December 6, 2023 at 9:43 a.m.

Letting God happen

Advent is a precious invitation to let holiness happen.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

We are barely into the first week of Advent, Thanksgiving is barely over and already we see emblems of Christmas festooned all around us. A not-too-distant memory can recall a visit to Lowe’s where garish Halloween décor bombarded the shopper with its brash blacks, yellows and oranges, almost to be upstaged by the forthcoming seasonal exhibits just behind it, displays with mounds of Santas and reindeer and fake firs waiting to be rolled out for their day in the sun. Not to be outdone, in clothing stores Christmas arrived weeks before Thanksgiving, along with beachwear for snowbirds headed south for winter. 

“Stop the World — I Want to Get Off!” This plot may well echo how many of us may feel amidst the tidal waves of the hyper-animated “musts” of the season: the things we have to do to make them all happen. That imperative actually was the title of a 1961 seri-comic, somewhat cynical, but ultimately true and touching musical, set against a circus backdrop, of a man called Littlechap. He spends his life looking for love in all the wrong places, only to learn too late that he has been running away from it his whole life. “What Kind of Fool am I?” is his swan song, summing up his sorry existence. Why did I not stop myself — not blame the world! — in order to discover who and where I really am and where love really was: the woman he married.

Peace in the Womb Pro-Life Christmas Caroling will take place on Sunday, Dec. 10, from 2-3 p.m., in front of Planned Parenthood (1040 State St.) in Schenectady. Please join us for an hour of Christmas caroling to bring hope and joy to this place of misery and despair. Children’s lives have been saved when their mothers heard the carols and reconsidered their “choice” in light of the Christmas story. Dress for the weather for this outdoor event. All we need are voices! We will have songbooks and an empty manger to gather around!

Advent each year is a chance to avoid the fate of Littlechap. We have a choice. We could follow the speed and cacophony of the herd, or we could stop to listen to the sweeter sounds of a music that heaven offers the ears of those willing to count its blessings among the real bargains of the season. Many of us grow older and wiser over the years. Covid taught us much. We can shop more online instead of waiting on lines at malls. E-cards can replace costly mailings — and think of all those trees saved! And yes, BJ’s does sell cookies and cakes almost as good as homemade. We can make “the holidays” happen easily enough I suppose. All of this, however, whether smartly or harriedly executed, demands a personal investment of time and treasure. We often end up getting less than what we paid for and spending much more than anyone ever really profits from. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

I remember the year my immediate family decided it would be a good idea to dispense ourselves from the exchange of gifts. My parents and siblings were not getting any younger and, much as we loved to get together in a festive way, we realized that it was the food and company we shared that really made our celebrations. Some of my siblings and their spouses were incredibly skilled in choosing just the right tones and sizes, but we felt relieved that all agreed and, yes, we would still wrap up some boxed things for the little kids. The real reason we all shared in common, however, was what our faith was calling us to: a time for decking our hearts and souls, not just our halls and houses, with more than just holly and tinsel — but the steady boughs of holiness. We were Christians, after all, preparing for Christmas, the birth of our holy Savior. Not just some generic “season’s greetings” but something deeply personal.

Advent is a precious invitation to let holiness happen. I offer that with some trepidation because I do not wish to suggest that holiness is just a passive, laissez-faire affair. Indeed, like all works of value, it comes at a price. The specific “work” of Advent is the activity of patient, but joyful attentiveness. It requires time and commitment and, as we well know, those commodities cost. We have examples, however, even from nature itself, the most obvious perhaps being the mysterious experience of gestation and birth. All living beings take time to develop and grow, beginning with the moment of conception. The patience of expectant parents mirrors that of our loving God, waiting for us to listen with the ear of the heart to the graces God so longs to pour in.

I am thinking of the hour — less or more — of prayer that a serious Advent subscriber might decide to make each day leading to Christmastide. I know when the subject of prayer is raised, we may be inclined to think of words we have to say to God. Maybe we struggle with what “more prayer” looks like, not sure if we are saying the right ones. Prayer, however, is not a language we learn as “God-speak.” God speaks all languages and none. Sometimes the best offering we can make to God is the gift of shutting up. 

That takes practice, of course. Finding a quiet spot, comfortable enough not to be distracted by our own desire to be reverently attentive — which may not be on our knees. Prayer does not make God more receptive to us if we are uncomfortable. Yes, the phone must be in silent mode, ideally off. It goes without saying, so must any other screen. If a church or a chapel are not close, whether the Blessed Sacrament is exposed or reposed, a simple room without much traffic is fine. Now what?

Some people feel better with a book, a Bible or some other guide at hand. Always begin with a simple prayer to the Holy Spirit and it’s fine to read a passage or say a decade of the rosary. Silence, however, is the best way to listen. Now here is where it gets interesting. There is nothing wrong with following the tried-and-true rhythms of the Jesus prayer or the well-practiced ACTS (Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication). Shutting the eyes, focusing on the Blessed Sacrament — or a crucifix or sacred image — are fine, even a blank wall. The goal is to clear the mind gently, at least as much as possible from thoughts and distractions, and to do nothing but let God happen. 

It is not to be expected that we will see or hear anything in particular every time we enter into this kind of prayer, which is typically called contemplative. Clearing the mind of thoughts and distractions and “resting in the Lord,” so to speak, does not mean going to sleep on God, either literally or emotionally. In fact, just feeling a deep yearning for God, whether expressed in words or song, sighs or tears — or not at all — is a beautiful activity that the silence of prayer does not preclude. God knows our hopes and desires and certainly wants to reach us at least as much — and more most likely (“I thirst”) — as we want to reach out to God. 

Here is something to contemplate, something I have learned personally over time. God ALWAYS responds to every prayer. Even if we do not feel or perceive a response, a voice or a movement, God is certainly showering nonetheless, even inundating us with grace. Jesus clearly taught us this in many ways, often using parables from nature, illustrating God’s prodigal love. The sower who continues to scatter the seed — a metaphor for grace — allowing it to land on treacherous soil, even amidst rocks and thorns, proposes the notion that God might quietly be planting in our hearts and souls holy seeds of grace that may sprout, blossom and grow in time, maybe surprising us when at any given moment, we discover unexpected patience, prudence, forbearance, generosity, forgiveness, energy, initiative, temperance, courage. The list of virtues goes on and on. Grace tills and cultivates virtue. Virtue builds holiness. Holiness brings happiness in its fullest form: beatitude or Godlikeness. That brings us as close on earth as we can be to heaven itself.

Such contemplative hours — preferably as early in the morning as we can rise — can develop an attitude of awareness and openness to God’s grace that we can carry through the day. It is a particular Advent attitude. While it takes a certain patience and discipline it brings great peace and joy. Have you ever noticed that at dawn nature itself seems awash with this kind of attitude? Maybe an hour or so before sunrise, some of the birds start chirping. As the hour progresses, more and more seem to join in a din that is almost riotous. Awaiting jubilantly, they know something is up and about to happen. Then the first rays burst over the horizon. Silence! As if surprised suddenly by something they knew would happen all along. Every day a new day of grace. Expecting that God will happen is a supreme act of love for the God of all creation, who made each one of us. And God will not, indeed cannot deprive us of everything good that we ask for. If we wait silently with love, God will happen to us!



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