Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Meaning of Advent

As the song goes, "It's the most wonderful time of year." I don't know about you, but I find that it's often also the busiest. It's easy, I think, amidst all of our various activities -- wrapping up school or work before the holidays, completing our holiday shopping, arranging our travel plans to visit family and friends, emotionally gearing up for seeing family and friends, etc. -- it's no wonder that we can become distracted and even burned out even before the big day arrives. It's all too easy to lose sight of the season we're currently in. No, I don't mean Christmas ... not yet anyway. Rather, until the 25th we're in the season of Advent, a season of preparation and anticipation that, if entered into properly, increases the joy and meaning of Christmas when it does arrive. The last week of Advent ramps all this up with a more urgent call to prepare ourselves for the imminent coming of the Lord. As we begin the week before Christmas Day, I thought I'd take a little time and offer an Advent reflection that may help us to re-orient ourselves before it arrives and remember the reason for this season.

The word "Advent" comes from the Latin word advenire, "to come toward," "to arrive." It's the opening season of the liturgical year and calls us to at once remember and also prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Having ended the year with reflections on the ultimate kingship of Christ, culminating with the Feast of Christ the King, and looking forward to his Second Coming, we begin our "New Year" meditating on similar themes but with a slightly shifted focus. Whereas the liturgical year ended on a triumphant note, celebrating Christ as the king of all the universe, the one who has already won the fight against evil and put an end to death, and we begin Advent recognizing that our present reality is not always reflective of this truth. The kingdom of heaven has truly come, and yet, is still coming to fullness. This is the principle -- commonly found in theology but not always easy to live with -- of living in that tension of "already, and not yet," where we know and experience in a limited way the once-and-for-all-time victory over the forces of darkness that has been won by Christ in his paschal mystery ... and yet we wait for the full flowering of victory.

Advent thus is a time to re-enter into the mystery of our existence in the here and now, i.e. after the Lord's first coming to Earth, and before his second coming in glory. In our lead-up to Christmas, we focus not only on that first coming when God forever changed human history by becoming Man, but also that second coming in which we will be drawn up into the mystery and living presence of God in a very real way. Advent is a season of preparation and introspection, examining what in our own lives is limiting us from experiencing the love of Christ and his full coming into our own lives. This is the third coming of Christ that you may sometimes here about -- the coming, the welcoming of the Lord into our own hearts.

The Visitation, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486-1490)

Because of this, because we know the whole salvation story even as we wait for its final fulfillment, Advent is also a season of hope and expectant joy. This past Sunday we celebrated the third Sunday of Advent, popularly called Gaudete Sunday, that is, "Rejoice!" The Church invites us on this day to pause from our preparatory, even penitential, self-examination and emphasize the ultimate purpose of the season for which we're preparing -- namely, the imminent coming of our Lord, the reason for our joy. This joy is symbolized even in the lighter tone of the liturgy -- the color of the vestments and the wreath candle for the week are the lighter rose color while the readings, from Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul to the Philippians, tell us remember our joy and confidence in God.

However, this joy, while real, is not yet full. We've not yet reached Christmas, symbolic of that first coming of our Lord in his Incarnation. And we're still pilgrims in a world full of sickness and suffering, where the forces of darkness and evil remain clearly at work before us and can seem at times to be very much still in control. We await the second coming of the Lord, when we will be "gathered together to him" (2 Thes 2:1) and when all evil shall be wiped away. Until that time, we are invited to welcome the Lord into our hearts in a very real if mysterious way. If amidst the hustle and bustle, we can quiet ourselves and reflect a bit, we can gain an understanding into what this is all about. I very much believe in the power of God's Providence, that despite the evil and pain of this present world, God is still at work in transforming us and our world. I read an Advent reflection by Fr. Thomas Rosica recently that I liked:
The message of Advent is not that everything is falling to pieces. Nor is it that God is in heaven and all is therefore well with the world. Rather the message of Advent is that when every fixed star on the moral compass is wavering, when all hell is breaking loose on earth, we hear once again the Baptist's consoling message: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
That "way of the Lord" that we must prepare is the highway to our own hearts -- just as God entered the world as a Man so too does he wish to enter into our hearts, engaging each of us in a deeply personal way. It is this joy that fills the season -- that it is God who yearns for us, that the creator and ruler of all the universe wishes to enter into a loving and personal relationship. Every part of our life is changed by this knowledge -- we come to understand ourselves not as powerless but with the potential to do good as children of God; we view others not as enemies or nuisances but as our brothers and sisters who deserve our concern and charity; we approach the problems of today not with bitterness and cynicism but with a hope and confidence that Providence is at work still; and we confront the realities of suffering and death not with despair or disillusionment but with faith in the salvation that awaits us in the next life.

