Monday, December 21, 2015

How Advent is Like Being Pregnant

“We as a society have it completely backward: In our impatient, instant-gratification culture, the idea of being patient and anticipating a big event can seem beyond us,” write Tom and Caroline McDonald on the subject of Advent.

I am definitely guilty of having this attitude. The kind of anticipation which asks me to deny myself or slow myself down is one I generally dislike, and eagerness is oftentimes something I celebrate as a virtue.

This year, I resolved to observe Advent more meaningfully, and it helped me to recognize the ways in which observing Advent—waiting for the coming of Christ with joy and reverence—is a lot like waiting five more months to give birth to my son.

The preparation aspect of Advent is unique. Advent asks us to prepare specifically for the coming of Christ, as St. John the Baptist did through his preaching of repentance. In this season, we are preparing to welcome someone in. If we really think about it, this kind of preparation must be active and intentional, and it cannot occur in a short period of time. The season of Advent lasts three and a half weeks, which is definitely a sufficient amount of time to transition our hearts from busyness and bustle to steadiness, patience, and hope.

I certainly don’t know everything about waiting for a baby to come. I’ve seen women who are nearing or at their due dates, and their attitude and manner is distinctly urgent. The baby could come at any moment for them, and they are keenly aware of that. When I compare the waiting of Advent and waiting for a baby to come, I refer to the longer waiting and preparation which comes in the nine months of pregnancy: for example, making dietary changes, buying clothes and equipment for the baby, saving money, learning the techniques and everything else one needs to know to care for a baby…the list goes on. To prepare effectively for a baby takes time. I’m just starting to make headway! Preparing for my little baby on earth takes time, and it makes sense that preparing for Christ to come—even as a tiny baby—can certainly take three weeks, or even a lifetime.

In a culture which often dismisses preparation as boring and unnecessary, every day of preparation becomes a new act of willingness for me.
I intentionally choose to prepare, and in doing so I mirror the choice that the Virgin Mary made to assent to God’s will (as told to her by the angel Gabriel): “be it unto me according to thy word.”

Mary’s response should be a goal for our lives as Christians. Our sanctification could not have a greater culmination than our complete willingness to assent unto the will of God. In my lifetime, as I’m being sanctified, I’m sure that parenting will, at times, be a test of my willingness. Am I willing to give a patient explanation to my child instead of a sharp answer? Am I willing to prioritize (and enforce) healthy habits of eating, sleeping, and playing, even when I’m met with vehement resistance? Am I willing to guide an older child along the right path of friendships and choices, instead of “letting them figure it out themselves?” My willingness will be key in parenting, just as it is key in Advent. We are willing to restrain ourselves for three weeks in order to fully understand and enjoy the twelve days of Christmas. We are willing to be patient (in a society which glories in impatience) because this preparation for Christ's coming is important enough to surpass our personal desires. I will try to be patient in pregnancy, because I know I am being prepared for something bigger and more important.

Advent asks hard things of us, and so does bearing and raising a child. I know that I am young, and in so many ways I don’t know the half of it. What I do know is that Advent, like parenting, gives us the opportunity to become more like Christ—and the God who asks us to wait and prepare is the same God who never forsakes us but instead gives us grace to walk the path of preparation.

As Advent draws to a close, and the season of Christmas begins, let us rejoice in the grace of God’s son, who came at exactly the right time to bring salvation to our fallen world.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

In the past two years...

by the grace of God, I have

- finished university classes, and graduated from the most excellent Great Books program I've ever encountered

- become engaged to the most wonderful man I know

- had the opportunity to fail something, and grow better from doing so

- married that wonderful man

- celebrated the new marriages of many close friends

- moved to a state which I had never visited before, and stepped into a new life as an Army wife

- become pregnant (due in May 2016)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Is Here

Christmas is here. I know this because I woke up to a "Merry Christmas!" text from someone I love, followed shortly by a similarly sweet text from my mom.

Christmas is here. In morning prayer, I read from Isaiah chapter 9, which contains prophecies about Christ's coming, as well as from St.Luke chapter 2, which actually gives an account of the Nativity.

Christmas is here. My fasting and abstinence from certain foods is over, and I am enjoying a cup of tea.

