A number of years’ ago, my sister read an article titled “Be a Guest at your own Party!” The gist of the article was that with excellent preparation holiday entertaining can be stress free. To this day, my sister and I still judge how well we prepared for a party by asking if we feel like guests. As much as we get that good preparation goes a long way, sometimes it seems that no preparation is enough to make the Christmas holidays stress free. Perhaps this is why we have been given the season of Advent—a liturgical season designed to help us prepare not just for the celebration of Christ’s birth, like the way we prepare to celebrate a birthday, but rather the real celebration of anticipating Christ’s return and the coming of the fullness of the kingdom of God. And seriously, who of us is really ready for that party?
On the one hand, it is the time of year when the spiritual emphasis of preparation matches the secular reality—there is a lot of preparation necessary to celebrate Christmas in the parish and in our homes. And, while many of our Christmas traditions have spiritual roots: the symbolism of the wreath and tree, the tradition of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus in giving gifts, the exquisite storytelling of our favorite Christmas carols, baking, gift –buying, gift-wrapping, cooking, and decorating can overwhelm and even steal away the time we need for spiritual preparation.
Imagine if you knew when Christ would return? What would you need to do to be ready for that? I read an Advent reflection that described the days of Advent as a time to make room for Christ: by clearing out all in our hearts that is not Christ. We celebrate Christmas specifically to help us make a habit of taking stock of how ready we are to receive Christ.
One of my favorite Scripture passages which captures the art of this spiritual preparation is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 25:1-13). Tasked with keeping their lamps light in anticipation of the coming of Our Lord, five of the women thought ahead and brought additional flasks of oil and five, did not stop to think of what they needed to get the job done. Those unprepared and without oil were locked out of the feast. This parable (depicted here in the photo of the beautiful mosaic found on the front of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome), is worth making part of your Advent prayer and reflection.
For me, it is a reminder of the contemplative and active dimensions of the Christian life. Preparation is a contemplative act in that we are drawn deeper into the mystery of the unfolding plan of salvation. Coming to know the Lord in prayer is the surest way to be confident we will recognize the Lord when he comes. Serving the Lord is the other dimension of preparation. Oil, in the parable, is symbolic of works of love, and so the subtle message of the parable is that at the eleventh hour, the foolish women could not borrow the good works of their wise sisters! At the heart of Christmas is the exchange of gifts—material and otherwise that really are signs of the love we have for those receiving the gifts we share. The poem below captures this so beautifully:
Face to face with our limits,
Blinking before the frightful
Stare of our frailty,
Like a posse of clever maids
Who do not fear the dark
Because their readiness
Lights the search.
Becomes the measure of their love,
Their ability to wait—
An indication of their
Capacity to trust and take a chance.
Without the caution or predictability
Of knowing day or hour,
They fall back on that only
Of which they can be sure:
Love precedes them,
No door will every close.
Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.