Ransoming Advent: Rediscovering the hidden gifts of the season
The real sign that he chose is hiddenness. … This sign of hiddenness points us toward the fact that the reality of truth and love, the actual reality of God, is not to be met within the world of quantities but can only be found if we rise above that to a new order … the order of love (What It Means To Be A Christian by Joseph Ratzinger, 38-39).
Advent has always been a bit of a desert experience for me. And it’s beginning to dawn on me that that’s what this season is supposed to be.
In spite of the fact that the liturgical season has been practically hijacked by the secular culture and its demands for lights, decorations, and shopping starting on Black Friday, Christmas was never meant to land in our laps like a fat turkey the day after Thanksgiving.
Instead, from the earliest days of Christianity, the celebration of Christmas was meant to be a great and joyous culmination of an intentional period of anticipation, preparation, and waiting: the solemn season of Advent, which was marked by prayer, fasting and penance, much like the period of Lent.
Advent, which means “important arrival,” is intended to be a time of longing — not for the things of this world, but for a Savior who can liberate us from both the world and from ourselves. As the noise, parties, and presents threaten to overshadow the gift of the God-man, we are beckoned even more urgently to seek him in the quiet, small stable of our hearts, where Advent really takes place.
An occasion of spiritual preparation, Advent devotion is aimed at ushering us into the mystery of God, who came not with glitz, glamour and glitter, but as “the hidden One”— a poor, vulnerable babe in the manger recognizable as Savior only to those with eyes to see.
Now, as the days grow darker and the feel of winter’s vulnerability widens, we are invited to “(go) out from the coziness of our present situation into what is hidden … to discover God in the incognito in which he is hidden” (What It Means To Be A Christian, 37-38).
In other words, we are bidden to wait for God in all of the unrecognizable and undesirable places in which he shows up: in the poor, the lonely, the lost, the needy, and the loveless — namely in us, and our in own hearts.
Advent summons us to take leave of our programs of self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction to remember that we, like the Christ-child we await, are poor, vulnerable, and weak — and that we stand in desperate need of the gift offered to a fallen world at his birth: “the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf” (What It Means To Be A Christian).
As Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) beautifully articulated in a series of sermons he gave about Advent half a century ago:
God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of his love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall. It means opening our hand and accepting a gift (What It Means To Be A Christian, 74).
At its core, this is what Advent is all about: opening our hands to accept the gift of God’s love. The question is: How can our hands be receptive to God if we are busy filling them with reckless abandon in order to create the “perfect” Christmas?
The Church calls us instead to empty our hands and open them with “the gesture of faith, and in that gesture lies a demand for the mystery of Christ” — the only demand which Advent promises to truly satisfy (What It Means To Be A Christian, 76).
How do we open our hands? Perhaps by seeking Christ in daily Mass, or by committing extra time to prayer each day during this holy season. Or maybe we could fast from food or alcohol, a practice the Eastern Orthodox churches still observe today, or from shopping or social media.
Whatever we choose to do, may we intentionally use this sacred time to welcome God’s presence by detaching from the things of the world. When we do, we not only make ourselves ready for Christmas, but we offer a prophetic and counter-cultural witness to a secular culture immersed in materialism and pleasure-seeking. Advent is about one necessary thing: preparing to receive the gift of God’s incarnate love — the only gift that can ever fulfill us.