During the season of Advent, the Church prepares to worship the Christ Child in the manger with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. It’s fitting then that the Church traditionally turns an eye toward her worship practices during this holy season. And I’d propose, as a start to our considerations, that worship begins with receptivity.
On our own, human beings don’t have much that God wants. Throughout the Psalms the Lord reminds us that he made everything, so our earthly activities -unto themselves- don’t mean much. The meaningful gift that we give to God in sacred worship must come from him, grow to perfection in us under his guidance and then be rendered back to him as a gift. Put another way, in the words of St. John, “The Love of God consists in this, not that we have loved him, but that he loved us first and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I Jn. 4:10).
Certainly, receptivity marks Advent in a particular way. On the coming feast of the Immaculate Conception, we recognize the gift of Christ received by Mary in anticipation of what he would do for us. Throughout this month we’ll think about how Mary received the Word, the Son into her womb. We might even hear a bit about Elizabeth and Zechariah who received John the Baptist in a miraculous conception during Elizabeth’s old age. Aside from these births unto themselves, we also see in these figures people who were receptive of God’s plan, God’s timeline rather than their own. …And by that receptivity they launched the New Covenant.
Our Lord himself, though he needed nothing, received loving kindness from God his Father all those times he “went off to a lonely place to pray.” Receiving and doing the Father’s will was the Lord’s sustenance (Jn 4:34). And as if to highlight this reality by contrast, at the height of his earthly ministry, the Passion, one of the most striking facets of the experience is precisely that Christ seemed to have lost all perception of the Father’s consolations, experiencing – as St. John of the Cross would name it – a dark night of the soul on the Cross.
Receptivity is the beginning of worship!
But here’s the challenge: Receptivity demands of us, has built into it, vulnerability. In today’s first (EF) reading from Romans, St. Paul advises us to rise up and put on the armor of light (Rm 13:12). He doesn’t tell us to put on the armor of steel or of silver, but of light. What’s that supposed to do for us? The armor of light is our ticket to Resurrection. It means, like Jesus, we are called to be receptive to God’s grace… and to the nails, and to the thorns… and to the lance in our side. Like Christ though, these wounds don’t have to stop us. Resurrection isn’t just for the end of time. We experience little deaths through life… we also experience little resurrections. And with each new experience of the Cross, our confidence grows in the next resurrection… so that one day we’ll be ready to face physical death itself. But we must let our hearts be vulnerable. There’s the rub…
Human hearts, when wounded, tend to get hard, or “stony,” as the Gospel says. Stony hearts are ok at fending off more wounds, but they never let in healing… and they never leave us open to wonderful new possibilities. Overtime they end up hurting us more than protecting us. We’ve all been there. AND… thanks be to God , we have wonderful examples of the kind of hearts God wants for us: The Immaculate Heart of Mary, pierced by seven swords; and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, aflame with love, crowned with thorns.
In my own life I’ve experienced both a stony heart and a fleshy one. Let me tell you, much as it hurts sometimes, the fleshy heart is better because it’s alive… it’s moving forward, pushing me on pilgrimage toward heaven.
So this first week of Advent, put a special emphasis on receptivity. It asks a lot of us, but it promises a hundredfold reward. Blessed Advent everyone!