The Advent of Christ

A reflection on the First week of Advent, by Fr. Joel Fortier.

Hope and expectation are the notes of Advent. The advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, is a great cause for expectant faith and joyful hope! We look forward to the fullness of Christ in us. The mystery of Christ has already begun, we are in the time between the “yet” and the “not yet”. Christ has already come, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is already here, present with us, within us, and among us. And yet the fullness of the Presence is still to be revealed! 

Every moment is pregnant with grace waiting to be embraced and brought to birth in us. Every moment is an opportunity to grow in grace…in love, in Christ, to live in Christ, even as Christ lives in us…in love. The mystery of “Christ in you” is yet to be fully revealed; your true self, hidden with Christ in God is coming, we wait patiently for it to be revealed. The vision presses on, has its own time, it will not delay, it will surely come. Come Lord Jesus, come! No longer I but Christ living in me! Reveal yourself to me, my true self, hidden with you in God. Let it be revealed! 

Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel! 

Christ is coming, is already with us, Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who was, who is, and who is to come! Christ comes into our lives in the form of people who evoke love in us; who cause us to love. Christ is the invitation to love. 

Advent is pregnant with hope and longing for the promise of Christmas, the Incarnation of love in us. We cover up that hope and longing with all the intensity of Christmas planning, shopping, gifts, decorations, parties, etc. but what is driving us underneath all that is the hope of what Christmas promises. We do want and long for that, the realization of love in our lives, and so we go about all the frenetic energy of pre-Christmas, looking for love in all the wrong places, but still…searching for love. And that is a good thing! We just need to understand what we are really searching for. 

We need to go underneath all our activity, to that place of deep longing in our hearts, to our desire for love, our hope; to wait on the Word of promise planted in our hearts,  and listen to it, to that deep longing. It is the true spirit of Christmas coming. We need to wait patiently, actively listening to the Love Word of God as Mary did; pondering these things of the heart. Then it will come to birth. Advent is a time of gestation. 

It is good to learn the discipline of waiting, of active listening. It is an old saying that “patience is the mother of all virtue.” It is good to be open to the possibilities of love, in an otherwise jaded, pessimistic, and impatient world. Love keeps hope alive. Allow love to live in your heart today. Wait, watch, look, listen, open your heart and mind to love. Love is coming! Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming, oh yes I know!! 

Freedom is Coming, by Gospelchor Wildschonau, from the Album “Theres a Meeting Here Tonight” on Spotify.com

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Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

New Growth from Old Wood

just shoot1st Sunday of Advent (C)

In a town I once called home there grew for 250 years a tree, an historic tree, the largest Pepperidge tree in the Northeastern United States, in fact. “Old Peppy,” as it was called, was, for reasons not appreciated by me (and many other residents) girdled and cut down earlier this year.

Have you witnessed a tender shoot pushing its way through the gnarled bark of a tree stump? Or have you seen a sapling emerge from the ground where a great tree once stood? What an unlikely but meaningful sign of resilience it would be to see new shoots emerging from the soil beneath the enormous canopy Old Peppy once provided.

Root systems left untreated after a tree is cut down continue their subterranean existence, secretly absorbing water and nutrients as they await the right conditions to send up vigorous new growth. Nature’s exuberance for life is not always received with enthusiasm. If shoots emerged from the former site of a tree that you intentionally cut down, this restorative miracle of nature might not give you the same thrill as it does me. Still, it is difficult not to be impressed when new life emerges from what was thought to be dead, particularly from something of great or profound significance.

The biblical reference to a shoot being raised from a lifeless stump follows the “book of consolation” contained in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah [Jer 30-31]. This passage [Jer 33:14-16], is read on the first Sunday of Advent, Year C, and represents the promise of a righteous and just leader who will restore and reunite the house of Judah and Israel.

Christians hear in this reading the promise of Jesus, the Messiah. The just shoot grows, and the world is changed forever. God keeps God’s promises. Oh, come, oh come, Emmanuel! With Christmas, we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but the restoration and reunification of the world which God-with-us has set in motion. We know Jesus has come, and this is cause for endless celebration.

Like a dormant root system awaiting the right conditions for growth, the season of Advent is a time for patience. It is an opportunity to work on our own spirituality—to allow the tender shoot to grow unhindered, to work its way through the hardened, splintered and frequently lifeless stump that we allow ourselves to become. Cut down by relentless negativity and fear, and deprived of living water, the restorative breath of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ’s face, we forget to love, we forget how to really love. With Advent eyes, we watch, and we wait. We make room; we open up the hardened places and invite Jesus in. We open the door of our hearts to a loved one, a friend, a stranger, to the poor, the wealthy, the humble, the arrogant, to the enemy. With intentionality—in Advent and at all times—we strive to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” [1 Thes 3:12], for from love pours care, nourishment, light—all things that allow tender young shoots to grow and flourish.

