I’m looking forward to offering these thoughts to you, dear readers, to be a small light on your Advent journey towards Christ. In His Providence, all these pieces fell together over the past few weeks. That doesn’t always happen in blogging, but when it does, it gives me the sense that the Lord is up to something special.
Since my recent posts, the theme of purity and purification has been on my mind as something we the Church is particularly in need of. What does the Advent season have to say about purification, about healing, about inner transformation? So much!
I was gathering these thoughts, I came across Bishop Baron’s podcast on “The Advent Revolution,” and discovered there much reflection along the same lines. I’ll reference bits of the podcast, but highly encourage you to listen to the whole thing here.
The Coming Of the King
Earlier this week in daily mass, we heard this Gospel Acclamation:
Behold the king will come, the Lord of the earth,
and he himself will lift the yoke of our captivity.
This theme of the coming of the king runs throughout the Advent season readings, and indeed we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday before Advent begins.
Bishop Baron comments on this imagery of the coming of the king, drawing attention to how the political reality of monarchy is used in the Old Testament to illustrate the eternal spiritual reality of God. And I think he makes a point which is really useful – the new king represents a bringing of order, and a higher order from above. Bishop Baron says,
“Think of Christ coming now in the life of the Church. Does it mean a rearrangement of the inner order that obtains in our lives? Yeah, we all have an order, we’re sinners so it’s kind of a dysfunctional way of ordering things. That old king, that old kingdom has to give way as the new king and the new kingdom arrives. Is that a sentimental business? No, that can be a pretty kind of messy and difficult business, as the old order gives way.
That’s one way I’ve interpreted the apocalyptic language in the New Testament, the Old testament too. What’s the apocalypse? Well in a way it’s the end of the old world, the old way of ordering things. wWhich is not just dire bad news, it’s a preparation for the new order that’s coming. That’s what Advent and Christmas are all about. It’s a revolution.
How often do we associate Advent with a reordering of our life? Most often we think of conversion and self-denial in Lent, not Advent. Furthermore, the preparation that Advent is meant to facilitate gets lost in the disorder and even chaos of the end of the semester, finals, Christmas parties, etc., not to mention many worthy holiday responsibilities.
But Advent is truly a gift from the tradition of the Church to help us precisely do that, to prepare us for the coming of Christ. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” is a refrain from Isaiah that we sing, pray and read often in the course of Advent. What does it mean to prepare our hearts to receive Christ this Christmas? And is that preparation only sentimental? How can we really prepare our hearts?
Bishop Baron comments on that verse from Isaiah as well, saying that Advent is about “making a highway in the desert, so that God may come, and then lead his people on this flat highway back to Israel.” And again,
Yahweh is coming. The Lord’s coming as the new king. Now make straight a highway for him, to facilitate the journey back to the promised land. Now, read ‘the promised land’ – spiritual, right? The promised land of a rightly ordered soul, the promised land of salvation, we’re being led from sin to salvation.”
We’re a little more than halfway through Advent, but there is still ample opportunity to pause and ask – how can I order my life towards Christ today? This week?
Ordering the Disorder
I’d like to share a way of thinking about how to go about this “rearrangement of the inner order that obtains in our lives” as Bishop Baron says. There are two necessary components: God’s action and ours. We can’t liberate ourselves. We are in need of God’s grace, against the belief of many moderns, as Bishop Baron also emphasizes, who buy into the believe that we can save ourselves.
The second component is referenced by Augustine when he said, although God created us without us, He does not will to save us without us (more on that here). Our free yes – our active cooperation – is necessary for conversion and transformation. Put another way, if any ordering of our lives or our souls is to take place, His grace is essential – but we have to consent to receiving that grace, and choose to work with it.
In this process of ordering our inner and outer lives this Advent, God’s grace will do the heavy lifting. His grace does the biggest part, and takes care of all that we are unable to do ourselves. How can you get your fill of grace? The first and most efficacious doorway is the sacraments. How often do you expose your soul to God’s rays of grace in the sacraments? What about attending one daily mass each week? Or going to an Advent penance service?
And if you already do those things, how present and open are you during mass? Sometimes even our own church involvement gets in the way of worship – how hard it can be to be in the choir, or a lector, etc., and feel present at Mass during special liturgical seasons! And of course children can be a challenge too. But whatever our state, I think we can always take charge of our inner attitude in mass. Perhaps something like: “Lord, I’m tired and distracted, but please help me pray,” or, “Dear Blessed Mother, I’m out of ideas for what to do with my kids in mass, please help be centered in you and discover a new way forward,” or even “Lord, I’ve been zoned out in mass for a long time, help me be just a little more attentive to You today in mass.”
These are just a few ideas. I think you have to decide for yourself what ways you can become more open to His grace this Advent – and ask for Our Mother’s help to make it happen!
The thing is, we often forget that this grace really can make an actual difference in our every day life. Fr. Joseph Kentenich often said, “Grace does not destroy nature, it elevates and perfects it.” What did he mean by that?
The true and genuine law of life is this: Gratia non destruit, sed elevat et perficit naturam (Grace does not destroy nature, it elevates and perfects it). This law enters deeply into the life of someone who has understood the art of living. If I am living under the influence of grace, this does not absolve me from the duty to strive for genuine and noble humanity. Holiness must be synonymous with genuine, spontaneous and ennobled humanity.
