Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Moving into Advent

I bought the four volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours in 1987, the summer after Tom died. I’d been keeping the hours for a couple of years at that point, having happened on a small volume that included a two week cycle of Morning and Evening Prayer and Night Prayer for Sundays.  Those four volumes were an extravagance at the time, but I so wanted the texts of the Office of Readings, to keep vigil with on those many nights when I couldn’t sleep. 

Saturday night I pulled the first volume — Advent and Christmas season — off the shelf in my small prayer space. Each year I mark the start of the new liturgical year by re-reading the instructions that are included in this volume. It’s a reminder to pray mindfully rather than on auto pilot.  There is always some nuance that I’ve missed in previous readings.

This year I was struck by Pope Paul VI’s reminder that when we celebrate the office it is both our voices echoing in Christ, and Christ’s voice echoing in ours. He reminds us too that we are called to a warm and living love of the Scriptures, particularly the psalms. On a cold night, sitting to pray by a warm fire, I am drawn to the warmth of that inner fire as well.

As I paged through the rest of the volume, resetting ribbons as I go, I remember those whose prayer cards are tucked into the propers of the Saints. My mother, the mother of a close friend, the priest who gave me my first communion, the young daughters of two friends. There are photos of my children when they were very small, and one of a sunrise that I saw on the long retreat. There is a page marked with a blank strip of paper, and — on a fine piece of rice paper — a list of the O antiphons waiting for those last Advent days. 

I’m moving into Advent, looking back at where I’ve been and forward to what is to come.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A seething season

Come down, begged Isaiah, that the mountains might quake and the nations tremble. As fire makes water swell and seethe, so will your wondrous deeds be known across the earth, promises the prophet. I am struck by this imagery as I stand in my dark kitchen, watching the water in the glass kettle swell and seethe as it comes to the boil, and contemplate Isaiah’s images. Bubbles tumble about, irrepressible, ever changing, refracting the blue light of the flame until the water seems to glow of its own accord. 

For all that I yearn for a season filled with quiet and prayerful moments to spend preparing for God’s coming, it is not to be. Like the water in the kettle, my Advents seethe, boiling over with things-to-be-done and people-to-be-seen. Yet despite the end of year chaos — or perhaps because of it — the rich images in the Advent Scriptures dance irrepressibly through my days. They spill forth light, shining beacons in the drearing days. They draw me deeply into that super-luminous darkness, the depths where God dwells.

I find in Advent not so much a refuge from the demands of my life and of the world as a series of mysterious contradictions that leave me slightly off balance, stumbling forward. The Scriptures of this season promise us light in the midst of the darkness, but they also make clear the demands the kindling of such a light place upon us. They disrupt my preconceptions about what it means that God has come to dwell among us, forcing me to come face to face with what it means for me, here and now, to encounter God in human form. 

In an Advent General Audience, Pope Francis spoke of the manger as an invitation to contemplation, a reminder of the importance of stopping. Contemplation is sometimes called the art of stealing time. I am committing to stealing a few moments each day this Advent to listen to God’s irrepressible, radiant Word, to wrestle with what it means to incarnate the Risen Lord.

For all that Advent propels us toward Christmas, the stable in Bethlehem is not a destination. It is a way station, a momentary gathering of those who will be dispatched to all corners of the earth. Strangers and shepherds and angels stop and then depart as quickly as they came. Not to follow the same paths they came by but sent on to new roads and new lives. May our lives, too, be open to being transformed by what God has done and is doing in the world. 

— Adapted from M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.