Last weekend, my Dad joined me in St. Louis for his birthday gift – a trip to a St. Louis Blues game. We reveled in the buzz of energy and the crisp air. Though we are far from experts on the game, we joined others in raucous cheering and shouting – my dad delighting while I cowered uncomfortably at the occasional lingering fight. We enjoyed a highly anticipated evening together.
About halfway through the second period, my old friend anxiety showed up and demanded a space. It manifested itself as it often does during sporting events, where giant clocks peer obtrusively down from a jumbotron. Though I found joy in being present at the game, I became obsessed with that clock. I started my own internal countdown, calculating what time the game might end. My focus shifted away from the game itself and rushed toward the moment when the clock would hit zero and I’d be on to the Next Big Thing.
This temptation often follows me through life. I begin my day or any particular project with a focus on being present. Though my intentions are good, my focus slips and I begin planning ahead – ignoring the moment I’m in to think about what the next one will be like. While this is fueled by my struggle with anxiety, I doubt I’m alone. A look at my Facebook news feed confirms this. My friends and I post countdowns, making sure everyone knows the number of days or hours until this Big Event we can’t wait for – whether it’s the premiere of Star Wars, a party, or the end time of our last exam. But the next day, we’re looking at TimeHop and thinking nostalgically about how fast time has gone by, gushing about how much time has passed since we were freshmen or since the Last Big Thing. We become so consumed with looking forward that we forget to enjoy the moment as it occurs.
This tendency presents a particular danger during the season of Advent, even on the very last day of this season. Each year, I enter into Advent with a special prayer practice or a resolution of sorts. This year, it was reading each day’s Mass readings in the morning and writing down a phrase to take with me throughout the day. Others may mark the time by setting out an Advent wreath, or taking a devotional book from their parish. Regardless of the practice, we begin Advent resolved to wait in prayerful silence, remembering the patience and silence of those days before Christ’s birth.
But then, we lose focus. Christmas music comes on the radio, shopping begins on Thanksgiving Day, and we pull out the Christmas countdown calendars. Gone is the prayerful, focused waiting. We race toward Christmas, thinking about how many days and moments until we get our presents, or have that party. We throw away proper preparation, and when the moment we are awaiting arrives, we have no idea how we got there. We are not properly prepared to receive the victory. We haven’t postured ourselves to understand what this win means, to know where it came from.
If we wish to truly celebrate the birth of Christ and His entrance into our lives, we have to pay attention to the present moment. We must practice the posture of waiting and use Advent as a time to discover the longing for Christ in our hearts as it exists right now – not as it will in a month, or a year. In our prayer of presence, we re-order our desires as we wait patiently. We learn that preparation is not rushing past dates on the calendar, but an intentional focus on the present moment, where we simply listen and exist. Advent becomes a time of practice. Through prayerful silence and patient waiting, we are formed into Christmas people, who celebrate in the fullness and joy of the faith we have come to know and understand.
In the hockey arena, I used the practices I learned in therapy to push anxiety away and find the puck on the ice, not the time on the scoreboard. As a result, I paid attention, returned to the moment, and saw all three Blues goals. In this season of Advent, my constant prayer has been that I may listen for the voice that calls me to do the same, so that when Christmas comes, I’ll know how I got here.
Candidate, Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Notre Dame
Have you read “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor? It is the story of hers that I find the most moving, and it is digestible even by readers of the weakest constitutions when it comes to the Southern grotesque. In sum – and without ruining it for you – “Revelation” is the story of a woman whose understanding of herself in the eyes of God is turned upside down. She is made to see the greater faults in herself and the hidden virtues in others, and in an ending that I think is one of the most beautiful in fictional literature, O’Connor describes the fullness of this woman’s revelation; it entails the strange and ineffable grandeur of the Kingdom of God. I would encourage you to go here and read the story right this very minute. Please do. I will not be upset if you stop reading this post.
It did not occur to me that “Revelation” was an Advent story until I read the Gospel for Monday in the first week of Advent. It was the passage from Matthew in which the Roman centurion asks the Lord to heal his sick servant. The centurion is the man from whom we have received a congregational response of the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy, that You should enter under my roof…” What I had never taken notice of before is the entirety of Jesus’ response to the soldier’s request. He of course says, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.” But then He says, “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 8:11).
The Lord seems to be remarking that the table of the Heavenly Banquet will be filled with more than just the usual suspects. Whenever I hear the words “east and west” in Scripture, I immediately think of the three kings; those exotic, noble men, most likely unaware of the salvation history of the people of Israel, coming from the Orient to adore a baby simply because they knew a cosmic event when they saw one. For all their regality and fineness, they carried within them humble hearts, awake and ready to receive the Wonder to which the star had led them. These men of Oriental nobility are not the type of folks you would have thought would have been among the first to recognize and believe in the Messiah. They share that quality in common with the Roman centurion.
A few days later, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard the words “east and west” once again:
“Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (Bar. 5: 1-9).
These words are from the first reading, and they hearken to a lesser known “O Antiphon” that was sung in the medieval Church. It is the antiphon dedicated to Jerusalem, the Heavenly City:
O Hierusalem! Civitas Dei summi, leva in circuitu oculos tuos; et vide Dominum tuum, quia jam veniet solvere te a vinculis.
“O Jerusalem! City of the great God: lift up thine eyes round about, and see thy Lord, for he is coming to loose thee from thy chains.”
Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, is the destination of all peoples, from all sides of the world. Every single person of every single race, country, and creed, is meant to be a child of this Kingdom. And Jesus seems to want to tell us that the strongest faith is found in the most surprising of places. His own experience certainly reflects this: He struggled over and over again to communicate the truth of His mission to the religious leaders in His midst who were supposedly of a faith that had been waiting for a Savior for hundreds of years. Then, out of nowhere comes the centurion, graced with a faith in Jesus that, according to a history of religion, had no business being there. “Never make the mistake of thinking you have pegged people,” the Lord seems to say. “The sheep who hear my voice may not look the way you think they would.”
