Learning Love in Advent: A Gift Exchange With Jesus

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“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God'” (Isaiah 40:3).

 

As we near the final days of Advent, we make our final preparations for the manifestation of God in our world, in our communities, and in our hearts. It is a time to look into various aspects of our lives: our relationships, our work, and our own souls. We should ask about any obstacles that may be in the way of God’s love in these areas. What things draw us toward God and what things draw away from him? What things remind us of God and what draws us away from thoughts of him? The Lord wants to come to us, but we have obstacles (primarily of selfishness) in our hearts.

Our one mission this Advent is to let nothing impede his coming. His love is coming for us. Let us remove the obstacles, make straight the path for the Lord into our heart. This means being mindful of his constant presence, love, and provision. We can then turn our love back to him and reevaluate what is truly first in our hearts. We should be honest with ourselves about what we value more: the ways of the world or the ways of God? Do we rely on the solace and consolation that the validation of the world offers? To be of the world means we rely on it and its finite satisfaction for our primary comfort. But this is not the reason for which we were made. We were made for so much more. We were made for the infinite God who comes to us at Christmas.

As beautiful of a vision this may be, it is also very difficult to align ourselves to the demands of the Gospel (and difficult may be an understatement). The world can offer us so many fleeting delights, it is easy to get caught up in chasing one after the other to distract our hearts from the truth of our loneliness and unrest. More than restless, our hearts are often a dry, thirsting desert, deserted of the fullness for which they were created. Even when we try all the proper methods and strategies to live a good life, we fall short. When we fall short, we choose one of two paths: hardening our hearts to God or opening our hearts to God. While the correct answer is obvious, we are humans who often seek the next nearest thing to fill our desires. But we need God, we need the Holy Spirit to flood the dryness of our hearts.

Loving God (or another person) is often a confusing concept in our day and age. Reality TV, movies, tabloids, music, and bar scenes teach us that love is something very much different than the way Jesus loved us. We who strive to be his disciples, however, are called to learn how to live from him, not from these other things. This Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, most of us prepare for an exciting exchange of gifts. For Jesus, the gift is his life that he offers us humbly, yet without reservation. He descends to us (from on high!) because he wants to be with us; he wants to show us the extent of his love, which is destined for the cross. The beauty of his life is that it was totally devoted and abandoned to us–(now that’s romantic!). But he also desires an exchange of gifts as well.

In this Advent season, we prepare to learn from the Master. If we wish to find our life, we will lose it for his sake. The key to learning to love is learning how to exist for others, and ultimately for God. God has given each of so many gifts and we can waste them because we’re using them to chase things in the world, desiring to attain them, and enjoy them in this moment (using our talents to gain fleeting joys). God’s plan for us is so much greater than these delights. He wants you and me to be a delight for others. What we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas is when the designer of the world emptied his omnipotence to become a servant to humanity, to you and me. Therein we have the model for ourselves. We are to empty ourselves for the good of others and ultimately for the salvation of others. In doing this, we become a gift back to Jesus.

So we are to live humbly, yet without reservation. We have all met amazing people who have led us closer to God. It our goal now to become one of those people. You are made in the incredible image and likeness of God. In short, you are awesome. And you are meant to be awesome for a purpose. Now, awesome doesn’t have to be big. Baby Jesus wasn’t big. Being awesome means you are attentive to the ways you can use your gifts to serve others: to offer a hand to someone who needs a little help, choose to listen to a friend, to be with someone who doesn’t have a lot of friends, to speak kindness, love, or sometimes a challenging word to someone, to be a friend to all (if possible). As Mother Teresa showed us, love is often small yet powerful – like baby Jesus. We are to offer whatever and whoever we are to others for their sake. Advent is a great time to reflect on beginning again in this cosmic endeavor of participating in God’s love, offering ourselves as a gift to God and others in the world today.

To bring us back to the verse from Isaiah, in giving ourselves away, we free ourselves from the obstacles of our own selfishness and make the highway in the desert for the Lord in our relationships, our workplaces, and our own souls. In all of this we become more and more like Christ, and so we become more and more what we were created to be. In the end, when we bring love into the world, as Flannery O’Connor would have us realize, “The life you save may be your own.” As mentioned, we can’t live the demands of the Gospel alone. We must also ask the Holy Spirit to flood us with a torrent of grace so that we ourselves may become self-giving manifestations of God. Jesus offers us the gift of his life. This Advent may we prepare to participate in the cosmic Christmas gift exchange and learn to offer the gift of our lives as well.

