By Most Reverend Daniel E. Thomas

Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia

We are all familiar with that international Morse code “S.O.S.,” universally recognized as a warning or distress signal. Most people have come to know it as “Save Our Ship.” We are also all too familiar with the fact that, once again this year, even before Halloween, Christmas decorations appeared in stores! Christmas songs have been heard “round the clock” on radio stations for weeks now. Some homes were strung with lights and Santa was already in stores long before Thanksgiving Day. Right now, we are in serious need of a warning or distress signal, an S.O.S. if you will, which for us as Catholics stands not for “Save Our Ship,” but “Save Our Season!”

Current culture and modern society have robbed us of our season of Advent. Don’t you feel cheated? If Advent is supposed to be the time of prayerful anticipation for the coming of Jesus Christ as love incarnate, what happened to the preparation? Our culture would have us skip it and go directly to the celebration. At this time of year, we prepare to welcome family and friends to our homes, we don’t celebrate before they arrive. We rejoice only after they’ve come. We need an S.O.S.: “Save Our Season!” To maintain any sense of preparation for the coming of Christ, it is essential that we, dare to be “counter cultural” in order to reclaim the season of Advent.

There are numerous practical ways to reclaim Advent: not listening to Christmas songs, taking the children to see Santa, or lighting the tree or outdoor decorations at least until Dec. 17. Attending fewer “Christmas parties,” instead fasting and doing acts of penance; participating in the “Giving Tree” at the parish; lighting the candles of the Advent wreath at home each day and offering a prayer; all are wholesome ways to S.O.S. And in these sobering economic times, reducing the number and cost of gifts, or making your gift to someone a donation to the poor, would serve as a reminder that the One who comes is the giver of all good gifts.

Are you getting ready for Christmas or are you preparing for the coming of the Lord? There can be a major disconnect between the two, but there doesn’t have to be. Even as we “get ready,” we can be “preparing.” With each task we perform, we can ask the Lord to prepare our hearts, minds and souls for His coming. There is no better way than the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to prepare our souls for His coming.

On the First Sunday of Advent, Missionaries of Charity throughout the world, following the direction of their foundress Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, will place an empty manger in their chapels. Near the manger there will be a simple card with three simple words: “Come, Lord Jesus.” For all of Advent, they will be invited to place a piece of straw to symbolize a virtue they are cultivating or striving toward to prepare their souls for the Savior’s coming. What a powerful symbol. This Advent, consider placing an empty manger in your home or on your desk with a card with three words. This can serve as a vivid reminder that, ultimately, Advent is about preparing our souls to offer the Lord a fitting welcome at Christmas, every day and at the end of our lives.

S.O.S. The best way to reclaim Advent is, of course, prayerfully to consider the coming of Christ, and what we can do to welcome Him when He comes. During Advent, St. Bernard attests, we take time to ponder the three comings of the Lord: His coming in history on that first Christmas when He came among us to save us; His coming at the end of our lives and at the end of time when He will judge us; and His coming each day to us in grace. “In the first, Christ was our redemption, in the last he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and our consolation” (Sermo 5).

During Advent, the Church makes present the ancient expectancy of the Messiah. By sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming (Catechism 524), and daily open their hearts and souls to His coming today. Whether younger or older, male or female, married, single, or widowed, consecrated religious, deacon, priest or bishop – we can’t help but recognize the importance of “Saving Our Season” of Advent. Let’s reclaim it! Let’s revive it! Let’s renew it! If all we do this Advent, in our prayer, in our words and in our action, is to make Advent again a time of sacred preparation, we will be well on our way to sending out yet another signal which, in the end, reminds us of the very reason for the season: “S.O.S.: Save Our Souls!”