Christmas is here. Facebook is buzzing with every different Christmas status and photo one could imagine.

How do you know Christmas is here? What does Christmas really mean? The signs--if we could call them that for a moment--in my life that say "Christmas is here!" are good things, and they certainly do signify something. The externals point nicely to the reality, that December 25th has come, that stores are closed (thank goodness) for this holiday, that my fasting has come to an end and my Scripture readings are appropriately themed.

I propose that there are better signs than these, to show that Christmas really is here.

The Light Himself dwells among us. He enlightens us, showing us how we ought to live and why, guiding us through hard times, inspiring us to do good even when darkness threatens. The Light of the world has come: "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God"(St. John 1:9-13). Indeed, the people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2).

Love has come into the world. We who believe in Christ are part of his Kingdom, which is a kingdom of love. And Christ gives us not just the example of love, but the power to love. We learn from the examples of the saints, the major figures in Scripture, and those we know who have lived a life marked by Love. How can they love so much, and so well? They can be different in every respect--in nationality, in gender, in wealth or means, in vocation, in age, in background and experiences, in talent, in renown--and yet they share Love as the distinguishing characteristic of their lives.

Truth is incarnate. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; and in Him do justice and mercy, righteousness and peace, abide together. The truth of salvation has been brought--more than a mere set of teachings, but a new life. C.S. Lewis describes the transformation which comes from recognizing the Truth of the faith thus: “[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.” We can only see Truth by beginning to undergo this transformation. Truth is incarnate, and not to be feared. Indeed, I have been working hard in the past months to remember that all truth is God's truth, and thus it ought not to be feared but fervently sought.

We live a new Life. Christ is the Life of us all, coming to a place of death and darkness and bringing new life. We might be tempted to despair at times, when we do not seem to see much except death and darkness. The world has, in a way, not changed all at once into the new, peaceful Life. Some things--quite formidable things--are still to be endured and overcome in each of our lives. But in another--and infinitely bigger--sense, the world has indeed changed all the way for the Good. We are "already finished works-in-progress," and so is the world we live in. The new Life has come and worked through everything, and we are witnessing that. Redemption is a present reality. Indeed, we cannot celebrate Christmas without thinking ahead to the work done at Easter. Christmas is the incredible seed, planted for the fruit of redemption borne through Easter.

Christmas is here. Light, Love, Truth, and Life are here. Look for them, and I pray that they become apparent to you through this season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Draws to a Close

Christmas is less than a week away, and in these last few days of Advent, I'm reflecting on the past month.

How am I no longer desolate, now that Christ has come?
In his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul alludes to the prophet Isaiah in chapter four, when he writes about the Church before Christ came. He powerfully compares the Church before Christ's coming as the barren, desolate woman who had no children. These descriptions confused me before I took December to actually observe Advent. After all, Advent is the season we observe prior to Christmas-- to imprint upon us a small part of the experience of the Church before Christ came to redeem it. This period of waiting has shown me how frail I am as a human, and how sinful. I've had to rely upon the Lord to walk me through the days, learning each day that I cannot accomplish anything on my own.

What does Christmas mean to me, which it hadn't meant before?
Before observing Advent, I didn't fully understand the significance that Christmas holds in the narrative of the Church. I knew it was important that Christ was born, so he could eventually redeem mankind. What I hadn't considered is how monumental this was: Christ's coming marked the beginning of the plan of salvation. It was what the prophets and other faithful people had been awaiting. It was the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise. It was the seed planted, and Easter is the seed coming to fruition.

Both fasting during Advent and listening to Advent hymns helped me understand the meaning of this season. My church had an Advent Lessons & Carols event, and I was also blessed to attend one at another church. As I read the words to these hymns, I was struck by the poignancy of this season.

My favorite for this season has been "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending" (if you would like to listen to a fantastic version of it on youtube, I would recommend this:

Here are some of the words:

Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Now redemption, long expected,
see in solemn pomp appear;
all his saints, by man rejected,
now shall meet him in the air:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
See the day of God appear!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

May your Christmas season be deepened by the knowledge of its significance, and may you be blessed at the coming of the new year!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Observing Advent: Suggestion #2

Advent is here, but it may not seem like it. Looking around, the rest of the world has jumped into Christmas. Part of me is excited for this, as I love Christmas and want it to come quickly. I love seeing the stores decorated, drinking holiday-inspired drinks, planning Christmas parties and thinking about which gifts to buy for my loved ones. All of these things really tug at my heart.