(…) receiving the sacraments should first of all urge us to form ourselves to become strong and effective personalities. This is how we should understand striving for holiness, priestly holiness. We could compare grace with a coachman who is able to draw everything out of his horses, that is, out of ourselves with all our natural gifts and abilities. Grace wants to involve all our natural strengths as far as possible, and in addition it gives us a significant measure of supernatural strengths. Look at how many means of grace we have already used! Have we become ethically more mature personalities as a result? When someone receives Holy Communion daily, we should be able to demand more of them than of others.J. Kentenich, Free & Wholly Human, p. 182
What if that were more true about us by the end of this month? What if it were true that the grace available in the sacraments really made a difference in our daily life? What if it was really allowed to touch not just what we think about as our “spiritual” side, but rather to permeate our whole humanity?
I’m a big fan of doodling and drawing ideas out on paper, so it really helps me to have a concrete image for abstract ideas. I’d like to share with you a concrete image that Fr Kentenich uses to describe our inner order and disorder as human beings. Not only have I found it really useful on my own journey, but it oftentimes resonates when I share it with friends and colleagues both in my faith circles and professional circles too.
The animal, angel and child of God
Since man is a creature with senses, intellect and soul, and has the capacity for the divine life of grace, he is made up of what we might call an animal, an angel, and a child of God. The “animal” encompasses the lower cognitive faculties and appetites; it seeks food, can grow and reproduce. The “angel” has the power to think and to will. The “child of God” shares in God’s knowing and willing. Before sin entered the world, there was a marvelous harmony between animal, angel and child of God. The angel was in command of the animal; animal and angel happily submitted to the child of God.
Then came sin. The “angel” rebelled against the child of God and refused to obey him. In punishment, God severed the “animal’s” obedience to the angel. Until today one can see how the rebellion of the flesh punishes the mutiny of the angel against the child of God. Disobedience often results in turmoil of the flesh. In contrast, submission of the lower drives to the “angel” and to God is best secured when our higher faculties speak their “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” with total conviction.
If we want to advance from this rebellion in our broken, sinful nature to a measure of order and harmony, then, besides God’s grace, we must invest our own activity so as to master the animal and help the angel and child of God return to their proper dominion. This effort is called self-denial. It involves renunciation of self – a resolute “no” to all that is disordered and sick in my lower self.J. Kentenich, Schoenstatt’s Everyday Sanctity, emphasis added.
How might that image by useful in real life? I think you can also most use it like an examination of conscience to reflect on where sin and disorder show up in our lives. For example you might think about how disorder manifests in the animal – insert here things like our eating habits, our hygiene habits, how we take care of our selves, our sexuality, our sleeping habits…you get the idea. If I can understand and not be anxious or ashamed about the fact that part of us can be thought of as “animal,” then I can began to take charge of that part of my self so that it can “bow” before the angel and the child of God.
What about disorder in our inner “angel?” How often for example, do we squander our intellect on what you might call intelectual junk food? …Netflix binge, anyone? Late night newsfeed scrolling? Or how often do we let our mind run rampant with negative thoughts, criticism for self or others, or excessive complaints? Then there’s about our capacity to make choices. Have our choices been ordered to God’s loving will for us? Have we stayed resolute and followed through?
Remember that the end goal – which isn’t a goal at all, but more like a constantly moving deeper into the process of transformation and conversion – is for the animal to bow before the angel, and for both to “happily submit” to the child of God, so that we are interiorly integrated -who we truly are called be.
Now that’s definitely not going to happen before Christmas 2019! But my invitation to each of you is to take advantage of these last few weeks of Advent to consider these thoughts and, if you so decide, begin the journey. What an “Advent revolution” we would see indeed if we truly believed that our lives could be even just a little more ordered to God by Christmas – that we would not get to the other side of Advent and still be the same.
Mary: Earth and Heaven in Perfect Harmony
One last word on Mary. Not only is she a central Advent figure by right of the nativity story and being Christ’s Mother, but the Church gives us both the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, our national patronal feast day, and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to deeply mark the season. There is of course no coincidence there!
Mary is THE model for a human being entirely ordered to God, in her inner and outer life. Nature and grace are completely intertwined within her. As such, not only is she our example, but our active, present, ever-ready Mother and Educator in this life, forming us to become increasingly ordered to Her Son. One last quote to illustrate this:
“The Immaculate Heart of Mary, which never knew disorder, is a symbol of ordered values that have never been distorted in the least. It vitally embodies the perfectly ordered cosmos planned by God. It assents to and embodies a hierarchy of values in which all the natural and supernatural values are always seen correctly, and which are connected correctly with one another and God.J. Kentenich, Free & Wholly Human, p 210 (emphasis added)
This heart is part of an organism of bonding to persons in which both levels (the natural and the supernatural), all the forms of bonding (to persons, places and ideas), as well as all the forms of love (spontaneous, natural and supernatural), have constantly and perfectly adopted their God-willed place.
So let us pray together my friends that throughout these next few weeks we may be granted the grace we need to make our reflections concrete and to take action to order our lives to God. May the Blessed Mother show us the way, and more than any Advent before, may we be ready this December 25th for the coming of the new born King.