Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
American culture loves programs for self-improvement. We idolize celebrities, who are able to turn over a new leaf in their lives. We subscribe to magazines that show us how to live more simply (by finally organizing our cabinets). We watch with tear-stained eyes as contestants on reality TV are physically or emotionally transformed.
This program of self-improvement leading to happiness is part of American religion as well. Within Catholicism, the season of Lent is that time par excellence in which projects of self-improvement are taken up. We pray more. We fast from electronics or food. We engage in works of mercy. And we hope, through it all, that we will find a space in our hearts to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord with fervent devotion.
This desire for self-improvement is indeed important to the Christian life. The Church herself encourages us to take up practices that renew us in divine love. The Eucharistic preface for the First Sunday of Lent notes:
By abstaining forty days from earthly food,/he consecrated through his fast/the pattern of our Lenten observance/and, by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent,/taught us to cast out the leaven of malice,/so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery,/we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast.
The importance of “practice” is at the heart of Advent as well. In the first week of Advent, we are urged in the prayers of the Church to take up a posture of watchfulness. This watchfulness is an invitation toward conversion as Benedict XVI notes in his 2011 Angelus address:
Therefore, John’s [the Baptist] appeal goes far beyond and deeper than a call to a sober lifestyle: it is a call for inner change, starting with the recognition and confession of our sins. As we prepare for Christmas, it is important that we find time for self contemplation and carry out an honest assessment of our lives. May we be enlightened by a ray of the light that comes from Bethlehem, the light of He who is “the Greatest” and made himself small, he who is “the Strongest” but became weak.
Advent is a time for us to consider where we stand before the living God, who in the first weeks of this season, we ask to come once again. Not as a babe in Bethlehem but in his glory, offering that definitive judgment of the humanity that will renew heaven and earth. We take up practices of watchfulness and self-reflection that prepare us for this coming of the risen Lord. As John Henry Newman writes in a sermon during the season of Advent:
When we kneel down in prayer in private, let us think to ourselves, Thus shall I one day kneel before His very footstool, in this flesh and this blood of mine; and He will be seated over against me, in flesh and blood also, though divine. I come, with the thought of that awful hour before me, I come to confess my sin to Him now, that He may pardon it then, and I say, ‘O Lord, Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, in the hour of death and in the day of judgment, deliver us, O Lord’ (Worship: A Preparation for Christ’s Coming, 964).
Kneeling in prayer becomes a preparation for our encounter with the living God. In this way, the practices of Advent are occasions of learning the proper disposition of humble love that must possess the human being, seeking to encounter God at the end of time. It is learning to become small and weak in imitation of the Word made flesh who became small for the redemption of the world.
Yet, the danger of American religion is that these practices of watchfulness, these preparations for the coming of the risen Lord, become about preparing us to have a great experience. We want to have the “best Advent ever” so that, as Matthew Kelly notes in a primer for a program run by Dynamic Catholic, we can have “the best Christmas ever.” He is right to note that Advent often passes too quickly, swept up into the holiday preparations that occupy American religion. He is right to emphasize that preparing the heart for the coming of the babe at Bethlehem is integral to the proper celebration of Advent (and thus Christmas).
But, the language of “best ever” (although potentially rhetorically effective for the contemporary American) may also lead to the advent of unrealistic expectations. The reality is that Advent preparation often involves coming to the recognition that to prepare for Christ’s coming is surprisingly uncomfortable. As the prophet Isaiah notes in the very first lesson in the Office of Readings for Advent Week 1:
I cannot endure festival and solemnity./Your New Moons and your pilgrimages/I hate with all my soul./They lie heavy on me,/I am tired of bearing them./When you stretch out your hands/I turn my eyes away./You may multiply your prayers,/I shall not listen./Your hands are covered with blood,/wash, make yourselves clean.
Take away wrong-doing out of my sight./Cease to do evil./Learn to do good,/search for justice,/help the oppressed,/be just to the orphan,/plead for the widow…
As we prepare for God’s definitive judgment in history, we realize that it is our very selves that are part of the problem. Though I pray each morning, I somehow find myself annoyed at the driver doing five miles under the speed limit. I lie to myself on a regular basis about my compassion for the widow and the orphan, instead preferring the comfort of my home. I am impatient with my sick toddler, often not considering the mercy I should offer in such a moment. The horrors of violence portrayed regularly on the news leave me often cold, uninspired to do something about the needs of others. I am a sinner, one of those in Matthew 25, who may not be able to recognize the presence of the coming Christ in my midst.
Realizing that one is part of the problem of sin itself is not a “best-ever” experience. It is a humbling one, a recognition of one’s total weakness before God’s triune love revealed in the Christmas creche. The season of Advent opens up a space in the human heart to receive God’s healing mercy in the midst of our poverty. It is often in the midst of the worst Advent, immersed in one’s total failure, that the healing of Christmas might matter most.
Of course, this is not an apology for doing nothing during Advent. It is not a dismissal of practicing watchfulness, which should mark the season. But it is a warning that promising “best-ever” experiences, even for the sake of inviting Catholics to return to a robust practice of their faith, comes with a cost. The cost is that we confuse the liturgical year with a program of self-improvement. We invite those on the margins of our parishes to unrealistic expectations that Christian life is a series of “best-evers” rather than occasions of hidden love in the midst of a God who did not seem to mind remaining hidden in the Bethlehem manger. The Christmas we celebrate may be mundane, lived out in ordinary parish life, still full of the trials and tribulations of family life; but that does not make it less “best-ever.” In fact, the Christian life (and thus the season of Advent) is learning to see (a normally painful process) the hidden ways that the Word still remains flesh among us.
What the Church promises is not that practicing Advent will lead us to the “best Christmas.” Rather, as John Henry Newman hopes: “May each Christmas, as it comes, find us more and more like Him; who as at this time became a little child for our sake, more simple-minded, more humble, more holy, more affectionate, more resigned, more happy, more full of God” (The Mystery of Godliness). And we may find that the more full of God we become, the more we are open to his presence among us, we are led not into “best-ever” experiences. But more and more into that longing for redemption, that anxious awaiting of the God who will put an end to Advent and Christmas itself: Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, Come!