Yet there might be something valuable about pausing before we jump straight into Christmas. Indeed, I learned about this firsthand during Lent. One of the things I abstained from was tea, and I abstained from it six days each week. It might seem dramatic, but it's true: refraining from drinking tea during those days was a test of my faith. I learned, during Lent, that I tended to place a lot of comfort on having a cup of tea--to pick me up after a bad day, or to celebrate during a good day. While drinking tea is not a bad thing to do, it had become an obstacle for me. I relied upon it when I could have been in prayer, relying upon God.

Tea was not my kryptonite. But the comfort I derived from it was something that I needed to surrender to God. In Advent, we engage in fasting and abstinence as spiritual disciplines, in order to fully engage in the solemn and penitential season of Advent. As my priest said during Lent, we ought to think of fasting not only as abstaining from some things, but as "exercising our spiritual muscles" while we do that.

My Advent fast has been fruitful so far. I know this, not because the Lord has sent me a message in the clouds, or because I've suddenly become much stronger in my spiritual gifts, or because I feel better. I know my fast has been fruitful because I have been depending upon the Lord much more often than I usually do. When I am stripped of tea, I am stripped of my "pick me up," the treat that helps me stay awake and act more civilly than I feel like acting sometimes. As my dear roommate knows, the Jessica you get without tea is the Raw Jessica. There's no pretending. When I fast, I feel like I'm entering into a time where it's really just God and I--and I realize how grateful I am that He is with me.

Perhaps take some time to reflect on something you could abstain from for a few days each week of Advent. What do you turn to instead of the Lord?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Beginning of Advent 2013

I’m probably one of the most enthusiastic Christmas fans you’ll meet. My parents suffered from my obnoxious pleas to please, please put up the tree and lights already; I’ve often begun listening to Christmas music (secretly, of course) shortly before Halloween (and then very publicly beginning on November 1st); much time and thought goes into the Christmas gifts I buy for others; I love caroling, snow, and cider. In terms of celebrating Christmas, I have spent the past twenty years following society’s prescription quite closely.

And even if we were to make it more “Christian” (I mean, it is Christmas after all), I’m not half-bad at celebrating. I love helping churches and charities stuff shoeboxes for under-privileged children; I donate time and resources to organizations that help others at Christmas; I help out with nativity plays and holiday-inspired dramas about good cheer and loving one another; as a child, I used to watch an animated version of the Nativity Story that I’ve almost certainly broken, from watching it so much.

This year, though, I’m excited to finally celebrate Christmas. Looking back on my last twenty years of Christmas celebrations, I’m not ashamed of the way I’ve celebrated. Indeed, at times I’ve been really blessed by it. But I think in many ways it missed the point.

Let me explain—and before I do, let me add that I felt the same way about celebrating Easter this year. I hadn’t fully celebrated Easter until I’d observed Lent. The experience was so transformative—both immediately and long-term, thus far—that now I cannot really imagine one without the other.

Like Lent, Advent is an intentional period of time, set aside before the celebration of Christmas (in this case). Advent refers to a period of waiting; an anticipation of Christ’s coming into the world. Advent is actually the first season of the Christian calendar—the “seasons” of the Christian year are as follows:

Advent (always begins in either November or December) – the 4 Sundays and the days leading up to Christmas day
Christmas (this is actually a season—we’ll talk about that later) – 12 day season, beginning with the Nativity of Our Lord on December 25th.

Epiphany – up to 6 weeks, but always begins on January 6th*
Pre-Lent – 17 days (consists of the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday)
Lent – 40 days (not including Sundays), begins on Ash Wednesday, concludes with Holy Week – the week before Easter, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday)
Easter – 39 days (including Sundays)
Ascension – 10 days, beginning on Ascension Day, always falls on Thursday
Whitsuntide – 1 week, begins on Whitsunday (also known as Pentecost), which is 50 days after Easter Sunday
Trinity (referred to by a variety of names: “the time after Pentecost,” “ordinary time,” “Kingdomtide,” to name a few) – up to 28 weeks, begins on Trinity Sunday, the week after Whitsunday*
*the length of these seasons depends upon the date of Easter, since it varies every year

Living according to these seasons is interesting, to say the least. I hadn’t ever considered living according to seasons (not even seasons related to weather, since I’m from Arizona). It frames the experiences in your year, to say the least. If you live according to these seasons in conjunction with the church lectionary, you read Scripture and passages from apocryphal books in order to immerse more prayerfully into these seasons. Living according to the Christian seasons is intended to be a communal experience, involving the whole Church.

