By MARIA SERMERSHEIM
May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all!
May he infuse our hearts with faith, hope and love; and may we accept these great gifts and nestle into his peace and joy as he was nestled into the swaddling cloth. It is a very merry Christmas indeed, and I pray the Holy Spirit fills us with the remembrance of the Incarnation with a true sense of the indomitable love of the Lord for us – the indomitable love of God who became an infant.
Advent is a season of preparation and keeping vigil. The obvious reason is to prepare for our celebration of the Incarnation, but the season also reminds us of our constant vigil for Christ’s Second Coming. As we profess in the Apostles’ Creed, “He is seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” The Israelites hoped for their Messiah because they knew the prophecies: “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son…” (Is 7:14). The Church today hopes for his return because the Lord himself promised it to us; and so, we believe “he will come again in glory.” So Christmas has come, but the vigil continues.
As I reflected on what it means for us to remain vigilant – being prepared with enough oil, like the five wise virgins (Mt 25:1-13), and keeping watch to pray with Christ, as the disciples failed to in the garden (Mt 26:36-46) – I was led to consider the unique nature of this Christian vigil. Our vigil absolutely includes the customary alertness, it certainly includes the active preparation and steadfast watchfulness, but it also includes the calm assurance of the Lord’s presence. We can proceed in greater peace than a typical vigil because the Son has come, his Spirit is active and the Father sustains us in each moment. We look ahead in expectation to Christ’s coming at the end of time; and yet, in this very moment, we are blessed with his presence. God accompanies us on the road to himself.
This liturgical season, some friends and I have been reading the spiritual journey of Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, who went to Russia as a missionary during World War II and spent 23 years in the Soviet Gulag. In his stunning account “He Leadeth Me,” which I highly recommend, he wrote that, “when at last we find ourselves in the presence of God … every thought becomes the father to a prayer, and words quite often are superfluous” (p. 60-61). Father Ciszek explains that if we become truly aware of God’s presence, our hearts are so moved that his divine will for us in every given moment will be clear, and living it will be more attractive for love of him.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is only possible when we draw close to God in prayer and sense his presence (which is substantially reinforced by the Real Presence in the Eucharist). Our posts at this unique Christian vigil require that we prepare for the eschaton and “consecrate the world itself to God” (Lumen Gentium §34) through transformative love and obedience in humdrum and daily actions – in the 24 hours of each day that are God’s will for us, as Father Ciszek says. And the distinctiveness of the vigil allows us to know his will precisely by our participation in that same presence whose fullness we await. The deeper our prayerful union with the Lord now, the better we will prepare with hope for our ultimate union with him in the future; and vice versa.
I wrote above that “it is a very merry Christmas indeed;” and only after did I realize the various reasons one might question that statement. Due to COVID-19 and its continued consequences and party-crashing proclivity, you may rightly ask me if I have just cause for declaring this to be such a merry Christmas, and I can assure you that I do. I have a single justification, and it is this:
God is here.