It is that time of the year when we are approaching Christmas, when we see shops being decorated and offering special prices for their products. The Christmas mood is escalating each day. This is a sign that Christmas day is near. For many people Christmas day is a wonderful day filled with good food and the presence of family and friends.
But Christmas is in danger of becoming purely secular, that is, of becoming a Christmas without Christ. The old tradition is that we celebrate Christmas each year as the birthday of Christ. It is centred on Him, not on ourselves. To say otherwise is to have Christmas lose its very essence. The big challenge for Christians is that they be able step back from such a secular kind of Christmas wherein all that matters is the commercial side of things. People make different plans for Christmas. Some will be travelling. Others will be having parties at home, and others will enjoy themselves in different ways. Good. But many of these things cost a lot of money and some people will be penniless next year January because of too much spending and often on things that are unnecessary. As Christians, who live in the real world of course we are influenced by this “secular Christmas” mentality. But we must approach it with a right conscience and with moderation. Nothing is wrong with spending provided it is done with moderation.
Let us bear in mind also that before we celebrate the birthday of Christ, we must first go through the season of Advent where we practice repentance so that when the birthday of Christ comes He may find that our hearts and our homes are places where He is welcome. The preparations that we make during Advent, on the run up to Christmas, call on us to fast, to be charitable and to be people of prayer. That is what we should be doing in our spiritual life for the sake of our souls. Sadly, however, we often focus more on the body and on material things, all of which are mortal and perishable.
God created us to delight and thrive in intimacy and community, in loving and in being loved. We were created to experience these precious things as gifts, first of all, in our relationship with God and then with others. And if Christmas is the celebration of God’s presence, of God entering into a new and astonishing level of intimacy with us by actually becoming one of us, then Advent is a season for sharpening up our appreciation of this relationship of love and intimacy with Him. But how might we do that? What gifts of the spirit and heart can we offer Him?
Let us learn from what He did for us in the first place. In an amazing act of divine largesse, Jesus opened up to us His own intimate relationship with the One whom He called “Abba”, Father. What better way then for us to freshen up our relationship with God this Advent than first that we make a point of not taking this generosity of His for us for granted; that, on the contrary, we send Him a message of how much we value it; and what better way to do that than to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation? God is inviting us to “come home” and is waiting for us with a warm and joyful embrace to come through the door. Reconciliation, with God or with a colleague or friend, is a spiritual gift that flows both ways.
Another spiritual gift that we can offer to God in this season where we celebrate the Word of God becoming flesh is to go to God the way God came to us – in and through the body. An embodied prayer is a particularly powerful prayer because it gives expression to the whole of our being. Fasting is one such kind of prayer. We tend to associate fasting only with the season of Lent, but it for Advent also, because the tripod of prayer, fasting and almsgiving represents the core, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, of our response to God’s invitation to a relationship of intimacy with Him. Each leg of the tripod is important, not just for one or the other seasons of the liturgical year, but for Christian living throughout the year, especially during a time of preparation for a major festival of faith like Christmas or Easter.
With these spiritual gifts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving we tell God that He is number One for us – more important than our routine, or even than life and growth itself, which are symbolized by food, so that when we set some of it aside by fasting we give expression to our love for Him.
Prayer in the ordinary sense, is another leg of that tripod. That also represents a valuable spiritual gift we can offer in this season both to God and for others. We pray in the highest way, in a communal way, when we gather for Sunday services. It would be a nice way of saying: “Here I am Lord. Our relationship is my priority!.” And in return, we receive the inestimable gift of an intensification of God’s own life within us, the gift of Himself and His grace when He comes to us in Communion. Appreciable, too, is the spiritual gift of our prayers to God, to Mary and to the saints for our loved ones.
The third leg of that tripod, almsgiving, can take many expressions. If almsgiving is a contribution to another’s lack or need, then sometimes our simple presence is the most appreciated spiritual gift we can offer. We can give to the poor. We can also make a visit to an elderly person who is largely confined to house by the cold of winter. An hour with a friend convalescing from sickness or surgery is another way or an evening or Saturday afternoon of baby-sitting that frees up time for cash-strapped parents.
Advent is the season for spiritual gifts both given and received. And at the heart of it all is relationship. How will you deepen yours with your Loved One and your loved ones this Advent so that Christmas will not be secular or commercial but truly holy and meaningful?
Fr. Tshiamo Takongwa