You really must read Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” because it situates the universality of the heavenly Jerusalem in the daily environment of a doctor’s office, a conversation amongst strangers, and the relationship between a Southern woman and the people who work for her. As Advent draws to a close, this story can help us to see how we may have made the perfect Christian believer in our own image and likeness. We expect the population of the Holy City to be widely made up of people like ourselves, but the Sciptural characters of the Christmas season show us that such an idea could not be further from the truth. On the heavenly day we arrive at the gates of the Holy City, our brothers and sisters from the east and the west will astonish us in their strange, unpredictable, and glorious variety. O Jerusalem, eternal home of us all, let us welcome our coming Lord with joy!
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
This hymn, a text written by Christina Rossetti, rifts upon a number of the motifs that were implicit in O Magnum Mysterium. The silence of the bleak mid-winter is intensified through a placing of the Nativity in an English village, covered with snow. Worship is offered by the angels, yet the marvel of the Incarnation is upon display in Jesus’ drinking of milk from his mother’s bosom, worship being offered most fully through the tender kiss of a mother upon the cheek of her son. Yet, at the end, the hymn takes a turn common in devotional poetry of the time. The contemplation of the pastoral nativity demands some response by the poet and reader alike. A shepherd might bring a lamb, a Wise Man would bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but me—what is left but to give myself?
In this sense, Rossetti’s poetry functions almost Eucharistically. God’s action has unfolded in the Incarnation and what remains but the giving of oneself as a return-gift to the infant Son. And the icon of this return-gift is the blessed Virgin herself, who offers the kiss of love that the poet now desires to give to the Son. Such poetry is self-implicating, wooing one to participate in the gift of what takes place in the hidden indwelling of the God-man.
The liturgical poetry of Romanos the Melodist takes up this same perspective, where the reader of the poem, the singer of the hymn assumes a central role in the drama of salvation. In his hymn on the Nativity, Romanos invites the reader to assume the Marian role in the story:
“For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Savior;
it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,
but for the sake of all I implore you.
You have made me the mouth and boast of all my race,
and your world has me,
as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.
They look to me, those who were cast out
of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.
May all things understand that, through me, you have been born
a little Child, God before the ages (The Nativity, 23).
While also reflecting upon the role of Mary in the drama of the Nativity, the hymn forms the reader to see him or herself as the Marian actor in the drama. In this age, as this hymn is sung, the Christian is also to become the place where Christ is born into the world.
Indeed, it is the very pedagogy of the crèche scene to invite us to participate within our own time in the Incarnation. The “Painted Houses” of South Africa uses tribal imagery to demonstrate how God’s dwelling among us might put an end to the hostility between rival factions.
The material of the banana tree of Paraguay incarnates the Christmas narrative into the agricultural milieu of that country.
Alaska’s own wintry background is now where the Savior of the world is born.
The crèche scenes are moments in which the story of Christmas is seen in its contemporaneity—the world grown weary through sin and death, now renewed through the glory of the Incarnate Word.
The family that keeps watch before the crèche participates in this drama of salvation. And indeed, this drama is unfolding even in the mundane world of family life. Cardinal Marc Ouellet writes, “…the love of Christian spouses and the richness of their family relationships become a sacred sign, a vehicle and sanctuary of a greater Love, the love of the Trinitarian, incarnate God, who enters into a humble and indissoluble bond with their community of life and love” (Divine Likeness, 53). The love of the Father poured out in his Son and then given over to women and men in history itself is still become manifest in the nuptial union. The family becomes an incarnate and inculturated sign of God’s love for the world to contemplate. Each of the families, in their own particularities, reveal something about the triune love of God made manifest in the Incarnation: the couple with a plurality of children, the elderly couple who now live alone, the family forced into migration, and the infertile couple who open their house to care for the poorest of the poor.
In this way, the nativity set can renew family life insofar as it reminds them that although domesticity is often mundane, it is in fact a participation in the drama of salvation in this time and place. It is a participation in a drama where there is not only joy but also signs of sorrow that mark the human condition. And the set invites us, just like the poetry of Christian Rossetti or Romanos the Melodist, to assume our role in the drama.
Born On a New Day
You are the new day.
Meekness, love, humility
Come down to us this day:
Christ, your birth has proved to me
You are the new day.
Quiet in a stall you lie,
Angels watching in the sky
Whisper to you from on high
“You are the new day”.
When our life is darkest night,
Hope has burned away;
Love, your ray of guiding light,
Show us the new day.
Love of all things great and small
Leaving none, embracing all,
Fold around me where I fall,
Bring in the new day.
This new day will be
A turning point for everyone.
If we let the Christ-child in, and
Reach for the new day.
Christ the Way, the Truth, the Life;
Healing sadness, ending strife;
You we welcome, Lord of life,
Born on a new day.
You are the new day.
A relatively modern carol, “Born On a New Day” is an adaptation of a secular song, one that promises the renewal of humanity through the burgeoning hope of love. The irony of the song, of course, is that the language of “new day” is fitting for the feast of Christmas. The hope of newness, of God’s renewal of the created order, is in fact at the font of the season of Advent itself, where we await the glad tidings of the Savior, who comes to renew all things.
And indeed, the crèche itself captures this newness through the presence of the Magi, who come from the ends of the world to greet the king whose power is made manifest in weakness. T.S. Eliot, in his “Journey of the Magi,” gives voice to these kings who have returned to their land:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
With the coming of this new day is a necessary death, a giving up of the old dispensation for the new. Can we participate in a world grown tired from the reign of sign and death, when we have gazed with wonder upon the king who dwells among us? Is this not the reign we long for?
The new day that we long for, that was supposed to be inaugurated through the birth and death and resurrection of the beloved Son, seems so far away. The tragedies in Paris, together with the suffering of the Syrian migrants now denied homes make this patently clear to us. Should we turn away from this weary world? Should we give up on the project of waiting altogether?
The crèche, as one might imagine, serves as a kind of medicine against this hopelessness, this world weariness of those who await the Incarnate Word’s reign on earth. To put up a crèche each year, in the midst of a world that has grown callous to the life of the unborn, to the suffering of the migrant and immigrant, to the prisoner condemned to death is a supreme act of hope. It is akin to the role of the tabernacle lamp, described by Charles Peguy in his poetics of hope in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope:
One trembling flame has endured the weight of worlds.
