December 17, 2009

Advent and Christian Culture

Really keeping the observance of Advent is a terrific feat in our "un-culture."  A true culture is a life rooted in customs and traditions preserved and lived together in a societal manner which realizes the fullest potential of our humanity.  An "unculture" are any practices handed on or purely invented which dehumanizes a society.  We live in an "unculture" where we are treated, not as persons to whom respect is owed, but rather mere consumers who passions must be stirred up into a buying frenzy.  While our faith invites us to keep vigil and wait for the coming of the Lord, our commerialist society invites us to dissapate all our energies on buying and consuming things.  When Christmas finally gets here, if we are not careful about the gravitational force material things, insobriety, sensuality and the pride of life have over our hearts, we will be a little too exhausted and irritable to actually be present for and enjoy the grace of Christ's birth with our family and friends. 

Worship is the very basis of any culture: it is this above all other activities that most humanizes us.  We realize what it means to be human when we stand before the face of God.  G.K. Chesterton loves to refer to this in his desciptions of the ancient city.  He observes that they were always built around something sacred, and that wars were fought to preserve this sacred space, that through the effort to protect and promote the sacred, human piety was born.  Recovering a sense of worship in the Advent season is the key to countering the "unculture" our commercially minded society foists on us. 

As Americans, we are very generous people and even today despite what is pushed on us by most of the entertainment media, this generousity continues in powerful ways.  But in addition to material generosity, we need to become a people who also generously shared what is spiritual.  This is where contemplation and intercession for others comes in. 

Contemplation is an act of spiritual generosity.  I assert this because while many are aware that it is generous to interceed for others, they tend to think that contemplation is somehow a selfish waste of time.  Such a thought reveals a misunderstanding of what contemplation truly is.  To contemplate means to see or to behold something.   Whenever our eyes fix on something beautiful and we simply take it in, this is a natural form of contemplation.  With all the Christmas lights and creches, we find ourselves caught in just such moments from time to time.  While this is very good, there is a spiritual kind of contemplation of which we are capable.  Spiritual contemplation involves beholding God by faith in such a way as to avail ourselves to Him completely with generous vigilance.

Such contemplation is more than natural and not really something we do with the eyes of our hearts.  If purely natural contemplation involves our physical eyesight in some way (at  least as I have described it here); by faith, it is the eyes of our heart that behold the Lord.  He dwells in us as in a temple and constantly makes himself present to us in ever new ways.  Faith sees this and delights in it.  While this contemplation beholds his beauty, even more importantly, when we pray like this, He beholds what is beautiful in us even more.  Spiritual generousity means taking time to make ourselves present to the Lord, seeking Him with our hearts in contemplation, so that He can find us. 

Some think that this unproductive activity is a waste of time.  This waste of time, however, delights the heart of God.  This waste of time also teaches us the virtue of truly being present to one another in love.  As we spend time with the Lord in prayer, His love changes us to be more like Him so that we can begin to recognize Him in those He sends us.  Often, just to challenge us to love on a deeper level, He comes to us disguised as that family member or neighbor we would rather not deal with, but because of the circumstances we must not ignore. 

This is perhaps where intercession comes in.  This season is not only difficult because of the commercialism.  We are all facing together the darkest time of year, the shortest days, the dimmest light.   At least some of the parties and entertaining that we exhaust ourselves over are geared to distracing us from those sorrows and loneliness that this time of year brings into painful focus.  Some are merely tempted to self-pity.  Others grapple with despair.  Sometimes a simple gift financial or otherwise is all that is needed to free those struggling to have hope.  There are also those with whom life has been so harsh, they not only need our full presence and empathy, they really need our prayers.

Christians can be the source of a new, life-giving culture.  As we spend time searching for the Lord and beholding his coming, we must allow our hearts to be full with thoughts for those God has entrusted to us, especially those who are heavily burdened.  Keeping vigilance during Advent means searching for God in those who suffer during this season, giving to them generously not only material goods, but spiritual ones as well.  We must pray for those who seem to need more than we can give especially when we have given all we can.  This part of the beauty that God creates in our heart and delights to find there.  It is the beauty of a true culture - a place where humanity thrives to the full. 

December 14, 2009

Advent and St. John of the Cross

You will not take from me, my God, what You once gave me in Your only Son, Jesus Christ, in whom You gave me all I desire.  Hence, I rejoice that if I wait for You, You will not delay.
For St. John of the Cross, the spiritual life, the life of prayer, is part of a great romance of Christ and the Church.  That is, in the vision of this great saint Christ yearns for the Church in a faithful, indissoluble, sacrificial and fruitful way.  This kind of love evokes the response of love, not only in the Church as a whole, but in each of us who allow the Lord's love to touch and form our hearts.  For this to happen, we need to  keep vigil for his coming, and the best way to keep this vigilance is to behave like the betrothed, to live by love alone. 

This message cooresponds with these last days before Christmas.  It is such a beautiful time of gathering together with friends and family.  We find ourselves easily excited and filled with great expectations about what the reunions will be like.  If sometimes we are caught up in a frenzy of buying, this is only because we want everything to be perfect for everyone we love.  At the same time, it is so easy to exhaust ourselves on anxieties, stress, insobriety and self-pity that we do not remember to pray.  In the midst of it all, we forget that this is a time to wait for the Lord, to live simply in His love, and to seek Him in those He sends to us. 

It such a busy time of year, do we really have time to pray?  Yes.  We make time for those things we most value - whatever is the priority of our heart, that we make time for.   The real question is never really about time, its always about our priorities.  When we make prayer a priority, instead of being driven by our commercial entertainment culture, we find ourselves rooted in love, moved to love by the One who comes for us.  

The One who comes for us is sent by the Father as his great gift to us.   He will never take this gift back, but always offers His Son to us in ever new ways, even if we should for a time reject this love.  In the Father's eyes, we are members of the Body of Christ, the Bride He has prepared for His Son from all eternity.  He yearns to see His Son delight in this Bride, and to see this Bride overcome by His Son's love for her. 

This at least is the picture that St. John of the Cross paints in his poem Romances, one of his few works that takes up the themes of Advent and Christmas.  This poem opens up a beautiful mystery, a mystery only those who say 'yes' to the Lord fully see.  In this, the poem invites us to see with the eyes of Mary, the one person above all who was vigilant for the coming of the Lord.  He not only came to her in her womb, but just as important, He came into her heart, just like he yearns to come into our hearts.  To help us appreciate this inestimable gift, the poem ends with Mary holding her newborn child and pondering how men accostumed to sorrow, now rejoice and how God accostumed to perfect joy, has found a way to bear man's sorrows.