When John the Baptist told the crowds (and us) to repent and prepare the way of the Lord, what did he mean? What sort of preparation did Mary & Joseph, did John the Baptist, and did the world need for their first meetings with the Incarnate Lord?
Mary prepared her heart by saying “yes.” This is increasingly what I have learned to understand about the gift of Faith. It is a giant, all-inclusive YES to the will of God–a yes to freedom, a yes to a super-natural calling, a yes to celebration in love. Did she have to give some things up in order to accept the calling to be the Mother of God? Of course. It’s not like massive miscommunication with her fiancee (initially) and her community, a trip on a donkey while pregnant, a birth in a stable, and a flight to Egypt to save the life of her Son were really the desired life-course for a young woman like her. Yet, she was the recipient and first love of the most perfect gift ever given by God to mankind. And the rest was hardly consequential when compared to that gift, that freedom, that love.
How did John the Baptist prepare? He became an anchorite. He separated himself from the world to prepare through penance and prayer. But this does not mean that he was bitter against the world itself–he saw the world and mankind in the light of hope as something worth saving, as something only in need of a greater openness so that it might shed the shackles of the inconsequential to run into the embrace of God. He, like many of the great prophets that came before him and the hermits that followed in his footsteps, was always a man in the service of charity and truth. He accepted the men who flocked to see him and he gave them the greatest gift he could, the gifts of truth and hope. In order to attract the priests, the people, and even the attention of Herod, he could not have been a man who merely spit out curses and condemned their every action. His purity and charity must have been the sort C. S. Lewis described once as burning in its clarity of vision and yet powerfully attractive. John was set apart for a time, but only to return to the world and give it a truer purpose and an invitation to deeper relationship with God their Father and His Son.
And what did John say the people must do to prepare? We saw early in Luke that the shepherds and wise men had only to go about their daily work and respond generously and joyfully when called. John is sent to “bring back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, ushering in his advent in the spirit and power of an Elias. He shall unite the hearts of all, the fathers with the children, and teach the disobedient the wisdom that makes men just, preparing for the Lord a people fit to receive him” (Lk 1). Here we are given a string of positive images–people reuniting with God and each other and lessons about justice and morality for the wayward. There is no harshness or mention of great fasting and penance, like in the days of Jonah. Zachary’s prophetic canticle about his son echoes this great note of hope. John himself speaks plenty of times about the destruction that will come upon those who refuse to change, but his message is always to choose the good and to open oneself humbly to the Lord. The coming of the Lord will be a grand celebration for those who accept Him.
As we approach our own Advent, I am often surprised to see a strange conflict between the nature of our preparation as Catholics and the attitudes that seem to me to be most proper to a preparation for celebration.
First, I see some Catholics and Christians denouncing anything related to Christmas until December 25th. They cry: the stores are materialistic, the decorations and songs are premature or emphasizing the materialism, the parties are out of line, the gift-giving is stressful and all consuming, Santa is a distraction or an evil substitution for the real reason for the season, etc. Is there some truth in this? Absolutely, but I think that this approach is less than helpful.
Others delineate, “As Orthodox we fast for 40 days before Advent,” or “We don’t talk about Santa in our home,” or “I just try to stay away from it all until Christmas.” Perhaps they see themselves as a sort of John the Baptist, hiding in the desert until the proper time. I think many have good intentions, but when you lead with your sacrifices as the first topic of how you prepare to celebrate Christmas, it’s like leading into Thanksgiving dinner talking about how many hours you scrubbed the house and cooked for your guests before you launch into what you’re thankful for. Sacrifice is meant to be the quiet action of love, not the clanging gong of moral superiority to welcome in the holiday.
A final group pre-games the holidays somewhat guiltily. “Well, I really like Christmas music and they don’t play it during the real Christmas season.” “I think the parties are nice, even if it is Advent.” “I have to shop on Black Friday because otherwise I can’t afford all the gifts and then it means I can rest a little more during December, which is the real Advent season after all.”