“You find yourself by giving yourself away.” -St. John Paul II

Let Your Yes Be Like Mary’s

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The angel said to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).

God is doing something in the world today and he created you to be a part of his plan. What is our answer? The Gospel passage quoted above recounts Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is with child. The same Gospel is read every year at the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It is important to note that, from her own conception, Mary’s life is wrapped in a cosmic destiny that forever altered the course of history. In particular, she will give birth to the most important figure in human history: God who becomes man. Jesus is God made man; he is the God that comes after and pursues humanity and offers us his life fully and completely. He wants us, but he also wants us to bring him into the world as Mary did.

Today I want to highlight some things about Mary’s “Yes” or, literally from the Greek, “Let it be done.” I think it’s important to start with Mary’s purity of heart in choosing God’s will. To see Mary’s purity of heart, Jesus gives us some helpful insight: “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’ But Jesus said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it‘” (Luke 11:27-28). Some people may see this as a way of Jesus downplaying the role of Mary, but if you look at the words, Jesus is simply redirecting the woman to exactly what is so great about his mother: her faithfulness to God’s will. In this, she “has found favor with God” (Luke 1:30) so much that the angel called her “full of grace” or “the one having found grace with God” (Luke 1:28). I don’t know what you think, but angels don’t just go around saying those kinds of things to people very often. Mary is a special lady, particularly because of her faithfulness to the will of God.

anunciation

In her encounter with the angel, though confused and unsure about her future, Mary has heard the will of God. Though she could’ve strayed because of being overwhelmed or having doubt and uncertainty, she decided to choose the will of God perfectly (immaculately!). Her response is a response of faithfulness: “I am the servant of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.” This is a huge lesson for our lives. When things get difficult, confusing, challenging, or (perhaps even more importantly) when things are going well, faithfulness to God and consistency in our yes to his will is what really matters most. “In everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28). We are blessed to have a God who will never turn his back on us. God will be faithful to us. There is more to the importance of Mary’s yes, however, than simply the fact that God is faithful to those who are faithful. God wants to use your faithfulness, as he used Mary’s faithfulness, to also follow Mary’s example in bringing Christ into the world. 

In order to bring Jesus in the world the way that she did, Mary must have been a singularly special woman (and that’s exactly what she was, of course). As with anyone who is special in any way, we must not allow ourselves to feel lesser in comparison to her. Rather, we should learn appreciate the gift that she is, while being clear that we are also meant to be a gift. We are not a gift primarily because of our production or the fact that we do a service project or because we help where there is a need, though all of the those things are good and important things (and I highly encourage doing them). Primarily, however, we should know that we are a gift because God has chosen to make us and give us a unique, unrepeatable life. Moreover, God has given us a purpose for this unique life of ours. The purpose is simple yet somewhat overwhelming, namely, to be the person God has created you to be. God has a plan and a will for your life (cf. Jeremiah 29:11). The first thing we must do is to decide to live for him, and to say with Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord.” When we take on this attitude we begin to unite our faithfulness with the unique qualities that we bring to the world.

In the end, whatever God has for us uniquely and specifically, we must start by presenting ourselves to him as his servants. Once we do so, God’s desire for our lives will begin to unfold and we will begin to take our place in the cosmic destiny (yes, this is serious stuff!). God desires men and women of our time, in our day and age, to follow Mary’s example and say “let your will be done in my life.” When we say yes to God’s will, as Mary did in a singular way 2,000 years ago, we will continue the legacy of bringing Christ into this world which has always so desperately needed him. This world’s thirsting for Christ will be quenched when men and women choose to truly embrace the idea of “not my will, but yours be done.” God is still coming after and pursuing humanity. By letting his will into your life, you are letting his will into the world. Let this time of the year be a reminder that God can do amazing and unimaginable things in our world. Whether things are going well or there is confusion and uncertainty, God wants to use you. Let your “yes” be like Mary’s and bring Christ into the world.

“For nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).