St. John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-1516)

Recently, Pope Benedict gave a reflection on the importance of Advent to the sick and their caregivers at the Hospice Foundation of Rome. Though his comments were directed toward those who are experiencing pain in a very real way, I couldn't help but feel that his comments held a measure of relevance for all of us, in whatever way we find ourselves weighed down by suffering and doubt in our lives. He says:
In the light of faith we can read in sickness and suffering a special experience of Advent, a visit from God, who, in a mysterious way comes to bring liberation from solitude and meaninglessness and transform suffering in time into a meeting with him, into hope and salvation. Your illness is a very painful and unique trial, but before the mystery of God, who took on our mortal flesh, it receives its meaning and becomes a gift and an occasion for sanctification. When the suffering and discomfort are the worst, know that Christ is associating you with his cross because through you he wants to speak a word of love to those who have strayed from the road of life and, closed within their empty egoism, live in sin and separation from God. In fact, your health conditions testify that the true life is not here, but with God, where every one of us will find joy if we humbly walk in the footsteps of the true man: Jesus of Nazareth, Master and Lord.
This, I think, is the true meaning of Advent for all of us. Our lives here on earth are, it seems, a kind of extended Advent. Jesus is coming -- at Christmas, at the end of the world, and into our hearts -- and it is in him that we take comfort, in him that we have hope. We live in a fallen and unjust world, one which we must not abandon but must continue to help understand the salvation of God which comes through Jesus. Yet, the season of Advent and its progress toward Christmas help us also to remember that we are merely passing through, that we are pilgrims on the way to our true spiritual home. As Fr. Rosica points out above, our task now is much like that of John the Baptist, always pointing the way to Christ for others and welcoming him as our Lord and Savior.

May these last few days of Advent be a time of blessing and fruitful anticipation for all of us. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Catching Up (part II): Pilgrimage to France & Ordination 2009

Prior to the ordination, looking from the Altar of the Chair backward toward the Basilica's entrance.

I've been meaning to get on here for a few weeks but time always seems to be in short supply. When the older guys said that second year is a big step up from first -- in terms of new obligations and responsibilities -- they were certainly right! Various projects keep piling up as classes head toward Christmas break, and I'm also doing some logistical planning for a visit from the family, who arrive for the holidays in two weeks. It'll be their first time in continental Europe. I'm excited to see what they think of it and to relive through them my first European experience. We're going to see a lot hopefully, but it should be a nice chance to relax and spend some time with them.

As the second part of my efforts to bring the blog up to date on events of the last few months, I thought I'd look back on the College's October diaconate ordination and my subsequent pilgrimage to France. I wrote a bit about diaconate ordination in Rome and what's all involved here last year, when two seminarians from Little Rock were ordained. This year, one Little Rock seminarian, Joshua Stengel, was ordained a deacon here in Rome though four others were ordained in the US. We're all very excited because 2010 will be the largest priesthood class in more than 20 years, as five men will be ordained priests for the diocese! The next class in 2012 is my own.

Archbishop Carlson ordains Joshua Stengel for the Diocese of Little Rock

The ordination was, of course, very nice. Several groups from Arkansas were able to come over, including some priests and seminarians, members of the Serra Club from Little Rock, and family and friends of Joshua. Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis presided at St. Peter's Altar of the Chair as a total of 30 men were ordained deacons for a host of dioceses in the US, from Orange, CA, to Newark, NJ, from Crookston, MN, to New Orleans, LA. As was the case last year, the event was a great chance to remember why it is that we are here at the NAC, i.e. to return to the United States to serve the people of our respective dioceses and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The emotional boost from diaconate week is a great blessing for all involved, not only those that are being ordained. Whether it's listening to the bishop's homily on the meaning of pastoral ministry, or seeing the love and pride of those family members for their son/brother/nephew as he gives his life for the Church, or receiving encouragement from visiting pilgrims for those of us still working hard to reach that same point -- it goes along way to sustain us through the long year.

Joshua (far right) and fellow new deacons

The ordination weekend also afforded me the chance to spend some time with two priests and two seminarians from Little Rock who had made the trip over. Neither of the seminarians had ever been to Rome before, and so amidst the ordination events, we also took time to give them a brief tour of the city and its treasures. The weekend after the ordination we decided to make a pilgrimage to France, since students are free to travel after the ordination Mass. I had been to France several times before, most recently to Toulouse and south central France at Easter, but it had been several years since I'd been to Paris. Even more interesting for me was the chance to journey to Ars-sur-Formans, the little village north of Lyons where St. Jean-Marie Vianney lived and worked as a parish priest. You might recall might my reflection on him last year on this blog. After I wrote of it, his good example of priestly life has become even more relevant to my life since then. At the opening of the current Year for Priests in June, Pope Benedict declared St. Jean Vianney, previously the patron saint of parish priests, as the patron saint of all priests and, consequently, the model of all priestly virtues. The declaration is a fitting one since 2009 also marks the 150th anniversary of his death. As you can imagine, the chance to journey to France to see the relics of such a saint was quite opportune and fitting for the larger ecclesial context of the year.

