I was at the drive-thru of a local restaurant recently – obviously getting something healthy like celery – and I noticed something incredible. There was a sign that reminded other drivers, “Please have payment ready at the window.” What an incredibly brilliant idea! Some people in the drive-thru just wait until they get to the window – they fiddle with the radio, talk on the phone, or update their Facebook to let everyone know that they’re in a drive-thru. But then when they come to the window, they’re unprepared, so they fumble with coins or cash, sometimes dropping money in the bottomless fissure between the car and the window. When they don’t prepare their payment, the chances of spilling hot coffee on themselves goes up exponentially. This sign was reminding people to prepare – to get their money ready, to clear a cup holder, to tell one of the kids to stop playing with their Nintendo DS and get ready. But that little time of preparation between the ordering speaker and the window can make all the difference.
There’s a big difference between waiting and preparing, and I think it’s a good distinction to make in this season of Advent. We have the option to choose to wait until Christmas, or we can choose to prepare. When we wait for Christmas, it is because it’s only about one day, one event. We go to Mass, get together and eat food, share presents, and go to bed – that’s it. The end. If that’s what Christmas is going to be about for us, I guess we don’t really need to prepare.
But in her wisdom, the Church has given us this season of Advent – not for waiting, but for preparation. It’s a season when the Church surrounds us with reminders of what we’re doing to prepare – things like an Advent Wreath, evergreen branches, and the colors of purple and rose (not pink). All that is to build our anticipation, not just for one day, but for the greatest event in the history of the universe: the Incarnation of the Son of God to be our savior. It’s because it’s such a big deal and it should actually mean something to us, that we should want to prepare.
What happens when we don’t prepare? Well, if you think about it like a drive-thru, we might get so preoccupied with what we’re doing in the meantime, that we just can’t handle the thing we’re anticipating. If we don’t prepare well enough in Advent, we can miss Christmas entirely! A few years ago, I had some pretty intense classes in the seminary, and as a result, some pretty intense final exams around this time of year. So I was busy studying and writing papers, trying to control everything to make sure I got it done. And then I realized, “Oh crud! I have to buy people stuff!”, so I did some hasty shopping on Amazon. Then came the Christmas novena to sing at for a week, and serving Mass at the Cathedral, and before I knew it, I was on winter retreat after the new year! I remember thinking to myself, “What just happened? I missed Christmas!” I mean, yes, I did all the things I needed to do for Christmas, but I forgot to prepare myself, and forgot to celebrate it in my heart. Some of the fondest memories I have are from Advent and Christmas – family, friends, awesome Masses and banquets at the seminary, some of my most profound experiences in prayer. But I had forgotten to prepare. I spent my Advent waiting for Christmas, and waiting for the other stuff to be over, but I hadn’t prepared my heart.
What is it that we’re preparing for? The coming of Christ, right? But what does that even mean? It’s very abstract and depersonalized. I mean, I want to know how he’s going to come! Is it going to be on a cloud? In a pillar of fire? Knocking on the door wearing an ugly Christmas sweater? St. Bernard of Clairvaux says that Christ comes in three ways: history, mystery, and majesty, and maybe rather than focusing on waiting for these advents, these comings of Christ, we can focus on preparing for them.
Christ came in history, and it is the historical event that changed everything. It’s an event that happened a long time ago, but that really should matter to us. That’s why we’re here in the first place! If you hate listening to homilies, blame Christmas! So how do we remember this coming? Have a nativity scene in the family room, and maybe save the baby Jesus until Christmas – we used to hide him behind the oxen! Have a family advent wreath to light before meals and pray with. Maybe have some kind of advent calendar to remember this fantastic event. All these things can be a reminder of the historical event that this season is about, even in the midst of the shopping and chaos.
Christ comes to us in mystery as well, especially through the Sacred Scriptures and the Holy Eucharist. The historical event was a long time ago, but his coming in mystery is happening here and now. How do we prepare for that? Well, maybe try to sacrifice those few extra minutes of sleep and come to Mass during the week sometime at 6:30 or 8:00. It can be a great opportunity to journey through the season with the Church’s daily readings and prayers. Advent is also a great time for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Preparing our hearts to receive Jesus is much easier when we’re able to let go of the junk in our lives. If you don’t remember how to go to confession, ask a 2nd grader! As always, you can ask any of us priests, and we’d be more than happy to lead you through. Whether it’s been 2 weeks or 30 years, all I’m asking is that you think about it. We have Confessions here Tuesday evenings, Saturday evenings, at our parish Penance Service on December 13, or at any time by appointment.
Lastly, we’re preparing in Advent for the Lord’s coming in majesty, his glorious return at the end of time. This might seem a long way off and not worth remembering with all that’s going on, but remember, you only get out of this life what you put into it, and the way we spend our eternity depends on how we spend these days here and now with the grace of God. So try to do something good for someone each of the four weeks of advent, starting today. It could be something like picking a family on the giving tree to help out, or making Christmas cookies for a family in our parish that you know is struggling to hang on. Make an effort to pray for friends and relatives every day of Advent. In any case, try act with love, not just so that others have a good Christmas, but to prepare ourselves for heaven.
Advent isn’t just about waiting around, but about preparing. We don’t want to get caught unprepared or fumbling with the business of our lives, especially when we celebrate this mystery that changed the world and which continues to change our lives. So let’s begin to prepare now, and make the next four weeks a time in which we prepare by opening our hearts to receive the newborn king.