The four weeks of Advent are a time of spiritual preparation that begins with an awareness of our own longing and leads us to a deeper openness to the many gifts God wants to give us. This article offers a reflection on a different spiritual gift for each week of Advent. Take time each day to reflect on the week's theme. If you make time for inner preparation, carrying out all the other demands of the season is bound to be more enjoyable. May you have a blessed Advent.
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
One day on a winter's walk in the woods I came face to face with a deer. Our town had been in the midst of a stretch of very cold weather, and the stream I was walking along was mostly frozen over. I had stopped at a place where the swift current of the stream broke through to the surface and swirled around in eddies before it disappeared back under the ice.
As I sat for a while watching and listening to the gurgling water, a deer quietly appeared. We stared at one another for a few moments and, sensing I was no threat, the deer moved to the edge of the water and drank deeply.
I recalled the words, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” I had been experiencing a kind of winter in my soul. There were few signs of life, and the Spirit of God seemed to have become frozen over within me. Somehow, I was drawn to this external image of my internal longing—flowing water finding a way to bubble up from beneath solid ice.
It was Advent and I was longing, even though I was barely aware of my discontent. Like everyone else I had been caught up in the busyness of Christmas preparations. Though we had lit the Advent candles at home and I had tried to pray, I needed more. I needed time to really allow my sense of longing to swirl up and become clear to me as it did on that winter's walk in the woods. I knew then that I needed a closer relationship to God and that I had to stop just going through the motions of my prayer life. My longing, once acknowledged, turned out to be an invitation to live with a deeper awareness of God's presence and care all around me.
What are you longing for? What is your heart trying to tell you? The gift God offers this first week of Advent is the invitation to explore your inner longings. The Church, through our Advent customs, and even the weather of the season itself support such inner work. During the first week of Advent, give yourself time and space to contemplate what you are truly longing for in life. Know that this is the season when your longings will lead you to the Christ Child, in whom the hopes and fears of all the years are known and responded to with generous love.
Theme: Our World Longs for God
As individuals and as a community, we are longing for the presence of God. World events shatter our complacency; family difficulties shake our resolve. How can we say God is present when so much seems to be unstable?
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD'S hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
In early adulthood I began to find Christmas a great letdown. People talk about the magic of Christmas. At that time in my life, the magic seemed to have disappeared. Christmas began to seem like just any other day, only one with a lot of additional obligations and emotional demands.
Ironically, my sense of holiday malaise began to ease when I accepted that Christmas is, in one respect, just like any other day. That is, I can recognize the coming of Christ into my life and into my heart at any moment, on any and every day. Christ's coming wasn't limited to that one single day when “the magic” had to happen. In fact I came to realize that this wasn't about magic at all, but about reality. The true meaning of Christmas is grounded in the profound revelation that God so loves us that he chose to dwell among us both in Bethlehem and today right in our families. I came to see how, in Isaiah's words, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” whenever I am willing to prepare the way of the Lord into my life. For me, making a straight path in the wasteland usually has to do with quieting my mind and opening my heart.
The gift for the second week of Advent is that God speaks a reassuring word of comfort in the midst of our discontent and longing. In this quiet season—a season we tend to fill up with a lot of noise and frantic activity—make time daily to listen for the comforting words of God in your life. Probably the quickest way to begin hearing those words is to create a daily gratitude list. Set aside five minutes each morning or evening and take a few deep breaths. When you are settled, start jotting down whatever comes to your mind that you are grateful for. With a heart full of gratitude, everything else in our lives will change. We will begin to see, even in the demands of our Christmas preparations, the real purpose of those efforts—celebrating the Lord's arrival in our life and the lives of those we love.
Theme: God Speaks Words of Comfort
The prophet Isaiah spoke God's words to the Jewish people in the midst of their exile in Babylon between 597 and 537 B.C. Their lives were shattered, the Temple had been destroyed and the memory of it was fading among their children. In the midst of a discouraging time came words of comfort. God speaks words of comfort to us today. We can only hear them if we are open to listening. They are not the words of false comfort that everything will somehow turn out for the best. They are words that come to us in the midst of our pain and confusion. They will lead us to an even greater sense of God's presence in our lives and in our families.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will put my law within them, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
As a child, every year before Christmas I drew up a list of the toys and presents that I had my heart set on receiving. Usually there was that one special item that I just knew would gladden my heart and make me feel complete.
This week in Advent we focus on hearts: glad hearts, sad hearts, hard hearts, broken hearts, longing hearts. In the Scriptures much is written about hearts because the heart represents the person's deepest identity. Our hearts reveal who we most truly are because they hold what we most deeply desire.
What's in your heart? We can give many answers to that question, and it's a good question to ponder during this week of Advent. But God has an answer for that question, too. “I will put my law within them, and write it on their hearts,” says the Lord. So in addition to whatever else might be in your heart, you can also be sure that the law of the Lord is written—in permanent ink—on your heart. That law is love.
It's time to live out what's in your heart. I know that when I've gotten confused and lost in my faith there is one sure way to find my way back, and that is to love somebody. In my confusion, I look around to see who in my life could use a loving response. It might be my daughter, who's confused about a decision she faces and needs someone to listen—truly listen. Or it might be my wife, who is overwhelmed with responsibilities and could use a helpmate to shoulder some of those duties. Or it might be that my parish offers me the chance to help make Christmas happier for a family in need. The Advent gift this week is the love God places in our hearts.
Theme: God Calls Us to Conversion of Heart
The bottom line is that we have to take responsibility for ourselves. The seed of change in our families, in the community, and in the world begins with answering God's call to meet us and to change our heart. In the midst of a world going insane, it seems a small thing to do. But one heart in tune with God can resonate in our families and through our families and communities into the world.
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.
They shall be like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
One day while on retreat in New Mexico, I made a trek across a barren stretch and up a difficult slope to stand on top of a high mesa. As I walked, the whole area seemed desolate and empty. But once atop the mesa I got another view. From there, in the distance I could see the outline of a currently dry river bed. It was easily visible because all along its dry banks, life abounded. From high above, the river bed was like a ribbon of green and gold. In the brilliant sunshine, green and gold leaves fluttered on trees and shrubs, whose roots stretched out to be watered by the stream when the rains came. These roots must have gone deep to sustain such abundant life even during a long, dry season.
Advent is a time to sink our spiritual roots deep, to let them stretch out to God, the source of all life. Because we are thus connected with God, we too can be sources of life to others in the way we live our daily life. Christmas is not only the season of receiving gifts; it is even more so the season of taking delight in giving to others. We emulate what God has done for us and in that we find our deepest joy. Let us prepare, then, to be generous in offering our family, coworkers, and neighbors spiritual gifts such as patience, prudence, encouragement, counsel, faith, hope, and love.
There's a spiritual adage that says, “You can't give what you haven't got.” The gift offered during this last week of Advent is the gift of hope. Let us drink deeply of the spiritual gift of hope that God offers us. Then we can cherish within us the spirit of Christmas and bring to others the blessings of the Christ Child every day of the year.
Theme: Hope Helps Us Endure in Difficult Times
We can easily become impatient with God and with one another. Living in hope means being willing to live courageously day to day. The signs of change in us will most likely be subtle. Living in hope means that while Jesus has already come, we are still in the process of letting him complete the journey into our hearts.