The Why and What of Advent
Quietly competing with the banal and boring commercialism of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays extended sales is another invitation. But it cannot be heard outside in the streets or while listening to CNN. Instead we must silent all the shouts of the marketplace to listen to another voice…more like a whisper. One that speaks of the why and what of advent.
This is a different kind of celebration –quieter, more intimate and perhaps for women, more personal…a refuge. Lighting our Advent candles in hope, not naive optimism but the Hope that derives from faith. Only hope permits our escaping the ‘four walls and prison windows of gray days’.
I had never heard of Advent before I became a Catholic. And had no clue as to the extraordinary riches that can be gleaned from the season beginning on Sunday, December 2nd…the why and what of advent.
Now, these four weeks have become precious to me.
The ‘why’ is Mary.
Sinless, Immaculate Mary destined to partner with the Holy Trinity to save this world gone dark because of ignorance, because of sin, because of distance from God. Mary, the first and only human being ever created who is true to her nature: born in the likeness and image of God.
Her story is impossible. And yet most of us believe it, even among non Catholics, so say those who speculate about such things.
In the words of Fr. Alfred Delp writing from the real prison walls of Tegel prison in Nazi Germany:
Oh, if people know nothing about the message and the promises anymore, if they only experience the four walls and the prison windows of their gray days, and no longer perceive the quiet footsteps of the announcing angels, if the angels’ murmured word does not simultaneously shake us to the depths and lift up our souls—then it is over for us.
The ‘what’ is the silence of these upcoming days leading to the birth of Christ.
Thinking about the mother of God comes naturally to me now. Ever mysterious, challenging and more powerful than any woman who ever lived, Mary’s is a radical power, too huge for mere words. This young girl who was ‘found with child,‘ long before her marriage to Joseph. She is miracle and mystery.
Consider the parallel stories we are given by St. Luke. On the one hand, we have Zachary and Elizabeth “both just before God, walking in all the commandments…” and we have the young Mary, ”full of grace, having found favor with God” given to the Temple at birth and now to Joseph to wed.
Gabriel appears to Zachary while he is in the Temple to tell him to:
“Fear not, thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall
bear a son……a son “… who shall be great before the Lord…..that he may turn the hearts
of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just,
to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.”
But Zachary despite, or maybe due to, his education and his high standing as a Jewish priest cannot dispel his all too human doubt and distrust. We recognize ourselves in him.
- How can this be?
- How can a woman far beyond her child-bearing years conceive a child?
For his lack of faith, Zachary is struck dumb and has nine months of total silence to contemplate the miracle that he and his wife will participate in. Nine months in which to beg for divine knowledge. That which culminates in understanding, understanding bred of stillness and total silence.
Upon the naming of the child, Zachary’s muteness dissipates. While Elizabeth insists to disbelieving relatives that yes, the child’s name would be John, Zachary is silent no more and sings his Canticle of Praise:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free….
…This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear
holy and righteous in his sight,
all the days of our life…
Only two people on earth understand the miracle that forever ends the darkness of man: the priest and the silent girl Mary.
Only these two can see, can touch and can taste the love that the God of Israel holds for His chosen people. Yet neither can speak about it. Zachary has been made mute and Mary has been created with a silent contemplative nature – one not given to verbal expression.
Can we imagine ourselves as that girl so filled with the spirit and knowledge of God that all she asks the angel Gabriel is how this will come to be? Mary, the new Eve, has complete trust in her God.
“…And the angel said to her: Fear not Mary, for thou hast
found grace with God…
…How shall this be done because I know not man?”
Can we imagine a relationship so close, so intimate with God that the one answer from Gabriel suffices?
“…The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called also the Son of God…”
“…and Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.”
The why and what of advent, is clear.
No false humility here, no protestations of unworthiness or any outward sign of fear. The Church gives us these four weeks to pray with Mary:
- to be silent with Mary
- and to ask for her intercession for God’s grace of total trust and confidence in His will.
- For who is more like Mary than Jesus?
- While a babe within her body, Jesus “clothed her with himself ” and filled her with his desires and affection.
- Our liturgy says that “Mary is the most perfect image of Christ, formed truly by the Holy Spirit”.
- It is Mary, the mother of God whom we imitate, not Mary the young girl.
- As Jesus is the Way to reach the Father, so Mary is the surest way to reach her Son.
Writing from Tegel prison on the 1st Sunday of Advent in 1944, Father Albert Delp, just 3 months before he would be executed, wrote these words:
The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not first experienced being terrified unto death about himself and his human prospects and likewise what is revealed within himself about the situation and constitution of mankind in general.1
This entire message about God’s coming, about the Day of Salvation, about redemption drawing near, will be merely divine game-playing or sentimental lyricism unless it is grounded upon two clear findings of fact.
The first finding: insight into, and alarm over the powerlessness and futility of human life in relation to its ultimate meaning and fulfillment. The powerlessness and futility are both boundaries of our existence and are also consequences of sin…
The second finding: the promise of God to be on our side, to come to meet us. God resolved to raise the boundaries of our existence and to overcome the consequences of sin.
However, as a result, the basic condition of life always has an Advent dimension: boundaries, and hunger, and thirst, and lack of fulfillment, and promise, and movement toward one another.