One vacillating flame has endured the weight of time.
One anxious flame has endured the weight of nights.
Since the first time my grace flowed for the creation of the world.
Since my grace has been flowing forever for the preservation of the world.
Since the time that the blood of my son flowed for the salvation of the world.
A flame impossible to reach, impossible to extinguish with the breath of death (Peguy, 5).
The family who each year puts up the crèche scene is doing more than following the liturgical calendar. Rather, they are manifesting to the world a hope that cannot be defeated by a politics or culture of death. Hope is born anew in the heart of the child, who recognizes for the first time the fact that that little babe in the crèche scene is Savior of the world; hope is born anew as the family prays before this scene each evening before darkness descends upon the world; hope is born anew when the family becomes the love they receive in this crèche.
Indeed, the manner in which hope is kept alive in the hearth of the domestic church is the reason why something so small as setting up a crèche scene is integral to the new evangelization. Secularity will ultimately not be defeated by intellectual argument alone; individualism cannot be destroyed by building a philosophical case alone against the irrationality of the position; nor for that matter will the coldness of the human heart toward the suffering of the unborn be “fixed” through a really fine op-ed. Rather, the hope of the Incarnation is passed on as a living flame from family to family, each time that they place in the infant Christ as the center of their home, manifesting to the world once against the fact that God is love. This, in fact, is the new day.
The Christmas crèche is thus more than a nice tradition, whereby Christians throughout the world mark the arrival of the season, just as they put up lights upon their homes or drink coffee out of a red cup from Starbucks. Rather, it is an embodied practice of remembering what the Father has accomplished through the humility of the Son, who is Love made flesh; it is an invitation to participation in this narrative again and again, renewing each season the hope for salvation that comes from God alone. It is a practice that serves as a bastion against a practical atheism that lives as if God is not more. It is a practice that renews from year to year the memory of the story that makes sense of all other stories.
And perhaps, it is the simple practice of praying before and setting up this crèche in the context of the domestic church that might be a source of renewal for the world itself. For as Cardinal Ouellet writes:
Evangelizing the family’s various relationships in the image of the Trinity, cultivating its sacramental life and consciousness, and revealing to the family the divine missions in which it participates; all of this could have a planetary impact on the mission of the Church and the future of humanity (76).
For the family to gaze with love upon the crèche, to contemplate the wonderful mystery taking place, and to pledge to become this mystery for the world: in this way, even now, the possibility of a new day, a new world of love can come into being. For when we dwell with love incarnate, we may find (perhaps even against our wills) that we become this love that we abide with: “Jesus, immortal boy, let this your birth give/to us peace and joy” (Adam of St. Victor 5.11).
This December, during the season of Advent, my wife and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I say this not as an invitation for the wider internet community to bestow me with some gift to honor the occasion. Married in the midst of Advent, the most common gift that we received were nativity sets. All sorts. Nativity sets that were Christmas tree ornaments; small stand-alone sets from Mexico, Thailand, and Palestine; a large nativity set purchased by a group of friends (and now in the midst of being systematically destroyed by our son). Our marriage has unfolded in a home overflowing with crèches.
When asked to give this second annual lecture, I wanted to reflect a bit on what the crèche means for family life in general. In the heated debates that seemed to mark the recent Synod on the Family, it nonetheless became obvious that a robust spiritual vision of family life is necessary as we find ourselves immersed in the third millennium. That is, it is the family in particular in which the renewal of the Church will unfold. As Pope Francis noted in his homily delivered at the World Meeting of Families:
These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.
Thus, in this series, I would like to invite us to reflect on how the practice of keeping a crèche in the home is in fact one of these small acts of love, ultimately transformative of what it means for the family to dwell together in love incarnate. It is an occasion of evangelization, that is to quote Paul VI, “…bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” (EN 18).
Yet, it seems right in examining family life through the lens of the crèche that we adopt the same aesthetic pedagogy of the crèches themselves. Thus, this series will unfold in three parts, each beginning with a piece of music related to the nativity of Christ. Through these pieces of music, we will explore three ways that the crèche provides a way of renewing the domestic Church in particular:
1) Forming us to see domestic life as a locus for the enfleshment of God’s love.
2) Inviting us to participate in the Incarnation through the drama of history.
3) Seeing the family as an icon of the new evangelization, one in which the practice of keeping a crèche manifests the Church’s memory in history.
O Magnum Mysterium
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
The irony of the nativity of Jesus Christ is that its prevalence within various forms of artistic media, including our nativity sets, has perhaps led us to no longer be filled with awe at the wonderful event taking place in the manger. We see a mother and a father. A collection of angels, singing songs of joy at the birth of Jesus. Three kings, offerings gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A cast of animals, perhaps even overly interested in the birth of this human child.
Yet, the setting of O Magnum Mysterium (a text sung by monks at the rising of the sun on Christmas morning) invites us to look anew at the iconic mystery unfolding in these crèches. O great mystery, O wonderful sacrament that these animals in particular are the ones, who see the Lord born of a Virgin. What is this mystery, this sacred sign? And what’s the deal with the animals?
For some time, I imagined that I would want to return to being an infant. I considered a world in which I no longer had to be awake for significant periods of times; a world in which my every hunger was met by someone when I made the smallest cry; a world in which although immobile, everyone seemed to delight in moving me about. Yet, as I watched my son in the earliest days of his life, I came to the realization that infancy is in fact a rather humiliating period of life. The infant has thoughts that he or she cannot communicate to anyone, being reduced to making desires known through tears alone. The infant must rely on those around him or her for food, for shelter, for cleanliness, for comfort in the midst of sorrows. The infant is subject to the powers of the world, unable to even really recognize threats against his or her welfare.
