I have always enjoyed watching snow fall. From a very early age I would sit at the window and watch as the snow fell and covered the world and turned everything white. I would watch as it covered the streets and the grass on the lawn, the shrubs out front and the bare branches of the trees. I especially loved to watch it fall at night, when I could see the snowflakes fluttering through the light of the streetlamp. The best part was when the snow fell deep enough to thoroughly cover everything. It bothered me when I could still see blades of grass poking up through the newly fallen snow. It seemed incongruent, out of place, and imperfect. So, I waited for the snow to cover the lawn deeply enough to completely cover all the grass.

In the morning when I would go outside, I would hesitate before I stepped on the lawn. The snowscape was perfect, pristine and pure…untouched by anyone. I would stand there in wonder and soak it all in, knowing that my first step would undo the whole thing. One step and it would no longer be perfect. I knew that once I had tracked through that snow, it didn’t matter if the snow kept falling and covered my tracks I would still be able to see the indentations made by my boots. Inches more could fall, but still, when I watched again from my window that night, I could still make out the depressions of my steps being slowly filled in by the snow that continued to fall.

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Yesterday afternoon I was preparing some notes on Advent for a catechism lesson for a group of 6-9 year old boys. This is fitting, because, as my wife will attest, I am just a really tall 8 year-old.  I had notes on advent wreaths and the liturgical colors of purple and rose. I was prepared to talk about Jesse trees and Gaudete Sunday. I had even researched the word advent itself, which by the way comes from the Latin, adventus, which means ‘coming’. I was going to tell the boys that advent is a time of preparation and anticipation of the coming of Christ. That’s when it hit me. Have you ever had one of those moments when you realize that you have heard a word or phrase so often that it no longer means anything or the meaning has been lost? That’s the kind of moment I had yesterday afternoon. What was I going to say when some 8 year old boy asks, and you know he will, because I was asking myself the same question, what does that mean? What does it really mean to be anticipating and preparing for the coming of Christ? I could tell them that we are anticipating not only the coming of Christ as a child in the Incarnation, but also the second coming of Christ, the parousia in the Greek. I could tell them how we are supposed to be using this time to prepare our hearts to receive Him and things we can do to prepare, but still it seemed really fuzzy to me. We eight year-old boys are notoriously concrete thinkers. Yes, we can smile approvingly when our 6 year old brother (or son, as the case may be) says that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and we are waiting for Him to be born, but we know that the Nativity is an historical event that occurred more than 2000 years ago, and we can celebrate it but we are not really anticipating it. You can’t anticipate something that has already happened. I would also bet you that come December 26, I will be at home making breakfast for my family, still waiting for the parousia.

So, what, then, are we really anticipating and preparing for? How do I convey this to a group of young boys? How do I understand this myself? Lacking anything concrete to grasp hold of, I came up with the next best thing…an analogy. Actually, I think a story is the next best thing. An analogy is probably third. Of course, a story is kind of like an analogy…but, I digress. So, I came up with an analogy, actually it just kind of came to me. And, of course, it would be a running analogy.

I am a runner because I love running, I run all year round and I run just for the enjoyment of it. In a similar way I am a Christian because I love God. I pray and I study God’s word all year round because I love Him. As a runner, there are times when I am just running for fun or to build up my base mileage, but there are other times when my running intensifies. There are times when I am training for a race and my running becomes more focused and more regimented. During these times I have to sacrifice other things in order to train. I may have to give up some treat that I might otherwise enjoy, or I might have to sacrifice an extra hour of sleep in order to get up early to run. My runs get longer and I pay more attention to what I eat.

The Church has times like this as well, Advent being one of them, where we ramp up our spiritual life. While we are always awaiting the parousia, the second coming of Christ, during this time our anticipation increases. Our focus intensifies during this time of preparation or training. As we train for a race, our focus and attention is on that race that we will run, so during Advent, our focus and attention is on Christmas. The race is the culmination of our training and running, so Christmas is the culmination of our Advent.

But this culmination is not an end, it is a celebration of another beginning. A runner trains to race and he rejoices in the race, but when the race is over, his running is not over. Talk to a runner a week after a race and ask him what he is thinking about. He’ll be thinking about his next race. So it is with us and Advent. When Advent ends and culminates in the rejoicing of Christmas, our waiting is not over. We continue to wait, but our faith, if we have had a good Advent, is strengthened. As training in running is cumulative and each training phase and race builds upon the one before making the runner stronger, so each Advent and Christmas, and Lent and Easter, are cumulative and build up our spiritual lives. And so this is how I understand the preparation and anticipation of Advent and Christmas. We are not anticipating just an event in time, like a race. We are anticipating and preparing for that, but we are also anticipating and preparing for the rest of our lives. We are building and strengthening ourselves spiritually to continue to wait and anticipate that day and hour when He will come again.

Anyway, I ended up not teaching that last night. The gathering was cancelled because of impending weather, so I’m sharing with you all instead. I hope you don’t mind the ramblings of an overgrown eight year-old!

I went to confession this morning. I always approach this sacrament with a little bit of trepidation. I don’t think anyone likes going and telling someone their sins but I do feel so much better afterwards. The best analogy I’ve heard is cleaning out your car. You dread doing it but once you have it feels great and at first you keep the car really clean, but after a while you get lax again and the car becomes more cluttered and dirty until its soon time to clean it out again.

Anyway, when I got to the office and said my morning prayers before starting work, one of the things I was reading was Psalm 133: “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers live in unity!” I thought this was somewhat fitting because the sacrament of Confession is all about unity and repairing the ruptures in that unity. I’ve also been reading about St. Benedict lately and Benedictine spirituality which involves living in community.

I have a tendency sometimes to want to live out my spiritual life in seclusion. I think that is a temptation for me but that is not what I have been called to. I don’t believe most people are called to that life. Confession is important part of my spiritual life particularly because it calls me to be accountable to someone else and to live out my spiritual life in communion with others, just as the Mass and prayers with my spouse and my children do. Without this communion in the Body of Christ, I am too easily led to believe my own interpretation of what the Holy Spirit is calling me to do. I find it far too easy to live in the dirty car. I succumb to my own rationalizations. I need that lived unity which I find in part in Confession.

I’m posting this link to an article entitled, “The Last Words of Bergoglio Before the Conclave.”  It came my way from the dotMagis blog over at Ignatian Spirituality. The post by Jim Manney is here.

In his remarks before the conclave that wound up naming him as Pope, then Cardinal Bergoglio speaks about the need for the Church to evangelize and not become self-referential and narcissistic. What this means for the Church will be written about by Pope Francis and many theologians. What struck me was his reference to the mysterium lunae, the mystery of the moon. The moon is the brightest object in the night sky, yet unlike the other stars in the sky, it has no light of its own. It only reflects the light of the nearest star, the Sun. Likewise, in the words of St. Ambrose, ” the Church shines not with its own light, but with that of Christ,” (“fulget Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine.”) We would probably do well to remember that it is by the light of Christ reflected from the Church that we see through the darkness.