November 30, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier First Sunday of Advent
Reading I (Jeremiah 33:14-16) Reading II (1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2)
Gospel (St. Luke 21:25-28, 34-36)
Today we begin the holy season of Advent. Advent is sometimes difficult for people because it is pulling from two different ends. That is, it is preparation for the coming of Our Lord into the world at Christmas two thousand years ago, as we prepare ourselves now to celebrate that glorious feast; and it is also a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the world. And so it looks back and it looks forward at the same time. That makes it somewhat difficult for people because there is kind of a built-in tension that is there. But it is not a bad tension because it reminds us there is a change that is about to happen and we have to be prepared for that change. If we think about it, it is a time of preparation where we unite ourselves with Our Blessed Mother as she prepares to give birth to her Son. And every mother who is about to give birth knows fully well there is going to be a major change that is about to happen in her life. Therefore, right before the child is born, the mother is very busy preparing the home, preparing the room for the child, preparing all of the different things to welcome the child not only into the world but into their home. That is exactly what we are being asked to do as well. It is a time of preparation. It is a time to prepare our hearts so that they will, as Saint Paul told the Thessalonians, be blameless and holy on the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He told the Thessalonians that they know how they are to conduct themselves, and says to them that they are already doing that, that they were taught by Saint Paul and the others how they were to conduct themselves as followers of Christ. We also know how we are to conduct ourselves.
The problem, of course, for most of us, is that since we live in this unfortunate society we have learned to conduct ourselves according to societal norms, not according to the norms of Jesus Christ. The early Christians were persecuted terribly because they did not live according to the way most of the people in the Roman society lived; they were living by a different standard. They were not living according to a bad standard, but in fact to a standard which was moral, which was upright, which was decent, which gave good example to people. They lived in many ways like the people around them, but in many ways they did not. That is precisely what each of us is called to as well. Unfortunately, for most Catholics, they have completely given up on Jesus and they are living according to the way of the world, pure and simple, giving into all of the materialism, all of the ease, all of the selfishness that our society tells us to get involved in.
We must reject that and we must live according to the way that the Lord has laid out for us through His Church. This time of Advent is a time of penance, which is why we are wearing purple during this holy season. It is not a time for parties. It is not a time for celebrating Christmas – it is a time for preparing for Christmas. Christmas begins on December 25th; it does not end on December 25th. Our society has already begun celebrating Christmas. There are radio stations which began playing Christmas music 24 hours a day starting on the first of November. The stores have had their Christmas decorations up already for several weeks. And the push has begun by the advertising and marketing agencies to make sure we all rush out and buy hordes of things so that we can all hear how much money the retailers made at the end of the season. That is not the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is to be able to look at how Jesus chose to come into this world. He was not born in a department store; He was born in a manger. He was not heralded by those of greatness in society; He was rejected by those people and He continues to be rejected by those people. We cannot be giving in to the way that they have chosen for us to celebrate Christmas because for them Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus Christ – it has only to do with money. That was not what Our Lord was about. We need to make sure that our hearts are prepared. The Lord told us that we have to be vigilant, that we have to be praying. He told us that we have to keep watch at what is going on. But He told us also that we must be careful lest we get lax in the way we are living our lives and suddenly the day will catch us off guard like a trap.
This season of penance is not quite like the Lenten season of penance. Lent is a season of reparation where we are making up for our sins. Advent is a season of preparation where we prepare for the coming of the Lord. In both we do penance, but the disposition of the heart is slightly different. What we want to do now is to do penance so that our hearts are fully prepared to receive Our Blessed Lord, to make sure that we are not only in the state of grace but in general that our disposition is completely appropriate to be able to receive Jesus on Christmas morning. Even when you think about how our society prepares for Christmas, it is about the self. It is about how many gifts “I” am going to get, or how expensive they are, or whatever it may be. It is about putting up thousands and thousands of light bulbs out in your yard so that people “ooh” and “aah” over how impressive you are; it is all about “me”. “Look at me.” “Notice me.” “See how much I am doing.” “See what I am about.” That is not the spirit of Christmas. The gifts that we give on Christmas are to reflect the gifts that the little shepherds and the magi brought to Jesus, because each one of us is made in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ and the Lord is to be born into the hearts of each one of us on Christmas. So we will give simple gifts to one another in memory and honor of the gifts that were given to Our Lord. It is not about how much one gets; it is about the spirit with which one gives. It is not about “me” – it is about the other.
