Us Press and the author of The Heart of a Saint: Ten Ways to Grow Closer to God.
The selection from St. Gregory Nazianzen is taken from Sermon 45, On Holy Easter, 9, 22. The selection from Julian of Norwich is from Revelations of Divine Love, 78, 79. The selection from St. Charles Borromeo is taken from his letter On the Season of Advent, 2-3. The excerpt from Dorothy Day is from The Catholic Worker (December, 1934) and is online at http://catholicworker.org/dorothyday.