Every year I vow, “This year I will attend to Advent properly.” I decide to begin each day with the chosen Scripture for the season and a reflection of a favorite Saint, mystic, or spiritual writer. I set out my Advent wreath with fresh candles and the intention of lighting it each night. I attempt to go about my daily activities with a contemplative spirit. I make this promise to myself so that when Christmas day arrives I will have prepared a dwelling place in my heart, ready to receive Jesus as if for the first time, and the meaning of Christmas will be made new.

I start out with these good intentions, just as many do, I suspect, but more often than not, my plans for a reflective and prayerful Advent get usurped by the shopping and baking and decorating for Christmas day. Not that these are necessarily bad things; Advent is a time of anticipation, and part of its joy is in the preparation that surrounds the celebration of Christmas.

This year, however, with the image of the tender shoot in mind, my vow becomes less structured and more organic. In addition to daily prayer. I will cultivate the growth of a tender shoot within myself by seeking and opening my heart to the emerging Christ child in whatever form he should take. This begins with love.

The new life that Advent promises is growing within us; it has the power to break through hardened and gnarled hearts. For within a fragile shoot there exists what, if nurtured and allowed to flourish, can grow mightier than the ancient stump from which it emerged.

When the end is the beginning

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

I love this time of the year. Of course I mean autumn. Yes, the growing season’s grand finale rarely disappoints, especially here in the Northeastern part of the United States where the relatively subdued trees and shrubs of summer break out in a neon-jacked riot of color. Autumn represents the colossal success of nature—a job well done. As if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year.”

Autumn is a time to reflect on what we’ve been working on all year, too. In the waning and waxing hours between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, it is good to pause and think deeply about our personal growth, both intellectual and spiritual. We can ponder our little epiphanies, our joys, our sorrows, our victories and our failures, and the endings and beginnings which represent all of the above. Autumn is also a time to look forward, to make plans for the coming winter, and to renew our annual vow that this year we will keep things simple and really enjoy Christmas.

There’s another reason I love this time of year. Ecclesially (churchy business) speaking, we are drawing to the end of current year’s liturgical calendar. My fellow liturgy nerds, can I have an Amen? This weekend is the second to the last week of Year B—the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time—and next Sunday we reach the pinnacle of Ordinary Time with the Feast of Christ the King.

I loved Year B, spending time in the desert with Mark’s gospel, reflecting on Jesus’ identity and mission, why he died, what his passion meant then and what it means for us today. But I also love the gospel of Luke, which we will read in Year C (beginning January 10, 2016). I am excited to delve into the gospel writer’s emphasis on the hope, inclusivity and liberation of all people as revealed through Jesus’ life and message.

Every liturgical year starts with Advent and Christmas. In two weeks we will experience the advent (pun intended) of Year C. This is a season of anticipation, of preparation and patient waiting, of readiness and expectation of the events which have been promised. Christians prepare their hearts not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but to anticipate his second coming, which is the subject of weekend’s gospel [Mk 13:24-32].

The season of Advent goes by quickly. And if you aren’t attentive, the four weeks dissolve into one another. Before you know it, it’s Christmas day, or more likely, it’s the day after Christmas, and you sit there in your messy home, deflated, exhausted, and wondering what the heck just happened. How did you allow the artificial chaos of the holiday season to interfere with your plans to celebrate a real Christmas?

Endings and beginnings—the turning of seasons, a new Gospel, and a promise to do things differently this Christmas—tie into this weekend’s gospel. Yet, unlike the second coming foretold by Jesus we know exactly when the liturgical year ends and when the celebration of Jesus’ birth will be.

Jesus says “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” [Mk 13:28a]. Mark wants his community to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ forewarning of the Temple’s destruction [13:1-2], an idea that was incomprehensible to the disciples, given the Temple’s prominence. Mark wants his community to hear Jesus’ instruction to attend to the signs [13:8], and to be ready for the coming persecution because they themselves lived in a time of rising chaos. Mark encourages his readers to pay attention, to be steady, focused and fearless, and to attend to Jesus’ teaching because when the time comes—like the emerging buds on the fig tree—it will be too late for pruning and tending. To follow Jesus—to be a disciple—is a journey of service, of humility and sacrifice for the sake of others. Mark provides hope for his readers; he assures them that their sacrifice will lead to redemption, just like Jesus’ did.

Our lives provide never-ending opportunities to be people of hope, and to perfect the message of which our life speaks, as if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year!” Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. wrote, “At the end of the church year, therefore, as at the end of our life, our vision ought to be of new heavens and a new earth, of new bodies and souls as innocent and good as the Spirit of God who indwells.” [1] In the next few weeks we will be presented with an opportunity to recraft our vision for the coming year and begin again.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 386