“Waiting in Joyful Hope” is the theme chosen for our Advent journey in the Diocese of Syracuse this year. However, I must confess that I have never been one for waiting, and this year the joyfulness of the season seems to be eluding me.
I want to be joyful, but I feel constrained by the seriousness of the pandemic. Gone are the holiday gatherings, and even Christmas shopping is somewhat of a chore. How does one browse for gift ideas with glasses steamed up because of wearing a mask and being conscious of social distancing? I know there is the internet, but what about just walking around so you can see for yourself and make your gift-giving more personal?
I admit that what I write about might sound petty when we look at what is going on in the world around us; however, it is what is going on in my world and it has an effect on me and others as well, I am sure. It reminds me of one Christmas season when I was a young priest. My mother gave me a sweatshirt that told me she was reading me like a book. On the sweatshirt was a penguin, tangled in Christmas lights, exclaiming, “Bah! Humbug!” When I opened the gift, I looked at my mother and asked her if she was trying to tell me something. “Maybe,” came the response. I realized then that she was trying to tell me to stop being like Scrooge, to relax a little and take everything in stride.
As I recall this sage advice, I think also of last week, when I was putting the bead garland on my Christmas tree and it got all tangled. As you might imagine, after a couple of minutes I wanted to chuck the whole thing back into the box and forget about it for this year. However, I made myself take a deep breath and calmly work to see if I could get the garland untangled. I did — only to have it tangle a second time. But I resolved to try again. In the end, the garland found its way to the tree intact and I had grown in virtue. I now look in awe at the decorated tree and enjoy its glistening beauty.
You might be wondering where I am going with this column. It goes back to a proverb I think of often: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” This past Sunday, we lit the second candle on our Advent wreaths. This candle is referred to as the “preparation” candle and it symbolizes peace. This simple fact has given me new perspective on the tangled strands of our lives. Even tangled lights and beads can still give light to our world. Even the craziness that seems to surround our lives these days cannot take away from the light, hope, and peace that the coming of the Christ brings!
Pope Francis in his Angelus message this past Sunday echoed these thoughts. When addressing the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square, he referred to the Christmas tree and Nativity scene being erected in the piazza. The Holy Father stated, “As you see, in the Square the Christmas tree has been raised and the Nativity scene is being set up. In these days, also in many homes these two signs of Christmas are being prepared, to the delight of children… and adults too! They are signs of hope, especially in this difficult time. Let us be sure we do not stop with the sign, but get to the meaning, that is, to Jesus, to the love of God that he revealed to us; get to the infinite goodness that he made shine on the world. There is no pandemic, there is no crisis that can extinguish this light. Let us allow it to enter our heart, and let us lend a hand to those who need it most. In this way God will be born anew in us and among us.”
These words of Pope Francis are like my mother’s gift years ago. They cause me to pause, take a deep breath, and reflect upon what the lights and decorations are all about: the One who comes to be the Light of the World, a Light no darkness can extinguish. Under such circumstances I am challenged not to give into despair, but rather to embrace even more the full meaning of the Christmas event: “God saves!”
In the wilderness we find John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Messiah and eagerly pointing out the Christ to all who came to hear John preach. In this arid and barren domain, John proclaimed to all the Mighty One who was coming into the world, One who would make all things new! He did not hesitate to let go in order to let God!
Closer to our day, we call to mind the story of a simple Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, who on his daily journey encountered a beautiful lady who would reveal herself to be the Mother of God. Even for him, it seemed all too incredible and this seemed confirmed by the reluctance of the local bishop to believe him. Thinking he had nothing further to offer, Juan Diego even tried to avoid meeting up with the beautiful Lady. Yet he came upon her as he was running an errand for his dying uncle. She asked Juan Deigo to believe in God’s saving power and he turned around and went back to the bishop carrying roses in his tilma that he had found in the December cold where Mary had appeared. Not only was his uncle cured of his illness, but when he opened his outer garment the roses fell to the ground and the beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was revealed to all.
Centuries later, not only do we have the preserved tilma and its image, but we have also Juan Diego’s witness of faith that helped to radiate the promise Christ’s birth was bringing into the world. Perhaps that is also the message for you and me if we find the world bleak these days: How can we magnify the Lord in our lives and in turn shine Christ’s light into a waiting world?
May the Advent days ahead be blessed ones for you!