This Sunday, the Church begins the four-week Advent season of preparation for the celebration of Christmas and the coming of Christ into our lives for the final time. This First Sunday of Advent is a good time to reflect on the proper way to prepare for Christmas. For many people, “preparing for Christmas” unfortunately starts on “Black Friday,” with feverish shopping for sales amidst the tumultuous crowds of the shopping malls. It may mean the early, crass commercial playing of Christmas songs on the radio – Santa Claus, pre-Christmas Christmas parties that really don’t relate to the real meaning of Christmas (and a social party gathering that often is connected to alcohol).
I always get harassed at this time of year by an erstwhile parishioner who wants us to play Christmas music during Advent  liturgies (So, when do we play Advent music? And, what do Christians do when they throw out the preparation for the true meaning of Christmas?). I ultimately ignore such inane pleas (though I know they’ll be back at it next Advent!). They just don’t get it! Pray that someday they will begin to understand and appreciate Advent.
Let me suggest that our Christian faith offers a saner and more wholesome path. Advent preparation for Christmas shouldn’t be so focused on shopping and buying gifts, but on building relationships. If giving someone a gift helps to build a relationship with that someone, fine. But, gift-giving in and of itself does not build a relationship; something more is needed – something more personal, something more relational, even something more emotional; and, I might venture to say, something more spiritual and even sacrificial.
The original “Santa Claus,” after all, was St. Nicholas, who was not a harried shopper for presents to deliver on his sleigh, but a bishop whose generous and anonymous gifts to the poor became the paradigm for Christmas gift-giving. So, besides shopping for Christmas presents, following the example of St. Nicholas suggests that we also make gifts to charities that help the poor.
In terms of building relationships, Advent is a journey that should bring us closer to God and to each other. One of the best ways to do that is through the Sacrament of Penance. By confessing our sins and receiving absolution from a priest, we are reconciled to God and to the community of faith. An additional way is to join us on Sunday, December 8th, at 3:00 p.m. for our traditional performance of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a true Advent program for all ages, performed by our own parishioners and choirs in our church.
Just before Christmas in 1980, Saint John Paul II was with over 2,000 children in a Roman parish. He began his catechesis with this dialogue: “How are you preparing for Christmas?” The children shouted back, “By praying!” The Pope responded, “Very good, by praying, but also by going to Confession. You must go to Confession so that you can go to Communion later. Will you do that?” In an even louder voice, those thousands of children shouted their reply, “We will!” John Paul II responded, “Yes, you ought to go.” Then, lowering his voice, he whispered, “The Pope will also go to Confession so as to receive the Child Jesus worthily.”
In more recent times, we also see our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, going to Confession. I will also go to Confession, and many Catholics will also do the same in the weeks between now and Christmas, with an ever greater love and deeper contrition. Our own Advent Penance Service, with the opportunity of confessing our sins to any of the several priests coming to help us, will be on Wednesday, December 18th, at 7:00 p.m. I invite all of our families, parents and children, to come and be reconciled with the Lord on that evening, or any Saturday before that day.
As an Advent people, we are people of hope and expectation. We live in hope and the expectation of our Lord’s second coming. We also live in the hope of having improved relationships with other people and the expectation that our relationships can indeed be improved to become more caring and more loving. We should never give up on anyone, but always have hope that God’s grace can touch the hearts of those who hunger for his nourishment, which He gives us in the gift of the Eucharist.
May your Advent be filled with the joyous expectation and preparation for the Lord’s coming; for one day, He will come for us! Happy Advent!