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Imagine this. You show up for your birthday party –at the exactly the time you were supposed to,- and find the fire in embers, people already mingling in the kitchen and leaning back against the counter, someone telling a joke he heard 20 minutes ago in another room. A minute after you arrive, someone shows up with the fruits of a beer run. People turn to you, say, “oh, yeah, it’s you, umm” and quickly get out the cake, mumble through Happy Birthday, rip into the cake, and start excusing themselves and leaving before you get the second forkful in your mouth. How would you feel?
When the celebration starts before you show up, you start wondering whether the party was about you or about them.
I can’t help thinking that’s what Jesus feels these days. (Christmas trees bought November 15th and dragged to the curb in the morning hours of December 26th can’t thrill Him.)
When we celebrate Washington or Lincoln’s birthday, it doesn’t much matter if it’s the right day. We remember it and that’s it. It’s a commemoration, and act of remembering some event in the past, and, if anything, to recall a legacy and important lessons that we should keep current. But we really don’t have to prepare for it. It happens and it’s over.
Waiting for a soldier to return home from war is not like that. Neither is waiting for a child to be born. Time is spent in preparation. Getting things ready. Getting some material things in order but also getting emotionally prepared for the event. Because it’s not just an event, it’s a person. And that person will arrive to stay, and that should change your life. Even if you don’t know how exactly it will change your life, you normally wonder about it, and prepare yourself for those changes. You certainly don’t look forward to getting it over with and back to life as usual.
Advent is a time of preparation. It presupposes that there is a reality, a Person, who is coming, and coming to stay. It is true that Christ comes into our lives each day at Mass, and that Advent reminds us to be in a state of perpetual preparation for Christ’s second coming. But there’s more.
It is also true that there are very special graces at Christmastime that we need to prepare for. Benedictine Abbot Blessed Columba Marmion’s marvelous Christ in his Mysteries was recently republished. The holy abbot goes through the entire Church year and explains that each and every feast has special graces, akin to mother’s milk that changes and adapts to the needs of the baby at different moments. There are graces that come at Christmas that don’t come at other times. In fact, those graces are the same as those offered to the shepherds and the Wise Men. We relive those things liturgically, we don’t simply commemorate them. Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
So, it’s the preparation for a Person, not the recollection of an idea. It takes time to prepare. We can’t start celebrating before the Guest of Honor arrives. That disrespects Him, and also makes us lose out on special graces that we need.
Tune into the liturgy and not so much to the radio. Nothing but Christmas carols since Thanksgiving and business-as-usual on December 26th does not cut it. Let yourself wait, make yourself wait, and then savor the feast. Respect and faith both demand it.
I’m not big on concrete recommendations, (Know any philosophy PhD’s that are?) but taking things slowly helps. A little decorating at a time, not one Saturday where you go whole hog. The liturgy invites us to build a sense of expectation. That rose candle is key. Almost here… How would you feel if you had just a week and a bit left for your dad to come back from war? Longing mixed with redoubled efforts to have everything perfect.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen often spoke about there being only two philosophies of life. One is: first the party and then the hangover. The second is: first the fast and then the feast. The “then” of both philosophies will last forever. The Church models for us how to live the second one. Don’t be so Christmased out that Jesus gets a “oh, yeah, you’re here.” In order to chose the eternal feast and not the eternal hangover, some fasting is in order.
Our Advent preparation is that fast, when we take time to ask ourselves Who is coming, to whom, and why.