We recently held our annual Baby Day at the Catholic Education Center in which we welcomed special representatives of the class of 2037 along with their moms to spend some time together in celebration of this wonderful time in their family’s life and in our HPC community. This is a tradition started by our late Director and my mentor, Larry Langan. This annual event basically paralyzes the office which is something to behold! Everyone leaves their desk and converges in our meeting room to not only see the babies but to play with them and to hold them.
We hold this event during the Advent season – I don’t know if the tradition started as a means of giving us insight into the true meaning of the season, but it is a picture of unmitigated joy and celebration: it is a true image of Christmas.
Like our staff leaving their work to visit with the babies – we need to leave our busy lives to be with the newborn Jesus. We leave for Bethlehem to see Jesus, be with Jesus and to hold Jesus. May your Christmas be filled with the peace and joy that comes in spending time with Jesus and may it remind us all of the joy of new life.
Advent as Pilgrimage
One of my favourite stories associated with Christmas is a 19th century novella entitled A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Until recently, I had never thought about the story through the lens of Advent. Ebenezer Scrooge gets a compressed Advent experience. He is forced to look back, be present and look ahead. Ultimately, his experience is transformative for his life. Can our Advent experience be transformative?
Challenge as opportunity – how can we use the stillness, silence and darkness of December to bring us closer to God? What can we stop doing in order to find the stillness needed for contemplative prayer? Can we find respite from the inundation of media to listen to one another and to God through prayer? Advent provides us with the opportunity to look back over the past year and to assess our shortcomings – to see clearly the things that move us away from God.
In the Gospels leading up to the birth of Christ all of the central figures on travelling: the Holy Family travels to Bethlehem at the command of the governor for the census (Luke 2:4); the magi travel from Herod (seemingly to report back to Herod) to the place where Jesus was born (Matthew 2:7); the shepherd travel from their fields at the prompting of the angel of the Lord (Luke 2:12) to visit the baby Jesus. They are truly on a pilgrimage, journeying to a place that is unknown to them seeking a new understanding: moving knowingly or unknowingly towards transformation.
In our lives we seem to be always going somewhere. Are we pilgrims or commuters? Where are we travelling? Do we see our lives as pilgrimage or a series of journeys sown together by our busyness, our work or our desires? Shifting to a life as pilgrims in Advent requires a personal exile from the day-to-day towards a journey that intends to transform our faith. The pilgrimage of Advent requires that we leave our home to find our home. Pilgrimage as spiritual exercise requires attention to prayer – we attend to our inner self through prayer and service to God and one another.
Pilgrimages force us to let go of the things that we cling to that matter less and encourage us to move towards things that matter more. Pilgrims support one another and know that God walks beside them. On the pilgrimage, we have the deep excitement of destination and yet the journey is long enough that the constant experience of one foot in front of the other, cannot help but keep us present. Presence is the true gift of Advent and perhaps, Christmas itself.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing. (Isaiah 9:1)
The star over Bethlehem marked the birth of Christ the King. A great light in the darkness – a star to provide hope, guidance and joy. While Advent prepares us for Christ’s birth it also provides reflection to celebrate His coming among us now and when he will come again, in Glory.*
In this season of hope, preparation, expectation and celebration, we are encouraged to look back, be present and look forward. The season of Advent offers us a very counter cultural way of being in our times in which we can be easily distracted by the busyness, and consumerism of the secular life around us: the season of Advent can bear many spiritual fruits if we allow it. May we all mark the steps of our pilgrimage in the lighting of our Advent candles, and may the light that shines from our candles remind us that Christ is the true light which enlightens everyone by coming into the world. **
** John 1:9
These days it seems prudent to root ourselves in stories of our faith. While our times seem steeped in confusion and uncertainty, we can find comfort in an approach to seeing life as journey buoyed by a commitment to accompaniment and encounter. Our lives of prayer and contemplation are important tools to help us be a people of hope.
The Road to Emmaus
In the pastoral letter on Catholic education “Renewing the Promise” – we are encouraged to use the Emmaus story as inspiration for a way forward in this age. Firstly, the Emmaus story (often ascribed as ‘The Road to Emmaus’) inspires us to think about the narrative of journey and destination simultaneously. Perhaps more importantly the journey on the road is filled with images of consolation and desolation; it is beset with fear and comfort and uncertainty and clarity. It is the perfect metaphor for our times. In its destination – we are transformed by a personal experience with Christ through the opening of scripture and through sacrament (Eucharist). Consider the image of the Road to Emmaus from the St. John’s Bible (saintjohnsbible.org). It reflects these sentiments and more. This image is useful for careful contemplation in conjunction with a prayer of visio divina. The piece concerns itself with images of journey; an interplay of light and dark; pictures that are simultaneously blurred and precise.
Encounter and Transformation
The comfort that comes from transformation is easier said than done. What does the story say to us about how we come to this moment of clarity and comfort? The transformational experience cannot happen without the journey – it is a journey that requires encounter and accompaniment. The story is about relationship. We yearn for a closer relationship with God and He reaches out to us for the same. For the disciples, fear, isolation, despair and perhaps flight get in the way of seeing things as they ought to be. This is true today! When we surround ourselves with narratives of tumult, and park all that we see inside that narrative, it is nearly impossible to see that He is with us. This painting from Fra Bartolommeo emphasizes the relational focus in the Road to Emmaus. The disciple appears to seek the comfort of Christ – he reaches out and grabs the wrist of Christ. Christ appears to be carrying his pack on his back – this will not be His first or last encounter with us for comfort. In the story and subsequent stories after the resurrection (this time in the Gospel of Luke but also throughout the Acts of the Apostles) humans struggle to see that Christ is among us. Inevitably, we need this difficult journey and the accompaniment of each other with God to see it through.
In closing, the road ahead is always the Road to Emmaus. We journey beside one another sometimes aware and sometimes unaware that God is with us. For the upcoming months, let us all be mindful that journey, encounter and transformation are all necessary steps for our salvation. If the road ahead seems uncertain – let us all reflect upon the experience of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus so we can fully commit ourselves to being a mission-oriented school system that forms disciples of Jesus.