I ask the question because, whilst monks rightly eschew the materialism that so often smothers the approaching feast, our vocation is nevertheless one of prayer and intercession. Rightly do we ask Almighty God for a further outpouring of his gifts, and we do so with greater fervor and intensity when, prepared by weeks of penance, we celebrate the greatest feasts.
So monks may, indeed ought to, want things for Christmas: spiritual things – for themselves and their own vocation, for their monastic family including its oblates and associates and benefactors, for all those who have asked our prayers, for our God-given families, for our friends, for the good of the Church and for the salvation of the world. A monk who does not ask for such gifts neglects an essential element of his calling.
And yet, faced with all that we rightly desire, in asking Almighty God for the goods we so urgently need, we can become overwhelmed, even despondent. We are weak. Sin so often reigns where virtue is desperately needed. Our prayers and sacrifices can seem to effect little. We may well want the best of things this Christmas, but for all our asking, for all our prayers and sacrifices hitherto in Advent, we may well feel in these final moments of Advent that nevertheless very little shall be forthcoming this year, once again.
My brothers, it is precisely here, in our inadequacy and in our downheartedness that the Lord comes to us in the feast of His Nativity. We are inadequate. Our sins, our human frailty – and those and that of others – surely do depress us, at times inordinately. We ourselves can do very little to rise above this. But the becoming Flesh of God Himself can and does do something – no, everything. This singular event in human history opens the door to our redemption from sin and death and offers eternal salvation. He comes to save us: you and I and all who are open to His grace, all for whom we care and for whom we pray.
The collect for the fourth Sunday of Advent which we prayed throughout yesterday teaches us this reality most eloquently. If it passed us by yesterday, I recommend revisiting it and contemplating its doctrine today:
“Excita, quǽsumus, Dómine, poténtiam tuam, et veni: et magna nobis virtúte succúrre; ut per auxílium grátiæ tuæ, quod nostra peccáta præpédiunt, indulgéntiæ tuæ propitiatiónis accéleret.”
“Stir up thy power, Lord, and come, and help us with your great power, so that with the help of your grace that which our sins impede may be hastened by your merciful forgiveness.”
(In passing one should note that this collect, in use on the Fourth Sunday of Advent from at least the eighth or ninth centuries, was replaced in the Missal of Paul VI by the beautiful, but significantly theologically different, collect from the feast of the Annunciation – which we may know more familiarly as the prayer said at the end of the Angelus.)
To be sure the season of Advent and Christmas is replete with rich liturgical texts which bear much contemplation. Those of us privileged to celebrate the usus antquior in its fullness have a true feast in which to indulge. But this collect seems to offer a key which unlocks much of the approaching mystery, particularly the chains in which our helplessness in the face of sin and weakness bind us.
That key is nothing other than the need, the requirement, the absolute necessity that our hearts, minds and souls be unlocked, that they become wholly open to His “great power”. For only then can “that which our sins impede” come to be. Only then, when I am humbly open to His grace, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary, only when all that stands in the way of God’s Will for me is forgiven and removed, can all that I am called to be in this life and the next come to pass.
That is why the season of Advent precedes Christmas: so that we might prepare our hearts and minds and souls for His coming through prayer, penance, sacramental confession, and other spiritual practices. That is why today, the Vigil of the Nativity, is traditionally a day of fasting and abstinence – one last reminder of the need to ‘prepare a way for the Lord’ to ‘make our paths straight’ before Him (cf. Mk 1:3).
Hours remain before we shall sing of He who became Flesh for our salvation. Let those hours be ones of great recollection and of interior preparation. Let them be ones in which we pray with ever more fervor that the Lord will come and help each of us, and all those for whom we pray, with His great power, that we may receive the necessary help of His grace so that all that our sins have thus far impeded may, by the merciful forgiveness that is the promise of His Incarnation, at last be realised.
If our desire for this gift this Christmas leads us so to open ourselves to God’s grace and power, it shall be a truly blessed Christmas indeed. +