Thus, the great mystery, the wonderful sacrament of the Nativity is the fact that God became fully human as an infant. Divine love was poured out from the bosom of the Father through the Son, a love that makes God radically vulnerable. The very Word that orders creation, that gives meaning to all of human life, that gazes with love upon the Father in the Godhead, becomes flesh pro nobis, for us. Augustine of Hippo, commenting on this fact, preaches:
He lies in a manger, but he holds the whole world in his hands: he sucks his mother’s breasts, but feeds the angels; he is swaddled in rags, but clothes us in immortality; he is suckled, but also worshiped; he could find no room in the inn, but makes a temple for himself in the hearts of believers. It was in order, you see, that weakness might become strong, that strength became weak (Augustine, s. 190.4).
Iconography of the nativity unfolds the radical vulnerability in God in particular ways. The newborn son is depicted wrapped in swaddling clothes, a sign already of the burial clothes that will clothe Mary’s son in the tomb on Good Friday. These icons depict the first bath of the Word made flesh, an image of God’s radical solidarity with the human condition. The crèche scene functions as an icon of the kenosis of the Son, the radical self-emptying love that is the source of the world’s very renewal.
Which brings us to the animals gathered around the crèche? For, perhaps the greatest scandal of the Incarnation, of the enfleshment of the Word, is the hiddenness of the birth of the Son in the first place. He is not born in a palace, a place where the power of the world could be exercised. He is born among the beasts of the field, unable to comprehend the marvel taking place. As Benedict XVI notes about the hiddenness of this birth:
From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in wordly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Volume 3, 67).
In the birth of the first born Son in the silence of the evening, we have an image of what it now means to be fully human. The fullness of our humanity is exercised through the powerlessness of love.
Thus, the wonderful mystery of Christ’s birth is that the renewal of humanity already has begun through the nativity of the Lord. As Ephrem the Syrian notes in Hymn 3 on the Nativity:
Glory to Him, Who never needs us to thank Him.
Yet He [became] need for He loves us, and He thirsted for He cherishes us.
And He asks us to give to Him so that He may give us even more.
His Fruit was mingled with our human nature
to draw us toward Him Who bent down to us (3.17).
As God becomes human, the horizon of humanity opens up so that every aspect of the human condition has the possibility of being drawn into divine life.
For this reason, perhaps, it is most appropriate that the crèche finds pride in place in the home itself. The sacrament of marriage is that taking up of what is most human, most mundane, the domesticity of love, into divine life: “In the union of husband and wife/you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace,/so that the Sacrament we celebrate/might draw us back more deeply/into the wondrous design of your love” (Eucharistic Prayer, For the Celebration of Marriage, B). Yet, there is nothing stunning about this love, as any married couple might note. The love of marriage is lived out through those hidden practices of tenderness that mark married life. With the birth of children, the powerlessness of this love becomes even more evident. Salvation unfolds in the context of the Christian family as it did in the manger: without anyone powerful aware of the mystery taking place.
The crèche, then, forms the family to see its own life as the hidden manifestation of divine love. It reminds the family to expect the unfolding of salvation not simply through signs and wonders but first and foremost in the tender compassion we learn to show one another. In this way, in a world that often devalues such a hidden life, the crèche restores the family to its proper place as the dramatic locale for salvation in the world; as itself a great mystery of divine love.
Given both my Mexican-American descent and my strong devotion to Mary, it may come as a shock to some when I say that I have not always loved Our Lady of Guadalupe. Indeed, there was a time when her image was nothing more to me than a pious painting, an image that had been taken up ad nauseam by my ancestral people. It probably goes without saying that the Mexican people have a great love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. They hang her image on the walls of their churches and place her in their homes and businesses. They light candles, which bear her image, and place decals of her image on the back of their trucks. A great number of men and women have even gotten tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe placed somewhere on their bodies. And just to give one recent example of how inextricable she is from Mexican culture, her image was briefly used a few times in last year’s animated film The Book of Life, a film that is centered on the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. yet makes no reference to God or Christianity throughout. All of this is to say that the Mexican people have a special love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she herself is inseparably linked to Mexican religious and cultural identity.Granted, it is easy to understand why they love her. In December of 1531, she appeared to the humble, Nahuatl Indian, Juan Diego, at Tepeyac, a hill right outside of what is today Mexico City. Her mission to him was rather simple; she wanted him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a hermitage dedicated to her right there at Tepeyac. She wanted it built so that all people could come to it and receive her love, compassion, help and protection. Being only a lowly Indian, Juan Diego knew that his task would be difficult, but at the Virgin’s request he took up her mission. After he had twice failed to convince the bishop of the truth of the Virgin’s request, Our Lady of Guadalupe sought to aid him through the provision of a sign: Juan Diego was to go up the hill and pick the Spanish flowers, which had miraculously grown there in the middle of winter, place them in his tilma, in order to carry and to show them to the bishop. He did as was told. And when he had showed them to the bishop she provided him with another miracle as a sign of the abundance of her love: as he released the flowers, her image miraculously appeared on his tilma. The fact that she herself had provided her own image (that is to say, that it was not painted by human hands) and that the image has miraculously been preserved to this day has led the Mexican people to exclaim: “She has not done so for any other nation.”
It is a beautiful story, to be sure. And even though I heard that story many times in my life, (for several years my older brother had played Juan Diego in our parish play), I could not bring myself to embrace Our Lady of Guadalupe in any particular way.
Perhaps it was because she was so uniquely tied to one particular people, even if it was a people that I am descendant from, that I felt that she lacked a universal quality that I imagined Our Lady of Lourdes or an Our Lady of Fatima had. How can a devotion that seemed so limited, so incarnated within a very distinct culture be considered so great?
Or perhaps my aversion to her was more precisely based on the fact that, even though I am of Mexican descent, I do not speak Spanish, have no rhythm, and do not identify with many characteristics of popular Latino culture, and thus, felt that I could not connect with such a figure as Our Lady of Guadalupe. I thought that to claim her would be to claim for myself an identity that I struggled to fully own.
So, what changed? Why is it that in the past year and a half I have probably talked more about Our Lady of Guadalupe than any other image of Mary?
I do not know that I can describe it any other way than to say that she began to call out to me. I began to feel compelled to look at her image, an image that had so many times before left me unimpressed. The more I beheld her image, the more I found myself drawn to contemplation of it. And thus, I began to realize that what I had taken to be a simple rendition of the Virgin Mary within a primitive culture was in reality an icon of the universal mystery of a mother’s love.
