By Regis J. Flaherty
Do you remember Christmas when you were a child? I recall the excitement that the approach of the holiday created in me. During the month of December, Christmas was never far from my thoughts. What gifts would I receive? With little resources, what present could I give to my mom and dad? Of course, the closer to December 25, the more my excitement intensified.
On Christmas Day, we seven children would sit at the top of the steps on the second floor waiting until the entire family assembled. By that time we could hardly sit still. When my parents gave the okay, we would run down the stairs and into the dining room. There, at the place we sat for every meal, we found treasures of our parents’ love.
Then we had the opportunity to give to Mom and Dad our homemade gifts or hand-drawn certificates, in which we pledged extra work and service. My parents’ appreciation for our meager offerings was always effusive and accompanied with hugs and kisses.
In my parents’ home the focus was not only on the secular. They made sure that the spiritual aspects were front and center. The Catholic school I attended also helped me focus on the coming of Christ and the personal preparation that entailed. Mass in the festively decorated parish church and a visit to the manger were also causes for excitement and joy.
When I think of those childhood days, I can’t help but recall the words of Jesus, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3).
We should find that childlike anticipation as we celebrate Advent and prepare for Christmas. The gifts of these liturgical seasons are of the greatest spiritual value. We receive the ultimate gift, Jesus, from our heavenly Father. We also can offer to God our seasonal gifts, meager in comparison with His, but accepted by Him nonetheless.
The Church gives us four weeks of Advent and encourages us to consider three epiphanies of Jesus.
First, we look back to the original event. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, God became man. Please pause for a moment on that thought. The words have become perhaps too familiar to us. We tend to lose the awe that should well up in us when we contemplate that God became man. We need to recapture the attitude of the child whose eyes are filled with wonder on Christmas morning. If God became incarnate, taking on flesh, history is forever changed. If He did not, Christians are to be pitied and rightly should be the laughing stock of twenty centuries (cf. 1 Cor 15:19).
That little baby in the crib is God. No other major religious leader has made this claim, except Jesus. This infant, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, “is set for the rise and fall of many” (Luke 2:34). Christ’s birth is the pivot of history—categorized by time before or after this event. His birth not only brings hope to those who live after the Nativity, it reaches back to Adam and Eve, expelled from the Garden of Eden, and to all people up to His birth. He is their hope as well. Consider, then, the micro effect. Salvation is offered to you and me. We are people of hope. We have a future. God became man for my salvation. That knowledge should make us incredibly thankful.
In Advent and Christmas we ask ourselves, “Do I thank God for the great gift of His birth that changed history and opened heaven to me?”
Secondly, Jesus is still with us in Word and Sacrament. Whenever we pick up the Scriptures and read them prayerfully, He speaks to us. In Baptism, He welcomes the recipient into the family of God and joins him or her to Himself as brother. When we go to Confession, He forgives us. For those in a sacramental marriage, His grace helps the couple live their vocation. Most amazingly, He becomes truly present on our altars at Mass and resides in every tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.
Jesus is here now. We should explore how we can better love Jesus right now. In fact, you may want to imagine that you are holding the infant Jesus, looking at Him with love, and then ask Him how you can better please Him and love Him. Advent is a time to ask ourselves, “Do I love God? How do I show my love?”
Christmas is a vital link of a chain of events through which God brings us salvation—the Incarnation, the Nativity, Christ’s life and teaching, and the Last Supper, His Passion, death, and Resurrection, and Ascension. One more event will complete the work of Jesus. His Second Coming at the end of time.
Returning in glory, He will judge the living and the dead. This Second Coming will be the culmination of the redemptive plan of God. Advent is a time to look forward to that future event. We don’t know if He will return in five minutes or five thousand years. Either way we want to be prepared.
At the last coming of Jesus, there will be the General Judgment of all men and women of all time. We, as individuals, will also experience a Particular Judgment when we die. At this meeting we will personally stand before the Just Judge.
Advent, then, is a time and opportunity to get ready—to ask: “Am I ready for Jesus to return in judgment? What do I need to do to get right with God?”
In summary, Advent and Christmas are liturgical seasons of grace which are times to thank God, grow in our love of Him, and get ready for His return.
Regis J. Flaherty, director of the Gilmary Retreat Center, has over thirty years of experience working with Catholic organizations. He is a bestselling author of several books, including Jesus Is the Gift: The Spirituality of Advent & Christmas, which is the fruit of over seven years of preparing others for Advent through talks on its liturgical themes.