Ars is a difficult place to get to. The Curé of Ars, as St. John Vianney is commonly known, lived a fairly unremarkable life, from an outsider's viewpoint -- he was of humble origins, was not terribly brilliant, and served as the parish priest for a very small (then and now) country town for over 40 years. Rather it was his extraordinary spirituality and his deep love and pastoral care for those he encountered that made him legendary even in his own day. Unlike a place like Lourdes, however, Ars has remained relatively unchanged since the saint's own time. There's no established tourist industry that's grown up around it, and getting there can be a chore. The cheapest option for us ended up being flying to Paris and taking the high-speed TGV to Lyons, a regional train from there to Villefranche-sur-Saône, and then a taxi from there to Ars-sur-Formans. It's worth it though. One really gets a good insight into what the town was like in the Curé's days and its serene setting in the countryside of southeastern France.

The Sanctuare de St. Jean-Marie Vianney. The saint's modern shrine was added to the town's medieval-era parish church.

After settling in at the newly constructed Jean Paul II Center for Priests, we made our way to the Sanctuaire de St. Jean-Marie Vianney, the town's medieval parish church which has now expanded to include the basilica shrine of the saint. Amazingly, we were able to have Mass at the side altar that serves also as the tomb of the incorrupt body of St. Jean Vianney. It was a powerful experience for me of what the call to priesthood, especially diocesan priesthood, is all about. St. Jean-Marie did not found any religious orders or rise to any prestigious offices during his priesthood. He worked many miracles and had legendary spiritual gifts, but all of these were given in service to the people whose souls he shepherded. His commitment to preaching, to presiding at the sacraments for many hours every day, and to sacrificing and suffering for his flock are stark reminders of the commitment every priest is called to have to those he serves. It was a very great blessing to be able to celebrate Mass gazing at the body of the man who is patron of all priests and to do it with men who I, God willing, will one day serve with as a brother priest for the Diocese of Little Rock. I thank God for that gift, and I continue to reflect on it months later.

Celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Jean-Marie was an awesome experience.

The resting place of St. Jean-Marie. His remains are incorrupt.

We spent the rest of that day looking around the very humble home of the saint, located next door, and spending time in prayer and reflection. The next day, we made our way back to Paris to enjoy some of that city's spiritual and cultural treasures. We took advantage of some priest-seminarian hospitality and stayed at the world headquarters of the Society of Saint-Sulpice, a community of diocesan priests that specializes in training seminarians. Their center, located in the 6th arrondissement and not far from either Montparnasse or the Latin Quarter, is ideally located for quick access to many of the city's attractions. Since I was the only one who had spent some time in Paris, I acted as an unofficial tour guide as we hit some of the highlights of the city, including the Eiffel Tower, the location of the now-demolished Bastille, and the always impressive Arc de Triomphe. Watching the various people out and about enjoying the lovely fall evening, we also enjoyed a nice dinner along the famous Champs-Élysées.

Enjoying Paris' lovely fall weather.

The Arc de Triomphe. No we did not run across 5 lanes of traffic.

Though my traveling companions were spending a few more days in France than I, including a trip to Lisieux to see the shrine and relics of St. Thérèse, I had to return on Sunday to prepare for the commencement of the new academic semester that week. Before departing though, I wanted to make a stop at two of my favorite churches in Europe. The first, Sainte-Chapelle, is one of the most famous examples of Gothic art -- maybe its most famous display of stained glass -- in the world, though its often overlooked by tourists. Located on the Île de la Cité, it was built as a private chapel of King St. Louis IX in the early 13th century to house relics of Christ's passion, including, according to tradition, a piece of the True Cross and the actual Crown of Thorns. The chapel's design arises from the rayonnant development of Gothic architecture, which sought to emphasize to the extreme the effects of natural light and a weightless feel to the actual structure. The effect is striking as the whole chapel is bathed in various and dancing colors, as light streams in from the windows depicting scenes Genesis to the Last Judgment. It's a marvelous experience -- if you ever find yourself in Paris, do not miss it.

Sainte-Chapelle's amazing stained glass windows

Notre Dame and the island it sits on from the Left Bank.

Finally, no visit to Paris would be complete without a visit to Notre Dame de Paris, the city's famous cathedral. A few blocks from Sainte-Chapelle and on the same island in the Seine, Notre Dame is one of the first and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture. Its considered a masterpiece due to its wonderful balance of sobriety and flair, gravitas and grace, material splendor and spiritual beauty. I had the good fortune to be reading a book the spiritual relevance of Gothic architecture at the time of visiting -- Fr. Robert Barron's Heaven in Stone and Glass, which I highly recommend -- and I could immediately sense the connection he describes between Notre Dame's architectural elements and spiritual themes. The whole purpose of the building is to ward off the evils of the outside world with its imposing facade and gargoyles while providing inside a warm and centering experience of the divine, through the high vaulted space, the beautiful stained glass, and the interplay of darkness and light. One could spend hours or even days wandering around and noting carefully the symbolic wonder of every sculpture or glass panel. Unfortunately, I only had an hour or so before it was time to return to Rome and the reality of a new set of classes to devote myself to. I enjoyed my time in Notre Dame though, and in Paris as a whole, and I look forward to returning soon.

I hope this holiday season finds each of you well and receiving some of the peace and hope of Advent as we approach Christmas. Many blessings!