Struck by this realization, I desired to return to the narrative of the Guadalupan events, to see if there was anything within the story itself that I had dismissed as unsophisticated. And, of course once again I had found so much beauty and depth in what appeared to be a simple text, much more than the purposes of this post would allow me to reflect on. But there is one thing that I wish to share, something which each time I read it moves me to my core, and it is Our Lady of Guadalupe’s mission as stated in her own words. She says:
“I very much want and ardently desire that my hermitage be erected in this place. In it I will show and give to all people all my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection, because I am your merciful mother and the mother of all nations that live on this earth who would love me, who would speak with me, who would search for me, and who would place their confidence in me. Their I will hear their laments and remedy and cure all their miseries, misfortunes, and sorrows.” (emphasis mine)
It is particularly this message that makes Our Lady of Guadalupe so special. It is a message that could perhaps more simply be restated in the form of a question: “Will you let me be your mother?” It is a question she asks to all people, to all nations. She places no restrictions and she makes no conditions. Despite her appearance within a particular culture and within a particular time, it is a question that requests a universal response.
If perhaps, like me, you have ever had trouble growing close to Our Lady of Guadalupe because she came incarnated within a particular culture you do not recognize as your own, I encourage you to spend time with her in prayer this advent season. Though she may have done for the Mexican people what had not been done for any other nation, take comfort in the fact she did this as a sign of the depth of her love for her children of all nations. Join in the celebrations at your parish, contemplate her image, which she left on Juan Diego’s tilma. And rejoice in the fact that we have a mother who, like her Son, is no stranger to our own particular needs.
 This quotation is taken from verses 23-25 of the Nican Mopohua, the foundational text for the traditional Guadalupan events written in the native Nahuatl. For more an English translation and more on this text, see Mother of the New Creation by Fr. Virgilio Elizondo.
Aimee Shelide Mayer, M.A.
Coordinator, Echo Recruitment & Admissions University of Notre Dame
Collen Mayer, M.Div., MTS, MBA Director, Social Services Catholic Charities of Tennessee
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love, teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is. —“A Christian Prayer in Union with Creation” (Laudato Si’ §246)
Sometimes it is hard to see that “all things speak of” God’s infinite love. During this busy pre-Christmas season of preparing final papers, projects, menus, mailing lists, guest lists, and gift lists, our focus is often turned away from God present in all of creation. But this Advent, we not only have the launching of the Jubilee Year of Mercy to ground us in praise for God’s all-encompassing love; we also have Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, Care for our Common Home, to guide us on how to live Advent anew this year. And with the current summit on climate change occurring, we would be remiss to not prayerfully contemplate the sacramentality of God’s creation, as well as our ongoing complicity in its degradation.
Laudato Si’ provides both a theological rationale and concrete suggestions for nourishing and healing our relationship with God, others, and all of creation. This Advent, we are thus prompted to examine our lives in each of these three areas and note how we might better care for all of creation in light of Pope Francis’ pleading.
Caring for our relationship with God
In his encyclical, Pope Francis addresses not only Christians, but “every person living on this planet” in order to “enter into dialogue about our common home” (LS §3), a home created in love by the triune God:
The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. (LS §238)
By reflecting on our relationship with the earth this Advent, we are necessarily led to examine our relationship with the triune God who created the universe and all it contains. Indeed, it seems that how we handle the gift of creation necessarily reflects our sentiments for the Giver. By responding to creation in love, we express our love and praise for God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Consider the following simple Advent practices to cultivate a sense of gratitude to God for creation:
Choose to incorporate a new spiritual practice from Laudato Si’ (e.g. spiritual reading, period of silence, work outside, etc.);
Spend quiet time enjoying creation (e.g. go on a walk, run, bike ride, hike, etc.);
Prepare for Mass by reading the Gospel and reflecting on it in light of Laudato Si’;
Honor the Sabbath by “fasting” from technology (computer, phone, TV, tablet, etc.);
Pray for an end to war and violence, including destruction of creation;
Examine your conscience to discern ways you have failed to care for creation; celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and
Include a prayer of gratitude to God for creation during grace before meals; commit to not wasting food during Advent.
Caring for others
Pope Francis further challenges us to see how our care for all of creation extends to how we care for all members of our human family—especially the poor. In his encyclical, he writes of the interconnectedness of all relationships:
We cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships . . . A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others . . . Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence. (LS, §119)
For many, the Advent and Christmas season brings human relationships into a new focus as families and friends gather from distant cities to celebrate together. Fond memories, as well as unhealed wounds, often surface during such moments. For some, these are times full of joy and love. Yet, for those who have lost or become estranged from family, these weeks can be heavy and hard. How might we care for the Body of Christ this year in light of Pope Francis’ wisdom? Here are some possible in-roads this Advent:
Pray for healing from a wound you are carrying related to a family member or loved one;
Pray for a specific group in need each week of Advent (e.g. refugees, immigrants, prisoners, unborn, terminally ill, etc.);
Educate yourself on global situations of crisis & hope (e.g. care for the environment);
Perform one corporal work of mercy (Mt 25) per week (e.g. feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.);
Choose a new cause or charity to donate to, learn from, and pray for regularly;
Commit to a regular volunteer opportunity each week (e.g. through Catholic Charities, a local service/justice organization, etc.);
Eat one simple meal a week in solidarity with those who eat simply every day (e.g. beans & rice; meatless meal);
Before meals, pray for those who go without adequate nourishment and all who labored to make your meal possible; and
“Purge” your belongings and give them to an organization that serves those in need.