Why would I live in Christian seasons? Why, especially, would I choose to live in the Christian season of Advent, since it sounds like it will involve things like halting my celebrations and participating in a fast? To answer the second question:

To help put this season into perspective, remember that Christmas is the celebration of Christ coming into the world as an infant, born the way we were (which is profound, actually, when you think about it). Christ is the Messiah the Jews had been awaiting—and the Savior whom every one of us needs. Christmas, then, was preceded by a very, very long period of waiting.

Advent is one of the two penitential seasons in the Christian year (solemn, preparatory, involving denial to self). For me, that really puts it in perspective to realize that the only other time we are to be solemn like this is during Lent; you might also note that both penitential seasons precede the “coming of Christ” in some way—when He actually entered the world (Christmas) and when he went into it to teach, guide, and ultimately save us through His sacrifice and give us hope in the world to come (Easter).

To connect this back to my last twenty years of Christmas celebration: I’ve realized, through very real personal experience, that jumping headlong into celebration, without preparing for it, is less worthwhile. I can honestly say that, despite the vigor with which I used to celebrate Easter, I had never experienced it so fully as when it was preceded by Lent. On one hand, this might sound embarrassingly obvious: of course it meant more, Jessica. You’re obviously thirsty when you’ve been withholding water, and this is the same thing. Actually, though, it’s not entirely the same thing. Lent and Advent are not mere contrivances to make me appreciate Easter and Christmas more. They are not meant to be manipulative like that. They are intentional preparatory seasons, which place a person in the proper mindset in which to experience and celebrate Easter and Christmas. In the context of Christianity’s history, these fasts did precede these feasts. It’s kind of weird to reverse them—let alone do away with them altogether.
Advent is underappreciated, but you ought not to observe it out of pity. It is underappreciated because it is difficult, because society has taken us on quite a different path. I ask you to observe Advent with me, not because I need an Advent buddy (although I’ll happily take one), nor because it’s hipster or enlightened or something. I don’t claim to have come up with anything new here; on the contrary, I’m presenting the view of traditional Christians throughout history, and I am indebted to them and their articulations of these things.

The following posts will (in varying lengths, I’m sure) offer a few ways to observe Advent. To reiterate, Advent begins today and spans all the way up until Christmas day. Oh—and Christmas? In the Christian calendar, it’s a twelve-day season (the song makes much more sense now), full of joyous celebration and deep thankfulness for what Christ did for us—all of which began, really, with his coming to us in our human form.

A few ways to observe Advent…
Get your hands on a lectionary. I use the one in the Book of Common Prayer (U.S. 1928) (the BCP for short), which is in print, but you can also easily find it online: [instructions].
Whether or not you pray the daily offices from the BCP, the lectionary is a good place to start. The readings really help place us in the mindset of people who are awaiting the Christ to come.

More to come!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Humanity Lost—and Found—in Les Misérables

It’s kind of sad to think that this is a novel concept to me (no pun intended), but to some extent, we attribute a sense of humanity to each other in a meaningful way. It almost seems as though we can “clothe” a person in a blanket of humanity—or we can collectively perceive people in such a way that they seem to shed their humanity. Indeed, the term “dehumanized” is one we ought not to use recklessly; we must realize that we have the power to affirm the humanity within others, and we must take the responsibility seriously. The costs of neglecting it are devastating.

