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.