Caring for creation
Pope Francis does not mince words when he talks about the effects of humanity’s actions on the created world:
The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth . . . These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary; but our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. (LS §§21, 22)
Advent is a time to remember God’s own breaking into the created world through the person of Jesus. This world which God walked is the very same one we take for granted, plunder, and scavenge bare, turning it into “an immense pile of filth.” As God promises to level mountains and fill valleys (see Is 40:4; Lk 3:5; last Sunday’s readings), we continue to use creation for our own end. We turn valleys into landfills—homes for our refuse and rubbish—and level mountains through mountain-top removal, skimming and mining them to fuel the convenient “throwaway culture” we have created. Though he paints what may seem like a bleak picture of the future of creation, Pope Francis offers great hope in his encyclical. The Pope suggests concrete habits (LS §211) for us to begin to cultivate a new respect for our creation, currently groaning in travail. Here are some of his suggestions and a few others to consider adopting in the weeks to come:
Pray specifically for the earth and all of creation, especially those who are exploited;
Separate refuse you create (recycle, compost, and trash/landfill) and decrease trash production;
Save energy: turn off lights when you are not in the room;
Use less heat (even if you can afford more) and wear warmer clothes ;
Reduce water consumption (e.g. when showering, brushing teeth, washing dishes, etc.);
Go car-less! Bike, walk, or take public transportation whenever possible; carpool to work or outings with friends;
Compost kitchen produce scraps to fertilize the soil; plant something (even if indoors);
Cook/order only what can be reasonably consumed and learn where your food comes from (eat local!);
Educate yourself in environmental issues and responsibility;
Avoid the use of plastic, paper, and other disposable goods (plan ahead by bringing reusable options, e.g. coffee mug, silverware, reusable towels, etc.); and
Stay current on what Pope Francis is doing, saying, and writing.
As we seek to prepare a home for Christ in our hearts this Advent, we are also called to heal the physical home which God entrusts to us, and which Christ entered through his Incarnation. By reflecting on our relationship with God, others, and creation in light of Laudato Si’, we continue to learn what a life of perfect praise in union with all creatures will look like. And we pray for this ultimate union with the words Pope Francis intended for us to share “with all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator” (“A Prayer for Our Earth,” LS §246):
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, December 2. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.
Brothers and sisters,
Stop passing judgment before the time of the Lord’s return.
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and manifest the intentions of hearts.
At that time, everyone will receive his praise from God.
(1 Corinthians 4:5)
My father, whose death anniversary is tomorrow, gathered often with friends and colleagues to discuss University politics and national and international goings-on. I was privy to many such sessions and noticed that while the topics often changed, the script often didn’t. Routinely the conversation would identify a potential antagonist about whom one of my dad’s friends would say, “He’s a complete jerk” (or perhaps he’d employ a more colorful term), to which my dad would typically respond, “Not complete.”
It wasn’t as if my dad didn’t agree with the judgment being passed, but his habitual response for which he became known among his friends recognized the difference between his own limited judgment and God’s ultimate judgment.
Elsewhere in Paul’s letters we hear of the importance of making prudent judgments, especially of those within our own Christian community, and of ourselves and our own behavior. But in this passage, Paul reminds us that there is much we cannot see and know, not only about others but also about ourselves and the intentions of our own hearts. Paul says of himself, “I will not even be the judge of my own self. It’s true that my conscience does not reproach me but that is not enough to justify me: it is the Lord who is my judge” (1 Cor 4:3–4).
The final judgment, then, does not belong to us. Instead, as Paul says in the lines preceding the passage we read this evening, “We belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” Not only are our premature and final judgments not ours to make but our need to calculate our worthiness against the worthiness of others is dissolved by our belonging to Christ, through whom we have already inherited everything. Our task then, it seems, is much more than just avoiding passing judgment before the Lord’s return; it is to practice belonging to Christ.
There is much said in Advent of waiting in hopeful anticipation for the first coming of Jesus and of the second coming of Christ. We carefully ready our homes, our altars, our hearts to take in God who in his mercy has come to be with us.
Preparation is not foreign to us. As students and professionals we prepare for class, conferences, and important meetings weekly. But it strikes me that in Advent we should not so much be preparing for things to go smoothly or as planned, as we have grown accustomed to doing. In welcoming the gift of the Incarnation and the second coming of Christ, we are preparing ourselves to be overcome, overtaken, utterly overwhelmed by God. We are preparing to be completely undone in a way and to be given ourselves in a truer form than we have previously known.
If St. Joseph County was anticipating being overwhelmed by a wind storm, we would no doubt be alerted by text, phone, and email by ND Alert, and would prepare for its coming as I prepare for my young nieces to visit: by putting everything away, securing our belongings, battening down the hatches so that as much would remain in place and intact as possible. In contrast, preparing for the coming of Christ looks more like taking everything out of storage and laying it out to be exposed, dismantled, and reordered; preparing ourselves to be taken in, taken up, moved, perhaps even to fly.
I recently saw a story about a man who parasail skis, meaning he alternately parasails and skis depending on the terrain as he flies down the mountain. Then he releases his parasail to ski off a cliff, and then releases his skis as he free-falls in a winged suit for several minutes before hopefully pulling a parachute to land. The interviewer asked him, “How do you physically prepare for something like this?” He said, “Your whole life really, not just your physical training, has to be about replacing the instinct to cling to your chute and skis with the instinct to release them.”
As we prepare our homes and hearts to receive Christ and our family and friends this Advent, let our waiting and preparation be marked by release . . . release of passing premature judgment on ourselves and others, release of the need to keep everything intact, release of the desire to stay the same, and if not these, than release of whatever it is that we give ourselves to, to avoid giving ourselves to God, who once again gives himself to us and waits to see how he will be received.
My secret spot for necessary moments of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of college life is the children’s book section of the Notre Dame bookstore. The children’s book section features wonders aplenty: the sight of tiny humans sitting at tiny tables reading tiny books, the occasional grandparent or parent reading lovingly to a little one in their lap, and bright-colored book covers that look infinitely more enjoyable than most of the things I am forced to read for class. Usually, I browse the storybooks until I have sufficiently escaped into a world where the biggest challenges are counting the number of baby animals on the farm or helping the lost princess find her way back to the castle.
But this didn’t happen last time. What happened was that my casual browsing was interrupted by my beholding of a far-too-accurate cartoon depiction of my impatient soul: the exasperated Elephant of Mo Willem’s book, Waiting Is Not Easy.Allow me to give you a brief summary of Elephant’s simple story. Things start out grandly for our protagonist: he learns that his dearest friend, Piggie, has a surprise for him. A surprise which, as he learns to his dismay, must be awaited. He receives only a simple promise: “It will be worth it.” But of course, this does not pacify our protagonist. For Elephant, this process of waiting is filled with impatience, anger, and doubt.