But enough of what I think. What does Victor Hugo write on the immortal pages of Les Misérables? He begins the story with the “honest bishop,” the man whose singular kindness is transformative, by the grace of God. The bishop operates out of a deep respect for others, initially shown to Jean Valjean every time the bishop calls him monsieur. Indeed, “every time [the bishop] said this word monsieur, with his gently solemn, and heartily hospitable voice, the man’s countenance lighted up. Monsieur to a convict, is a glass of water to a man dying of thirst at sea. Ignominy thirsts for respect” (67). A few lines later, the bishop claims to already know Valjean’s name, without having heard it or looking at his passport: “your name is my brother,” the bishop tells him. At this point in the musical version, the astounded convict sings

“Yet why did I allow this man/To touch my soul and teach me love?/He treated me like any other/He gave me his trust/He called me brother…He told me that I have a soul,/How does he know?/What spirit came to move my life?/Is there another way to go?” (“Valjean’s Soliloquy/ What have I done?”)

Of course, the bishop famously saves Valjean from imprisonment, the latter having robbed him despite his kindness. The catalyst for Jean Valjean will come after he leaves the bishop’s kind house, but nevertheless, the seed has been planted.

Valjean’s respect for every person is modeled after the bishop’s shining example, as we see later in his treatment of Fantine. Her death in the novel is slightly different—and in my opinion, more heart-wrenching—compared to the musical version. Suffice it to say that Javert’s presence causes Fantine’s final, fatal fit of terror. Upon observing Valjean’s kindness to her, Javert exclaims “Miserable country, where galley slaves are magistrates and women of the town are nursed like countesses!” (255). He cannot see Fantine for anything but her most wretched state.

Hugo contrasts starkly different views of humanity through the eyes of each character: he paints Fantine, despite her fall from virtue and subsequent poverty, as a devoted mother; Jean Valjean is a noble defender of the ill and downtrod; and Javert is “a demon who had again found his victim [Valjean]” (253). He has become consumed with capturing Valjean, so much so that Hugo describes him as being absolutely imbued with “the deformity of triumph” (253) when he finally succeeds. Indifference is the only emotion he feels (if such a thing can be) when Fantine dies in front of his eyes—indeed, almost at the sight of him. Jean Valjean’s reaction is exactly opposite. He whispers some last words to Fantine, of which Hugo writes that “Sister Simplice, the only witness of what passed, has often related that, at the moment when Jean Valjean whispered in the ear of Fantine, she distinctly saw an ineffable smile beam on those pale lips and in those dim eyes, full of the wonder of the tomb” (256).

If anything, one would read the novel hoping that, even to Javert, people might become equally valued in death. Javert’s attitude toward Fantine does not change in the face of her death, showing that he was never going to ascribe humanity to her at all. Perhaps he is unable to do so because he lacks humanity himself. Hugo writes that Javert is so ecstatic at the capture of Valjean that his face showed “the fullest development of horror that a gratified face can show…nothing could be more painful and terrible than this face, which revealed what we may call all the evil of good” (253). He is a “wild beast” and a “mad-man” all at once, a creature incapable of compassion or even reason (254).

We cannot let ourselves make Javert’s mistake, even to a lesser extent. His path may seem distant to us. It may even strike us as absurd to think we could ever resemble him. Consider, though, how apt we are to assume the worst in others. Of course the homeless man on the street will use our money for drugs. Of course each and every poor person on the street has completely caused his or her situation. Of course they are beyond help, even if we try. So of course we shouldn’t even bother, right?

Back in January, when I visited Skid Row, I had versions of theoe thoughts swirling around in my head. I don’t have all of the answers, but I have learned a few things:
1. Jean Valjean and the Bishop were right to help others. They showed the light of Christ to others in very tangible acts of charity.
2. We cannot excuse ourselves for neglecting our fellow men, first and foremost in prayer.
3. As soon as we begin to dehumanize others, as Javert did, we become less human ourselves.

O GOD, Almighty and merciful, who healest those that are broken in heart, and turnest the sadness of the sorrowful to joy; Let thy fatherly goodness be upon all that thou hast made. Remember in pity such as are this day destitute, homeless, or forgotten of their fellow-men. Bless the congregation of thy poor. Uplift those who are cast down. Mightily befriend innocent sufferers, and sanctify to them the endurance of their wrongs. Cheer with hope all discouraged and unhappy people, and by thy heavenly grace preserve from falling those whose penury tempteth them to sin; though they be troubled on every side, suffer them not to be distressed; though they be perplexed, save them from despair. Grant this, O Lord, for the love of him, who for our sakes became poor, thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.