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We often think of Advent merely as the four-week period just before Christmas—a time when we look forward to Jesus’ coming to live among us. But in reality, this season is a kind of sacrament that can help us be alert for the many different ways Jesus comes to us all year long.
In word and ritual, Advent tells us that if we learn how to use our “spiritual eyes,” we will be able to see Jesus drawing near all the time, offering us a share in his life and love. It tells us, in fact, that even our own longing for God can become an advent, giving shape and voice to our inner desire for more from life.
The Scriptures show that “advents” of God can appear in events as grand as the exodus from Egypt and as humble as the dream that moves Joseph to take Mary and their newborn child to Egypt. Mary’s surprising encounter with the angel Gabriel shows that an advent of God can be life-altering not just for an individual but for the whole world. The disciples’ encounter with a traveler along the road to Emmaus is another advent. Once bread is broken and the eyes of faith are opened, they recognize it as a coming of the risen Lord—mysterious and profound, inspiring and enriching, hopeful and joyous.
Entering into Advent. In his new book, Conversing with God in Advent and Christmas, Stephen Binz opens for us a vision of how God’s word, delivered long ago, is still an advent for us today. He does this by showing us how to practice the ancient art of lectio divina as we pray through the Sunday Mass readings for Advent and Christmas. “These special seasons are all about expectation—waiting for and anticipating the coming of Jesus Christ,” Binz writes. “This is also the purpose of lectio divina.”
Whether through the prophecy of Isaiah or the Gospel of Matthew, God speaks to us in his written word. We reflect on these words and, like Mary, allow them to resonate in our hearts (Luke 2:19, 51). This opens us to more of their meaning and moves us to respond with our own words and actions. Aren’t moments like these true advents? When God speaks, isn’t it always an occasion of grace, an opportunity for us to listen and respond?
Conversing with God in Advent and Christmas offers wise and practical guidance to help us seize this opportunity. Binz alerts us to those moments when a scriptural word or phrase speaks to our hearts; he encourages us to pause and open ourselves to the communion with God that we all long to experience. In the process, the simple prayer “O come” becomes both our plea to God and God’s invitation to us.
By reflecting on the texts for the Christmas season as well as Advent, Binz shows how the Advent mystery doesn’t end with the birth of a baby but continues to unfold. In fact, the Christmas season doesn’t close until we celebrate another kind of advent: the baptism of the Lord, when the Father introduces his beloved Son to the whole world.
The Modes of Lectio. The format of Binz’ book follows the traditional pattern for lectio divina. Each Sunday entry presents the first reading and the gospel for the day, which are designed to relate to one another. Then Binz explains the biblical background of the texts, and offers various historical and literary insights. All of this encourages us to read the passages slowly, reflectively, and deliberately. This is “more like listening deeply” than like ordinary reading.
Following the two readings, Binz leads us through a brief meditatio on the texts. He offers questions that invite us to ruminate on God’s word, pondering its meaning and its relevance to our lives. Next comes the oratio—an opportunity for personal prayer that arises from our reflection. God has taken the initiative to speak to us; now our response forms our prayer. (There’s a sample prayer for each set of readings.)
In the contemplatio, which comes next, we rest in silence before the word God has spoken to us. Like a sleeping child in its mother’s arms, we simply enjoy “the experience of quietly being in God’s presence” as he works in our hearts. Lastly, there is the operatio, or what I like to call the incarnatio—how we ourselves incarnate what we have received, how we put God’s “word into action” and bring it to life in the way we think and act.
New Every Season. An extra advantage of Conversing with God in Advent and Christmas is that it contains the full three-year cycle of readings, allowing us to return to it again and again. With each passing year, we grow in faith, our life situations change, and we encounter new challenges. And so our reflections on these texts can spark new thoughts and new ways of deepening our relationship with God.
With this book, Stephen Binz does more than provide the insight and instruction needed for a good understanding of the liturgical texts for Advent and Christmas. He also helps us to pray through these passages and find ways to live them out personally. This both enriches our personal quest for God and enlivens our celebration of the Mass, where these words are proclaimed in sacred assembly. In these ways, Binz shows us that Advent doesn’t have to end on Christmas Day. Inspired by the word of God, we can experience a new “coming” of the Lord every day of our lives. I hope you will appreciate this book as much as I have.
Benedictine monk and priest Gregory J. Polan is the abbot of Conception Abbey in Northwest Missouri. He is also chancellor of Conception Seminary College, where he teaches courses in Scripture and biblical languages.