“I do not think your surprise is worth all this waiting!”
“I will not wait anymore!”
“We have waited too long!”
“It is getting dark! It is getting darker! Soon we will not be able to see anything!”
“We have wasted the whole day.”
Now, as I reached the page containing Elephant’s massive groan, my soul did a massive groan of its own. When I read Elephant’s words of impatience, anger, and doubt, I knew I was reading reactions so very familiar to my own heart. Waiting is hard. And it is something that I don’t know how to do very well at all: not in my relationships, in my spiritual life, or in the unfolding of my vocation.
In his book Waiting for God, Henri Nouwen writes of the holy and waiting people of Luke’s Gospel. As he points out, all of the figures who appear in the first pages are waiting: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna. Like Elephant, they learn the surprising news of a great gift, which is immediately followed by the news that this gift must be awaited. And they are promised that this will be good.
“The whole opening of the Good News is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in someway or another hear the words, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you. Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait.”
Waiting is not easy. During Advent, we ponder in our hearts what it would mean for us to practice holy and joyful waiting, the very waiting that is the space where the Good News breaks open. As we wait for Christ, we learn to wait in a way that dwells in the promise of His love for us: waiting that dwells in love and hope instead of fear and doubt. As the days get shorter and shorter, we are reminded of how it is often precisely when we feel that it has been getting darker and darker (“Soon we will not be able to see anything!”) that the light of Christ shines clearest and most brightly. It is the patient heart that is able to encounter the infant Jesus hidden under a starry sky in a lowly manger.
May this Advent teach our hearts the worthiness of waiting.
I often do not know what to think during Eucharistic Adoration. Sometimes, I’m just too tired and want to fall asleep. Other times, I think too much, preoccupied with the details of the service. What is the priest doing? I hope he doesn’t trip over his vestments when he stands up. Should I be kneeling or sitting? I hope nobody notices how off-key I am when I sing. Oh, shoot, I wasn’t supposed to say that response yet – how embarrassing. Person behind me, please stop shuffling and making all that noise. Wow, look at that incense cloud wafting up to the ceiling. Incense smells so good, but I hope no one here is allergic to it. I wonder if I can translate this Latin text of the Tantum Ergo. Oh no, my stomach is growling so loudly… I hope the music comes on soon. I don’t like this song; I wish they’d stop playing and just let there be silence. Why can’t there be a prettier-looking monstrance? Gosh, that person looks so holy and focused in prayer. I wish I could be, too.
I try to close my eyes to stop taking in so much external stimuli. But then, images from the course of the day or fantasies I conjure up enter in, and my mind wanders even more, dwelling on things that I probably shouldn’t be thinking about. Why can’t I concentrate? I then try to think about theological ideas that I’ve learned, such as Eucharistic Real Presence, the Incarnate Word of God, transubstantiation, and the Trinity in an attempt to help me focus. Okay, so this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died and rose from the dead. He’s the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God who was present before all creation and through whom all creation came into being. He became incarnate in human flesh at a particular moment in history. I’m looking at the Body of Christ, the Eucharist that I receive at Mass, the transubstantiated element of bread, now no longer the substance of bread, even though the accidents are still there, but now the substance of the risen Jesus himself. He is really present…but it looks like bread, and I still don’t really feel anything. Or perhaps I’m touched by the light shining on the monstrance, which makes it seem like Jesus is radiating his light on all of us, but is that just aesthetics? And so my thoughts keep spiraling.
Grace, stop. Don’t think so much. Just pray.
But… I don’t know how. What do I do? How is prayer different from thinking? I stare at the white disc in the monstrance, trying to keep my thoughts at bay, and trying to think of things to say to God, to Jesus, who should be my most intimate friend and with whom I should be able to share the desires of my heart, my sorrows, and my moments of happiness and gratitude. I’m mostly unsuccessful, however, because my thoughts have just turned to the historical and theological exegesis that my theology classes have been doing on the Lord’s Prayer.
I sigh, and I try to think of simpler things. I know that I am waiting for something – an encounter with a Person, whom I know also seeks me, but infinitely more so than I seek Him. My heart, however, seems as if it is unresponsive to the great wonder of the Lord’s real presence before me, and I begin to give up on finding some disposition of prayer before the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is over for the evening. Will I ever be able to be open, still, and humble enough to allow God’s advent into my heart? Finally, a short and simple prayer comes into my mind:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This is the “Jesus Prayer.” The Jesus Prayer is often associated with The Way of the Pilgrim and Other Classics of Russian Spirituality and the hesychast tradition of illumination and transfiguration of the human person in the Taboric light, with a special emphasis on mercy and penance. But of course, you don’t need to know that in order to realize the power of the Jesus Prayer and the mercy of God.
What’s truly important is this: In the resonant silence of adoration, mercy seeps in. In a quiet, humble town in Israel, an infant was born. God makes the first move, but it is often unnoticed. I had never thought of Jesus before as Mercy itself, and I had not begun to recognize God’s subtle but powerful act of mercy in my life until now.
Saint Faustina, a Polish nun, was a person who recognized the importance of this divine mercy and its advent in the human heart. The Divine Mercy Chaplet is a well-known devotional prayer that arises out of her contemplation of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and her encounters with him in visions. The chaplet essentially has three simple prayers:
“Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and the Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.”
“For the sake of Your sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
“O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in You.”
Throughout her conversations in prayer with Jesus, St. Faustina took to heart the vital message of the mercy of God made incarnate in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Mercy itself entered into history and radically interrupted the course of human existence with the indescribable gift of his self-giving love. The mercy of God was outpoured in the Incarnation and on the Cross; the mystery of blood and water in his flesh and gushing out of his pierced side reveals to us the extraordinary love of God. What happens when we are the recipients of mercy? Oftentimes, we are incredulous because we feel that it is mercy we don’t deserve. That sort of freely given and unmerited gift shocks us. It demands a response, but there is no adequate response that we can give, other than by offering back to God the gift given to us in the Eucharist and trusting in His great mercy. Thus, mercy also inspires gratitude; it forms in us a disposition of thanksgiving.