When Jesus came into this world He did not come for Himself. When Our Lady gave birth to Our Lord it was not about herself. When the little shepherds who were sleeping out in the dirt of the fields came in, Our Lady did not pull her Son back and say, “You’re dirty; stay away from my Child.” She extended the Christ Child to them because it was for them that He came into this world. So too when the magi came, Our Lady extended her Son to them. For us, now, it is time to prepare, to be willing to take on penance in preparation for the coming of the Lord. Like the magi who saw the star from quite far away (time wise), they had to prepare for a journey. They had to wander through the desert. It probably took them better than two months to be able to get to Bethlehem from where they had begun. They were willing to do whatever it was going to require to come to the Lord. Our Lady, I suspect, was busy preparing the home in Nazareth when suddenly the governor decided it was time that everyone should go to their own place. Suddenly, Our Lady had to change her preparation and she had to prepare for a journey. At nearly nine months’ gestation, Our Lady had to mount a donkey and make a rather treacherous journey of eighty miles on the back end of an animal, bouncing up and down at nine months’ pregnancy. She had to do penance in preparation for the coming of the Lord. Then when the day came for Our Lord to be born, whatever preparation she had done in the home did not matter any longer because it was not there that Our Lord chose to be born.
What was necessary was the interior preparation of Our Lady’s heart and of Saint Joseph’s heart because Our Lord chose to be born into a stable, a place that would not have been in order, a place that would have been dirty and would have stunk – not unlike the world in which we live. It has become in many ways sort of like a barn. It stinks and it is dirty and it is filthy. We are not going to be able to get the world in preparation for the coming of Christ; therefore, what is required is to do what Our Lady and Saint Joseph did, that is, to prepare our hearts, to make sure that what happens is that our hearts are orderly and that they are beautiful and prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ. It is the interior disposition that matters to the Lord.
Now I would recommend, given the way that our society tries to celebrate Christmas, that each one of us can consider taking on some penance. Certainly, it is a time of fasting. But I would recommend, given our societal standards, that the way we can do some penance is to simply say, number one, “I will not put up my Christmas tree until it is nearly Christmas.” We do not need Advent bushes; we need Christmas trees. Wait until Christmas. Do not put up your lights during Advent. It is to be a subdued time, a time of preparation. So do not turn on the lights all over your house. Do not put up the Christmas decorations until it is nearly Christmas. It would be like a woman who was with child going to the hospital a month early and she is saying, “Well, I’m here because I know I’m going to give birth pretty soon.” For what? The labor pains have not started yet. The doctors would send her home. What is the Lord going to do if He looks down at us and says, “Why are you celebrating Christmas when it hasn’t come yet?” Do not be having Christmas parties when it is not Christmas. Celebrate the season. Get an Advent calendar, perhaps an Advent wreath. You can do good works. One way to prepare for your family, because the kids need to have something to do, is to put the little manger out and then have the kids do good works, charitable works toward one another or toward others. With each act of charity that they do, have them take one piece of straw for each act of charity and put it in the manger because through those acts of charity they are preparing a soft and beautiful place for Our Lord to lay His head on Christmas Day. In this way, they can get into the spirit of the Advent season so that they can properly celebrate Christmas.
This is not the way of the world, but it is the way we have been taught by Christ through His Church. That is what Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians: that they already know how they are to be living. So do we. Now if it strikes us as being a little bit odd simply because it is not what we are accustomed to in this society, I would simply recommend looking forward another few months and asking the question, “Why is it that we refuse to celebrate Advent?” Christmas we refuse to celebrate as well. Notice that we have them backwards. Advent is a time of fasting; Christmas is a time of feasting. Instead, during Advent we feast, and then during Christmas we fast because we have to take off all the weight we put on during Advent. We have it all backwards. We whoop it up during Advent, we put up the decorations, we celebrate Christmas, and then the day after Christmas everything comes down and we refuse to celebrate the Christmas season. Now jump ahead a couple of months and ask yourself what we do during Lent. We keep Lent. It is a time of penance – we actually maintain that – and we do not celebrate Easter until Easter Sunday. Then we celebrate Easter afterwards. You see, the concept is not that difficult. If we can do it during Lent and Easter, we should certainly be able to do it during Advent and Christmas. The concept is the same, but it is society that has been directing the way that we live our faith rather than our faith directing the way that society should live.
Do not let the retailers determine how you are going to celebrate Advent and Christmas; allow the Church to dictate that. Saint Paul told the Thessalonians that they are to live according to the way that was taught them and in which they were already living. Most Catholics today cannot say that. We know how we are to live; most of us are not doing it. The Lord was very clear about being prepared so that the day will not catch us off guard. We need to be prepared in the proper way. Not prepared by having hordes of gifts that we cannot even fit under the tree, but being prepared so that the heart has the right disposition, so that when the righteous Shoot of Jesse comes into this world, as promised right from the Book of Genesis and then through the prophets as we heard in the first reading in Jeremiah, that He will find other righteous offspring where He will be able to have a heart prepared, filled with love, cleaned up and put in order, filled with the grace of Christ, so that Christmas will truly be a glorious celebration not in the worldly way but a celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world and into our individual lives.
So I beg you: Keep Advent as its own special season and spend it according to the way that the Church has taught us to live, not according to the ways of the world, so that when Christmas comes we will be able to celebrate that feast in its proper manner, in a way that is truly going to glorify not the self but Jesus Christ, Who has come into this world to save our souls.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.