Persistence in prayer is key to our spiritual health. It takes great patience, yes, and a trust that God really loves us and wants to rescue us from our numerous addictions to things that fall apart. We cycle and recycle, year after year, patterns that please us but, in no time, disappoint us and wear us out. Prayer is the anchor, the permanence of God’s presence, that keeps us together, from becoming what we throw away. 

Even Christmas — that “most wonderful time of the year” — does not escape this rendering. What is heralded as a time of peace and joy, through the hustle-bustle of the acquisition craze, becomes a contradiction of the message that God comes to us if we will only let go of our garbage — or, to say it more eloquently, to “let go and let God.” 

What does prayer have to do with this? Everything. Prayer is not in time; time is in prayer. Whether we know it or not, all of Creation — and humanity which is God’s pride and joy — are caught up in the eternal dance of God’s love. Jesus, the “PRAY-er” par excellence, is eternally offering himself to the Father in the Love begotten of their very being, the Holy Spirit, who is the personal Love between the Father and the Son. This is the unfathomable mystery of our Trinitarian God who is Love, as St. John proclaims. To pray is to be caught up in this dance. To be “in” prayer is to be in God and to know the peace and joy that Christmas announces. 

God wants us to know this peace and joy — in an intimate, personal relationship. But God has a challenge. We get distracted by things. Things that perish and leave us longing. The advent of Christmas each year is another invitation from God to listen to God’s longing for us, but unless we are listening, we may miss that “voice crying in the wilderness” of our frenzied activity, muffled in the ritualized thicket of Christmas prepping. 

Yes, prayer. It takes precious time to pray. That means taking time “out” from the roar of the crowd. Sacrifice. It’s easy to get discouraged when the prayers don’t come — assuming we expect them to be words from our lips. Or even if we do pray long and hard, wondering why God seems to take so long. 

St. Augustine has an interesting take on the patience prayer demands, wondering whether it is we whose patience is being tried or, rather, God’s. Is it not God who is being patient for us, waiting for our hearts to grow as our passion and desire for his response increase so that, with hearts expanded, he can pour in the treasure trove of grace that he has prepared for us! Without the waiting, without the growth of our hearts from tiny thimbles to deeper wells to be filled and drawn from, we are not ready to receive the gifts God wants to pour into them. 

Advent is fast approaching. The end of our current liturgical year and the inauguration of our Church’s “New Year” is on?Sunday, Dec. 1. Are you ready for grace, for God’s favors? Are you prepared to grow spiritually, for your heart to be stretched? 

In our faith tradition, this is our New Year, which we inaugurate before Christmas. If you think I am rushing things you have not been to Lowe’s lately, where Christmas arrived in September! Yes, it’s true, at least judging from what is on display there and elsewhere in the malls. “Christmas” has devolved into the shopping and decorating ceremonies before Christmas day. Not more than 24 hours later, the green trees of hope, adorned to celebrate the presence of life as the cold of winter looms, will be dashed — trashed or dismantled. Why? 

Our faith offers a more therapeutic, uplifting approach: prepare for Christmas by getting rid of the garbage, not by accumulating more. Calling most of what we feel compelled to do before Christmas day “garbage” might seem a bit unkind to the children we want to charm and the child in us we want to recapture. Many of us, however, may still recall how watching, waiting and listening were a more prominent part of Christmas preparations than they are these days.  

In recent times, we have come to focus more on the transient than the permanent, the things we will unwrap and discard, rather than the persons and relationships that will endure — especially the One who comes and longs to make our hearts his home. That sense of permanence is the oasis of God’s presence in the chaotic wilderness of our world, both what God wants and what we need. Why do we put God through so much clutter and clamor? Why do we do it to ourselves? 

Sure, it’s great to have a day for wining and dining, for celebrating the fruits of God’s creation. We do that every day in the Holy Eucharist, actually, our thanksgiving prayer which commemorates God’s supreme self-gift. But let’s face it, even our most popular national ritual, dedicated to the consumption of bountiful comestibles, reaches its limits as our stomachs fill. The last thing most of us really want the day after Thanksgiving is turkey tetrazzini, and other website suggestions for leftovers.

But no, there is still room for something more. Even with stomach full, heart and soul still yearn for more. What to fill them with? Saturday morning-after  papers are sure to feature tales of hordes lining up on Thanksgiving night — the Eve of “Black Friday” — to storm the nearest toy and bargain marts with not a few tragic stampedes — and God and man get out of my way — as doors slide open near or at the crack of dawn. What’s the big rush? Didn’t we have enough the night before? 

Not everyone, of course, falls for this, and you will understand that I am only drawing a caricature. But, paraphrasing Augustine, we might begin to realize that our insatiable hunger is really a longing for God without whom we are eternally restless for “the more” that can never satisfy — and precisely because it really is garbage, stuff that sooner or later perishes and must be thrown away. 

Christmas — really, the Incarnation of God — is the gift that keeps coming to us, if only we will allow Jesus to be born in our hearts without trampling over him in the rush to do more and get more of the same.  

On the First?Sunday?of Advent, Dec. 1, we light a candle. Typically, that is done near the altar in our parish churches at the start of Mass. The ancient custom of the Advent wreath is easy to observe at home as well. It is so easy to make and can serve as a reminder that Christmas is really not about what we do, but the Light that comes into our world. The Advent wreath is an occasion for prayer, is aesthetically attractive in a dining or living room, and a great focal point during Advent meals. It’s not too early to start planning one.  

As Thanksgiving nears, take the kids out on a brisk fall afternoon, gather some evergreens and pinecones. Wrap them up with creative bows. Candles can be purchased in a kit. Just go online. Or you can assemble — or make! — your own. Traditionally, there are four — three violet and one old rose — reflecting the liturgical colors on Lenten Sundays. In central Europe, I have seen stubby red candles, perhaps bayberry scented, and wreathes deck with other creative touches, like redberry sprays. Use your imagination. 

An evergreen wreath with candles is one way of getting a whiff of the Christmas to come in the home without a full-out tree trimming blast before the time is ripe. Add a crèche display, a Christmas stable with all the figures but Jesus and the Magi, and you will have two great occasions for prayer and beautiful reminders of what Christmas really is. You will also give your family memories that will last for a lifetime. Through prayer and the help of God’s grace, that yearning in heart and soul for the “long expected Jesus” will not be lost in the discarded wrappings. Or any other garbage. If you love him, help Jesus do his job! 

Follow Bishop Ed on Facebook at facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd