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Living in the Shadows of Hope & Goodwill This Advent

by Stephen Lynch, OFM

12-3-08-adventStephen Lynch, prolific writer and Church history enthusiast, offers this brief history of Advent from the Middle Ages, and what it means for us today.

In the early Church, Advent was a preparation, not for Christmas, but for Epiphany, which was celebrated in January. Epiphany included three special events in the life of Jesus Christ — his baptism, the miracle at the wedding in Cana, and the visit of the Magi. It was not until the Middle Ages that the Church began linking Advent with the birth of Jesus Christ.

In 1223, three years before his death, St. Francis of Assisi decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus by reproducing the manger scene using live animals and people. His crib at Greccio marks the first time the manger scene was used at Christmas. From that time on, the Advent liturgy celebrated two manifestations of Jesus Christ — his first coming into the world as Messiah, and his second coming as judge of the world.

St. Francis stands out in the history of salvation as a model of how to pray because he is a model of how to endure suffering in the spirit of Jesus Christ, who reached his perfection and learned obedience from the things that he suffered. So did Francis. So do you and I. Praying-even-though-suffering, underpinned by a passionate love of God and of all creation, marked the spirituality of Francis of Assisi. It also marks the true Christian disciple. St. Francis mirrored in his own life the loving self-emptying and self-surrender modeled by his master, Jesus Christ.

Mary Lived in the Shadows of Scandal
Nothing in the account of the birth story of Jesus would indicate that the people in the tiny village of Nazareth knew of God’s role in Mary’s conception. One can imagine, the gossip that circulated concerning Mary’s pregnancy. Mary lived under the shadow of scandal and gossip with only her faith and trust in God to sustain her.

In his poem The Hollow Men, T. S. Eliot points out: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.” Although the star of hope shone over the manger in Bethlehem, and choirs of angels proclaimed good will to all, nonetheless, Jesus Christ himself lived in the shadow of death, from birth to adulthood. We humans live in the shadow of our own limitations, imperfections and mortality. But in spite of human foibles and failures, we cling to the hope that human goodwill, together with God’s merciful love, will bring us safely to our final destiny –- new life with God in heaven.

‘All Things Must Pass’
George Harrison, often called the quiet Beatle, reminds us that life is lived in the shadow of impermanence. In his song “All Things Must Pass,” Harrison makes the point, “A sunrise doesn’t last all morning. A cloudburst doesn’t last all day. And all things must pass, all things must pass away.” Mick Jagger said of George Harrison, “He was the first musician I knew who developed a truly spiritual side, and he was generous with his time to both charity and to friends.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, although a non-Catholic, in his essay, French and Italian Note Books, writes: “I have always envied the Catholic, that sweet sacred Virgin Mother, who stands between them and the deity, permitting His love to stream on the worshiper more intelligibly to human comprehension through the medium of a woman’s tenderness.”

— Fr. Stephen ministers at Church of St. Mary in Providence, R.I.