Finding the treasure of Advent is the key to getting into the Christmas spirit. Even with Advent more than half over – or perhaps especially because of it – claiming the time to accept its graces will deepen both the joy and peace Christmas promises. St. John the Baptist, a paramount Advent figure, spent most of his ministry in the wilderness, a place far from the hustle and bustle of city life, “the voice crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord.” For 40 days and 40 nights before He began His public ministry, Jesus himself went into remote areas and would return there many times. Step one: withdraw from the crowd. This is the opposite of what we are being rushed into, but it is the wisdom of the world’s Savior.
Just when the Gospel is urging us to be still – to retreat from the noise and to get rid of clutter – practically everyone and everything around us is piling it on: eat more, buy more, drive more, hurry more. The pattern is almost a calculated set-up to keep us from getting in touch with ourselves and with the voice of God within our hearts, the invitation to the true Christmas that we did not – and cannot – make, in which God actually comes to us.
To accept the invitation to get into the true spirit of Advent, which is one of reflection, waiting, listening and letting go, is increasingly countercultural. If you even dare to attempt it, you may be plagued by voices guilting you for not doing more when there is so much to be done. Step two: don’t just do something; stand there. Advent is the permission needed to “take five” – or maybe 10 or 20 minutes – from the noise.
One very active and renowned clergyman relates how he had the pleasure of sharing a plane ride with Mother Teresa who asked him all about his important work. Delighted in her deep and sincere interest he told her about all of his projects, his writings and his talks, which took up a considerable amount of time. Then she sighed and just stopped cold for five minutes that seemed to the priest like an eternity. Finally, she said, “and Father, when do you pray?” Surprised by a question that seemed so easy at first, the priest realized that he could give only one honest answer. He admitted that he was so busy that he found it hard to find time. She responded, “Then you are too busy!”
One can hardly imagine a more active, “busy” person than Mother Teresa. Yet as a follower of the Rule of St. Benedict, she devoted at least one-third of each day to prayer. Being too busy to pray is to be living in the delusion that one can accomplish anything really without taking the time to pray. Or maybe it is not living at all.
What invariably happens during the experience of those who pray is that the prayer puts all the business into a more manageable perspective. What seems so important and indispensable finds a way – almost miraculously at times – to fall into place. Energy levels actually increase along with the ability to deal with what might otherwise be stressful and overwhelming. It is only when we empty ourselves of our illusions of being in control and at the center of a universe around us that we begin to be able to relax in the peace of Christ’s kingship in our lives. Step three: time “lost” in prayer is time gained. Take advantage of it.
Advent is also an excellent time to heed the call of the Lord to empty ourselves of anything that stands between us and Jesus. Whether that is excessive worry, lack of trust in God’s fidelity, resentment for past grievances and other grudges, pride, undeserved feelings of entitlement, judging other people’s motives (which we really cannot know), self-righteousness or even old-fashioned greediness. Jesus always asks His disciples to unburden themselves of their possessions. So it is a time to be charitable, but the real reason for giving generously of our time, talent and treasure is not so much that “the Church” needs it but that we need it for our spiritual growth.