By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
At this halfway point, in the Advent preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, we are reminded that His coming is always personal.
In the days immediately leading up to the Christmas celebration, the Church celebrates the famous “O” antiphons at Evening Prayer. These antiphons begin on Dec. 17, and each begins with the exclamation “O” followed by a characteristic of the Messiah. The first one in this series is, “O Sapientia,” meaning O Wisdom.
In the familiar Advent hymn, “O come, O Come Emmanuel,” which is a paraphrase of these antiphons, we sing: “O come, O Wisdom from on high.” Jesus is the “Wisdom of God,” and therefore possesses perfect wisdom as a characteristic. In His great eternal plan for our salvation, we often see that wisdom manifested in clear and touching ways.
One of the manifestations of this wisdom is the personal love which Jesus has for each and every person. This is sometimes difficult for us to even imagine, and more difficult to believe. This is because while we all share in the ability to love placed within us as creatures made in God’s image, that ability to love is limited. With God, this is not so. He is able to love each person as if he or she were the only person on earth. This personal love is present at our conception, and it was present as Jesus saw each of us inspanidually from the Crib at Bethlehem, and from the Cross on Calvary.
Since the Liturgy of the Church really celebrates the events of our salvation as occurring again in time, as I wrote last week, we are truly preparing for the birth of Jesus this Christmas. Therefore, this period of preparation which we observe during Advent is a personal preparation for a personal coming. This week, I would like to draw attention to, and invite more closely into this time of preparation, those who find themselves in various difficult circumstances in their personal lives as they prepare for the coming of Jesus for them, this Christmas.
In joy and in suffering: The crib and the cross
Among many of our faithful, there may be an opportunity to prepare for our Lord’s coming with great peace and recollection. What a great gift that is! From time to time, we seem to receive an Advent season that brings this blessing of calm preparation with it, and how grateful we are when that is the case. However, we must recall that added prayer and recollection, and a conscious exclusion of other possible intrusions, must be our contributions to this peace and tranquility, if we have any hope of receiving it.
As your Archbishop, like your own local pastors, I turn my thoughts and prayers in a special way to those who may be deprived of this peaceful preparation this year. I think of those who have experienced the death of a loved one since last Christmas. It is always very difficult to celebrate that “first Christmas” without that much loved member of the family or dear friend.
We are reminded that Jesus was not born in perfect circumstances. Although our natural inclination is to romanticize the scene and circumstances of His Birth, we know that it was surrounded with anxiety on the part of Mary and Joseph. They too experienced loneliness in the human sense, because they were far from their native place, and they experienced sadness at the refusal of so many to receive them into their homes.
Christmas is indeed a time of deep spiritual joy, but it is not a joy that is unrealistic, because Jesus Himself chose to be born in circumstances that were most human and realistic. I pray that the peace of the Christ Child and His Mother and foster-father, even in the midst of adverse circumstances, will bring that same peace to those experiencing a special sorrow this Advent and Christmas seasons.
Among those of Hispanic culture, it has often been the custom to include a small image of the cross somewhere within the manger scene. This is a reminder that the cross is not the opposite of the crib, but an integral part of it, and its completion as the humility and love of the Word made Flesh. Some of you have been called to take up that cross more intimately through the sickness and suffering which you or someone you love may be experiencing.
In this, your Advent preparation for Christmas is not being “ruined” by this, but rather showing forth that intimate union between Bethlehem and Calvary. Indeed Jesus is calling you to unite yourself to Him even more closely in both of these mysteries. We are also reminded that His very coming is what fills us with a firm hope, even if we are in the midst of adversity.
St. Paul, who knew suffering and adversity so well and who endured it for love of Jesus, speaks of Him as “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1). It was to bring us this hope that Jesus was born and in this hope He consoles us.
Great opportunity for the sacrament of reconciliation
In God’s infinite wisdom, He chose to come down to earth in a manner that can soften even the most hardened of hearts: He came as a baby. Very few are not charmed and softened at the sight of a baby. Therefore, to prepare and soften our hearts for His message, the Eternal Word chose to be born in time in this manner. As He invites us to the crib, He softens our hearts at the sight of His coming. In order for this to be more than an emotion of the moment, this softening of the heart must be accompanied by actions that will endure. As with the entire Christian life, those actions must turn outward toward God and toward our neighbor.
At times, we tend to forget that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that, before we turn towards acts of charity towards others, we must be sure that we are living, or working towards living, a virtuous life ourselves. To love ourselves means to be aware of the fact that we are made in God’s image, that He wishes to have a relationship with us, and that He has given us certain directions so that we might follow Him more closely in this life and be happy with Him forever in the life to come.
There is always the danger at this time of year of performing an act of generosity, which may be good in itself, but forgetting that along with that charitable action must go a desire to live a virtuous life. One of the best ways to do this is by making use of the sacrament of reconciliation. The natural softening of the heart, that seems to take place during this season of preparation, should lead to an honest examination of conscience and a sincere confession of sins. Your own priests try to give this example, as we did at the very beginning of Advent, when the priests of the Archdiocese gathered with me at the Seminary for our annual Day of Sanctification. A very important part of that day was the opportunity for all the priests to go to Confession. I am so grateful to the many priests of Religious Orders and Communities who came to assist as confessors for the priests.
I urge you to take advantage of the Advent penance services and regular and extraordinary times for Confession being made available in your own parishes. In this way you will find deep peace and the joy of forgiveness.
Bearing one another’s burdens
The other aspect of the Christian life, which we underline during this period of preparation is our cooperation with our Redeemer by our assistance of others. We are reminded in the Letter to the Galatians to “bear one another’s burdens.” We do this by our prayerful, physical and emotional support of those who are either in need or carrying a particular burden at this time of year. We think of the unemployed, of those struggling with addictions and those who love them, and those trying to work through troubled marriages. St. Paul reminds us that we have not been given a spirit of fear, but a spirit of courage. This is because Jesus is our hope and God is our loving Father.
As we prepare for the Birth of the Eternal Son at Christmas, we recall that everything about our relationship with Jesus is always personal: His love for us, His being born for you and for me, His dying for us, and His wish that we receive Him into our hearts personally once again this Christmas. In this manner, He can dwell in a unique and personal way in the hearts of all those who receive Him.
9 December 2010