I pray the preface during the season of Advent standing on the border of a culture clash. As a society we live out an obsession with materialism more obviously during December. We are on a quest for a perfect holiday of intimacy as presented on television and on the Internet. We also try to scatter the darkness of the world and within ourselves by stringing twinkling lights and attending obligatory office parties.
However, beginning a new liturgical year, the Church focuses on waiting for Christ in a world of great poverty and longing. We seek the intimacy of a savior who promises heavenly love even among people we ignore. We begin a journey of walking toward a Light that illumines souls and sparks a loving desire to pray. This journey satisfies even the loneliest of hearts and most broken of relationships. This journey to God is not obligatory or costly, but this love is sheer gift. God’s love is free for the asking.
This journey in the Advent season goes well beyond the shades of purple draped in our sanctuaries and the quarrels among liturgists on where to display the Advent wreath this year. This journey welcomes people’s lives into the path that the ancient prophets spoke out about. They told their people to straighten up their lives and get their priorities in line with God’s love. This journey opens our earthly hearts toward the realization that Christ is already here among us calling us deeper into the human condition. We are to let go of racism, prejudice and insincerity and anything that diminishes being human. We believe that Advent shocks people into realizing that Jesus still makes a home in our human flesh. This is not a design from the latest couture, but God’s design from our ancient past, that we all become vessels of grace, love and forgiveness.
These are the realities behind the simple words of the Advent preface, “For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh”. I remember praying years ago that I longed to make a home in God. I spent years with this prayer. Then one day I realized God needs to make a home in me. This shift in prayer is the essence of Advent. This prayer seemed to change everything in my relationship with God and in serving people in ministry.
This shift is the basis for a new hospitality, to receive Christ within our hearts that are fragile and weary, “and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago”. This is the foundation for learning how to receive other people, just as they are and not trying to change them in our own image and likeness. Hospitality seems radical and even more counter-cultural during Advent.
Mary and Joseph spent their last moments of pregnancy searching for people to welcome them. This is not a lost image or a cute Christmas story, but opens for us, “the way to salvation.” This reality is still among us today. God is invested in us as human beings. God is waiting for us to welcome the Spirit of love among us. God longs to make a home within us. This image of hospitality is key to praying the prefaces of Advent and Christmas. Today, Christ the Savior is among us, still assuming the lowliness of human flesh.
Our parish community opens our doors to many people every day during the year. Our Hospitality Center is especially busy during the Advent season. People suffer severe loneliness during December. Many people who live outside are struggling to survive another wet and cold winter. People living alone in the single-room occupancy apartments in our neighborhood struggle to keep clean from drugs and alcohol. For so many neighbors Christmas seems beyond their reach because gifts and family are scarce. Loneliness cripples, defiles and even kills.
We welcome people searching to find a home in simple conversations with dignity and respect. We welcome people who want to give birth to something new in their lives but fear keeps them on the streets and using drugs. We welcome a young man who is just discovering his mental illness and a mother who has just left her boyfriend because he abuses her child. We welcome people lost amid the cold nights and the cold shoulders given by their families. We welcome people sent to the streets because they have no insurance or who cannot make their house payments or keep a job. People are lost in so many ways and our ministry is to welcome people without stripping them of dignity and respect.
This sacred sense of hospitality is not a one-way relationship. “For through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor.” I spend much of December days weeping the losses of suffering people. My heart is open to the coming of Christ in our midst when I can share honestly with people the realities of life and suffering. I am humbled by the complexities of people’s situations and their desire for new life. I do not welcome people to the Table of the Lord believing that my life has power over people or that my hospitality only makes me feel better about myself. This holy exchange of hospitality means that our entire community is changed when we welcome the vulnerable, the ill, the lost and the wanderer. We share our heartaches and the awareness that the lack of justice is real and believable.
Last year on in the closing days of Advent, I walked into our parish office and noticed a sign that a member of our staff was creating on the computer. The sign read, “We will be handing out backpacks and sleeping bags on December 23.” I stood at the computer and cried. The sign told the story of our common ache for people’s lives. We all know we cannot fix people’s situations or provide shelter or housing for people. We cannot solve the situation of the pregnant teen that comes to us seeking shelter for the week. We do not have the resources to solve addictions or the money for the correct prescriptions for cancer or mental illness. We can offer the simplest things, a backpack or a sleeping bag because so many people will not find shelter for Christmas. So many people will be left behind without family or food or parties or new clothing.
In Christmas, we celebrate our human worth as we give birth to the Word. The path of eternal life begins with Jesus in our midst. So often we postpone our acceptance of God’s love for us. I see this often in my own lack of reverence for my gifts, my body and my vocation. I see how we deflect the Incarnation when I sit with a young teen who cuts herself so that she will at least feel life. I see it in how a middle-aged man compulsively has sex with any available partner. He claims his wife does not know. It is easy for us to believe that we will have a home in the after life, so often it is more difficult to believe we have a home in our own bodies.
This message of Christ offered to the world continues Epiphany. Jesus’ presence to us as a miracle from the Father is truly Light for all to see. This presence of Jesus is dimmed by our lack of trust that God will lead us out of the darkness we carry within our lives. The Light is dimmed by violence, war and hatred. This darkness makes us question our selves and the God who will lead us into the future. The Light of Christ offers us direction and hope.
These celebrations of Advent and the Christmas season continue the journey of our redemption in Christ Jesus. The journey is not about purchasing the perfect gift so to fulfill a social norm. This journey is about the rich presence of grace deep within our human hearts and lives. We are guided now not by a star, but our inner lives of prayer, faith and service.
The texts of the preface for these liturgical celebrations challenge us all to receive God in all we do and to make room for our neighbor in all that we hope to become. The Light is here and we cannot gaze at the ground. The Light is for all nations, all times and all peoples. The journey gives meaning beyond the culture clash of Christmas. The journey will lead us safely home singing hymns of glory without end.