Preparing for Advent 2018: Five Suggestions

This year Advent is very short. It begins on the evening of Saturday, 1 December, and lasts barely three weeks, so we must make the most of it. Here in the monastery, Advent is eagerly anticipated. We relish the simplicities of the season — the silence, the haunting chants we sing in choir, the wonderful prophecies we read, even the extra plainness of the food we eat. Sadly, we are unable to begin with our usual three days of complete silence because I am scheduled to have chemotherapy on Thursday and the side-effects affect everyone for a week or so. I will have to accept that as humbly as I can, knowing that others are being very patient and kind. It does mean, however, that we need to keep our focus if Advent is to do its work in us.

Benedict does not mention Advent in the Rule, which is not surprising as Western Christians were only just beginning to observe it as a liturgical season at the time of his birth. He does, however, have a great deal to say about the things that make for a blessed and fruitful Advent. He is keen on silence, prayer, the common life; he wants us to read the scriptures, act humbly, justly, and forgive readily. These may be easier in a monastery, where everyone is vowed to live according to the Rule, than in society at large, but I think there are some practical suggestions any Christian can make their own. May I suggest the following?

  1. Read every day the lessons appointed to be read at Mass (the Eucharist). In that way, even if you can’t go to Mass yourself, you will be joining with the whole Church throughout the world in this great act of preparation for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
  2. Try to find a few minutes for prayer each day. Don’t worry if circumstances aren’t ideal. It is what God thinks of our prayer that matters, not our assessment of it, and thankfully God seems much more easily satisfied than we are. Just try.
  3. Try to cultivate a few minutes of silence each day, too. Learning to let God love us can only happen if we make some space for him in our lives. Constant chatter, especially angry chatter, isn’t helpful. Yes, there may be times when we explode, but we can try to be quieter, more patient, more open to God.
  4. Keep it simple; keep it kind. Many want to celebrate Christmas before we have even begun Advent. No one wants to be the party-pooper who sprinkles the vinegar of disapproval over everyone else’s fun. A mince pie or two is not going to lead to eternal damnation! The jolliest man I ever knew drank nothing but water and ate sparingly. It was his joie de vivre and kindly nature that made him such a delight. Most of us, alas, are not so obviously attractive, so it is better to nibble away at the festive goodies with a warm smile than refuse with a self-righteous sniff.
  5. Try not to worry about the commercialism of it all, or your inability to meet some of the demands made on you. God did not come into the world to make us sad or unhappy. He knows our weaknesses; he knows our strengths, too.  As we get older, we begin to appreciate that giving is a surer way of finding happiness than amassing things for ourselves. We may think we have nothing to give, but a kind word, a few minutes of our time, even a smile can be a precious gift to share with another.

That is more than enough, I’m sure. Do, please, share your own ideas in the comment section below. A quick search in the sidebar will provide anyone interested with a selection of earlier posts on this subject. The section on Advent in our main website also contains information about the history of the season, the O antiphons and some Advent traditions. You can read it here. Flash is needed to play the music files.

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The Liturgical Year’s End

This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King and enter upon the last few days of the liturgical year. Already some are celebrating Christmas when we haven’t even begun Advent, while dark mutterings about ‘commercialism’ and so on can be heard in certain quarters. I think myself that the main problem is that we are reluctant to live in the present. We are always either looking back or looking forward. The past allows us certainty; the future, endless possibility. The present, alas, offers only reality, and humankind cannot bear very much of that. Moreover, Christmas without any preparation is an enticing prospect. We can ignore or skip much that is demanding so that we end up with no giving of the Law; no bondage in Egypt; no trekking through the desert; no covenants made and broken, then renewed again; no prophets, no exile, no Maccabean wars; just plunging straight into the Incarnation and happy ever after. Only, we know it doesn’t work like that. We cannot have Christmas without Advent recalling us to our senses and reminding us of the long history of the Jewish people’s search for God and our own place in it, at the very end, the wild olive grafted onto the ancient stock.

There was a time when I thought of the solemnity of Christ the King as an unwarrantable intrusion into this process. I almost despised it as a modern feast that spoke more of the political preoccupations of the earlier twentieth century than of anything more ‘spiritual’. But then I began to see how shallow my thinking was. To proclaim the lordship of Christ over everything that exists when dictators stalked the land; to assert the truth and beauty of following the gospel when many were seeking salvation in material things/totalitarian regimes, whether of left or right: that was not small or weak or contemptible. It was to assert not only the power of God to transform our human situation but also his freedom to do so in a way and at a time of his choosing. It was a message of hope in dark times; a re-statement of Christian faith and love in a world that has never really embraced it in all its fullness. We have always wanted Christmas without Advent, Easter without Lent; but it cannot be.

At Christmas we shall indeed celebrate the Incarnation: God’s way of definitively entering human history and redeeming it, but we are not there yet. These last days of the liturgical year are very precious. They put before us the record of human sin and ingratitude and warn us of the sufferings we heap upon ourselves if we are reckless or indifferent. We know, in our heart of hearts, how badly things go wrong when we do not allow God full scope in our lives, but how reluctant we are to admit it! This Sunday gives us the opportunity to reflect, live in the present and begin preparing for Advent. In other words, an opportunity to let God take back control.

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Keeping Advent Simple

I am a great believer in simplicity. Unfortunately, that usually means making a special effort, because simplicity is not the same as being casual or careless about details. To be simple is to be focused in one direction only, and that is especially true of Advent.

Advent is very short this year, barely three weeks long. Just three weeks in which to prepare for the coming of our Saviour and for the transformation of our hearts and minds! It is therefore important not to let Advent become fussy, to allow things good in themselves to clutter our way. It always grieves me when I read of people setting themselves elaborate programmes of fasting and private devotions that become ends in themselves. The liturgy of Advent provides us with all we need. To read each day with care and attention the scriptures and, if possible, the other readings the Church sets before us; to pray in union with the Church on the themes she gives us week by week; to try to live each day in accordance with the gospel — this, surely, is the best way to prepare for the coming of God. Some people will find it necessary to read something more — an Advent-themed book, for example — or to make a conscious effort to overcome the selfishness of other times — by giving help to a local Charity, for example — but these are secondary. The most essential Advent preparation is the one that changes us interiorly for the better.

So, this Advent, I confidently predict that readers of this blog will all be much kinder, especially online, where there is so much unkindness to counteract; much more thoughtful, generous and patient. Unfortunately, they will know nothing about it because their gaze will be fixed on the one who is to come into the world, not on themselves. They may even feel a failure, because they will have nothing in particular to show for all their effort. There will be no long prayers said, no devotions painstakingly performed, no acts of charity to reckon up, only a simple, loving concentration on Jesus. But could there be any finer way to spend Advent? I think not.

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Preparing for Advent

This Sunday will mark the beginning of Advent, that all-too-short period of preparation for Christmas, when most of us try to juggle spiritual preparations with more mundane matters concerning family, food and ‘the festive break’. Some are already planning reading programmes and multitudinous good works, none of which is to be mocked or disparaged. But could I suggest that Advent itself needs to be prepared for, and that the best way of preparing for Advent is, contrary to what you might think, not-doing?

It is good during these last few days before Advent begins to be silent rather than trying to decide what we are going to read or do by way of Advent preparations. If you can, try to find some time during the day when you are not doing anything in particular, not reading, not praying as such, just being quiet and attentive; and let the silence within you grow and grow until you can hear it, embrace it, make it part of your life. It is in that silencing of mind and heart that we allow God an opportunity to make his Advent within us. It is a paradox, but if we would welcome the Word into our lives, we must first learn what it means to be wordless.

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