Mercy transforms, and we enter into transfiguration. Mercy inspires conversion, and it allows us to enter into an authentic freedom of the heart, freedom to receive and to give to those who are our sisters and brothers in Christ. For St. Faustina, love and mercy unites the Creator with his creation, and this is ultimately expressed in the Incarnation and the Redemption, as she explains through her experience at Eucharistic Adoration one day:
“When I was in Church waiting for confession, I saw the same rays (that is, as those depicted on the revealed image of the Divine Mercy) issuing from the monstrance and they spread throughout the church. This lasted all through the service. After the benediction (the rays came forth) on both sides and returned again to the monstrance. Their appearance was bright and clear as crystal. I asked Jesus that He deign to light the fire of His love in all souls that were cold. Beneath these rays a heart will be warmed even if it were like a block of ice; even if it were as hard as rock, it will crumble into dust.
And I understood that the greatest attribute of God is love and mercy. It unites the creature with the Creator. This immense love and abyss of mercy are made known in the Incarnation of the Word and in the Redemption [of humanity], and it is here that I saw this as the greatest of all God’s attributes.”
The Word that He is and the Word that He speaks is mercy. And so, the silence we experience at Eucharistic Adoration is a silence pregnant with meaning. It is the advent of this mercy in the human heart for which we try to prepare; it is this mercy that we come to adore at Christmas. We must cultivate humility to ask for and receive this mercy. We may have nothing to offer, except for swaddling clothes to hold him, but over time, we can let the cradle of our hearts in which we hold him become the monstrance of our hearts.
O, come, let us adore Him. Let us prepare him room and allow Him to enter in and warm us. His is the light that we radiate to the world from our inner monstrance – rays of divine mercy, of redeeming blood and water, that transform our vision and the world. Does your soul feel cold or unfeeling? Has the night of loneliness been too long? Come, be warmed in the rays of Divine Mercy, be enkindled in the fire of His love.
Ask a friend to rattle off their Top 10 Christmas Carols, and you’re bound to get an instant response of the perennial favorites. For example: O Holy Night, Silent Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, What Child is This, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem—this list could go on and on. Ask that same friend to rattle off their Top 10 Advent hymns, and you’re more likely to get one or two right away (maybe even four or five), and then perhaps the stymied silence of trying to come up with a few more: O Come O Come Emmanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, Creator of the Stars of Night, Wait for the Lord, My Soul in Stillness Waits, People Look East, Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn, Wake O Wake and Sleep No Longer, O Come Divine Messiah, The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (or, if you’re a Stephen Colbert fan, The King of Glory).
The truth is, we’re more familiar with Christmas music because we’re inundated with it 24/7 beginning the day after Thanksgiving. It’s piped over the speakers of stores and restaurants; it’s performed in children’s school concerts; it’s on the radio; it’s everywhere. In such an environment, our experience of Advent music can often become relegated to what we hear and sing at Mass, meaning that we might only spend four days of the Advent season singing of our longing for the Messiah. In many parishes, the celebration of Advent Lessons and Carols provides a way to bring the music of this season front and center but outside of that, it can be difficult to find opportunities to immerse oneself in this repertoire. There are a number of excellent recordings that feature music exclusively for the Advent season, and a recent composition that’s finding its way onto more of those recordings is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. More than ten years ago, Minnesota Public Radio ran a profile on the composer and his wife (who compiled the lyrics to this piece from Scripture), which detailed how this composition grew out of the couple’s anguish in facing a child’s life-threatening illness, and when one listens to this piece knowing its back-story, its impact becomes all the greater. The longing expressed in this piece is not disembodied; it’s not detached from real life or written merely to tug at the heartstrings during what many people find to be an emotionally difficult time of year. This piece is an expression of one couple’s longing for the coming of Christ as an answer to their prayers during a time of great duress, and now, it has the capacity to give voice to the anguished longings of those who hear it this season and every season, whatever those longings may be.
The minor key and the dark color of this piece seem at first glance to clash with the text of the opening measures: “Peace be to you and grace from him who freed us from our sins, who loved us all and shed his blood that we might saved be.” Yet, the minor key testifies to the fact that the peace and grace of Christ are stained with his blood, shed out of pure love to save the human race. This saving work of God in Christ is the reason for the acclamation in the next section of the piece: “Sing Holy, Holy to our Lord, the Lord Almighty God, who was and is, and is to come—Sing Holy, Holy Lord.” Following this acclamation, an exhortation: “Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein; rejoice on earth, ye saints below, for Christ is coming—is coming soon! For Christ is coming soon!” This section represents the musical climax of the piece: the soaring soprano line and the noble harmonies suggest the majesty of Christ’s return in glory, but the section ends with the harmony unresolved. Christ is coming soon, but not yet.
The final section returns us to the here and now, where the coming of Christ in history has not taken away our present trials and tribulations, but insofar as we unite our sufferings to his, Christ may transfigure those sufferings and give us the grace to endure them until he returns in glory, when he will end suffering forever: “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more. They need no light, nor lamp, nor sun, for Christ will be their all.” The title lyric of this piece takes the final prayer from the book of Revelation—“Come, Lord Jesus,” and heightens it—“Lord Jesus, quickly come.” Come, quickly, Lord Jesus, delay no longer, for the night is vast and the world is in need of your light, the light in and by which we see light (Ps. 36:10), the light no darkness can overcome (Jn 1:5).
Our annual observance of Advent and Christmas doesn’t suspend the trials and sufferings we experience as human beings. As individuals, we may be facing loneliness or illness or death, and as a members of a global community, we live in a time plagued with violence and poverty and corruption, just like Jesus himself lived in a time that was plagued with violence and poverty and corruption. Nevertheless, Jesus’ coming in history, his future coming in glory, and his coming to us even now in the liturgical life of the Church provide sure footing for us in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations, and even as we lift our hearts and voices in anguished longing, we also look forward to the day “when night shall be no more,” “when Christ will be [our] all.”
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life