I think the first group is missing the Marian preparation. They are so frustrated and tired saying “no” to the little things, that they struggle to be truly enthusiastic about their “yes.” Focus on Advent within your family and within your Church. Light Advent wreaths and set up a nativity (sans Baby Jesus), reintroduce regular Confession and family prayer if those things have gotten a little lax throughout the year, refocus on your priorities as an individual and family, invest in relationships (remember all that uniting the hearts of fathers and children stuff from Luke?), serve others who are less fortunate, and use an Advent calendar. You can choose the level of peace that your family needs to celebrate and prepare properly. The world is not your master. Say no to a few things that stress you out, and say YES over and over to the things that are most important to you and that support the priorities that are foremost in your life. Personally, I think parties fit in just fine. Mary didn’t halt Elizabeth mid-greeting and tell her that she wasn’t going to celebrate Jesus’ coming until after the 9 months were over. She joined in Elizabeth’s joy at the expectation of the Lord. She served Elizabeth’s needs, but she returned in time to join Joseph in their journey to Bethlehem. Relationships were important to Mary, and service, practical details, and even legal requirements all found their place in her preparation under the guiding light of her love of God and of her family.
To those struggling to make Advent penitential enough, relax a little. You will bring no one to the Christ Child with you if you focus too much on the law and neglect the spirit of the law that gives your fasts and privations their meaning and joy. I won’t condemn any one sort of preparation, and I heartily affirm all who make Confession and a true Examination of Conscience a priority at this time. But remember that the desert recluses who changed society did so because they sought to change themselves first and then serve others in charity next. Find positive ways to prepare too. A priest once told me that Lent is a great time to give something up for 40 days, and Advent is a great time to add something spiritual into your routine. We do not have a loss to mourn in this season, only a birth to expect. Do not let your face and voice be that of one who fretfully expects a miscarriage if you are not rigorous enough in your discipline; Christ IS coming. Prepare in joy and humility to accept a gift that can never be deserved “enough.”
To my last group of guilt-driven “Jingle Bell” singers, I think there is a reason Christ said so many times, “Be not afraid.” Choose your Advent preparations with care and intentionality, but don’t be afraid to be joyful a little with the world. Our world is full of things that lack deeper meaning. It has lost the sense of a true value and relationship within the magic of Christmas, but it still feels a yearning to rejoice in something. Changes of the season and innocent holiday traditions like the “Night Before Christmas” and lights are not evil and not dangerous. Those who feel threatened by their appearance need to ask themselves, “Why?” After all, Santa and stockings should remind a person with a bit more cultural context of the generosity of St. Nicholas, and lights might call our minds to contemplate the comforting warmth of the star of Bethlehem. At worst, “they” are celebrating a cultural holiday marking a seasonal change that is quite apart from Christ at all. At best, the world celebrates in a vague sense of hope that natural virtues like being with family and cultural symbols that yield a sense of tradition and ritual will bring about an effect within them that goes beyond cookies and tinsel and transforms their hearts. Let’s build upon that hope that they have, even if they cannot put it in words beyond songs and stories of life becoming suddenly magical through a chance encounter with Santa or a midnight train.
We don’t serve anyone by telling them they have no right to celebrate at a particular time and in a particular way. We DO serve ourselves and them when we show with our lives how peaceful, deeply moving, and profoundly transformative REAL celebration is. Perhaps if some stressed shopper, swinging between worry mixed with sporadic gaiety, can say, “I want to celebrate Christmas like her, with true joy and anticipation,” they might also learn to say, “I want to celebrate Christmas with Him, the source of life and love.”
Give yourself permission to prepare. Permission to change. Permission to celebrate (for the full 12 days and 40 days of the Christmas Season!) Permission to love and to give and to appreciate. Permission to lift others out of their pain and present them to the Christ Child. There’s a difference between people who steal a kiss from Santa under the mistletoe and those who receive a kiss from the Christ Child on Christmas morning. Don’t worry about the mirage; embrace the reality given to us this Christmas and always.