Most years, we hear our priests gently (or irritably) reminding us that it’s still Advent! Not Christmas! Not Christmas yet! Stop with the “Merry Christmas,” because the Baby hasn’t been born yet!
So we’ve tried hard to keep Advent as a separate season: joyous anticipation rather than celebratory blow-out. It’s hard to hold off when the rest of the country is already whooping it up, but the restraint feels worthwhile when Christmas finally dawns.
So it landed with a bit of a thud last year when our bishop, Peter Libasci, issued a letter asking the Diocese of Manchester (NH) to make some changes in how we spend our Advent.
He encourages lively decorations that suggest life and hope, and calls for an emphasis on warm, personal hospitality, especially toward the poor; he exhorts us to “avoid whatever may encumber you during this time.”
These things are not too much different from what we already attempt, but this part is new:
Beginning with the FIRST Sunday of Advent, in every rectory, convent, Catholic school, diocesan institution and Catholic home, display the image of the Christ Child in a suitably decorated place of prominence and approachability. Not the crèche, just the infant.
Beginning with the FIRST Sunday of Advent and throughout the Advent Season, the music at Mass should include Christmas carols that enjoy the quality of a lullaby and center on the great mystery of the Incarnation and birth that did occur in history. (Away in a Manger, O Come Little Children, The First Noel, Little Town of Bethlehem.)
Huh! Really? Usually we stick to Advent music as much as possible, and if we put up a crèche, we keep the Baby Jesus packed away in tissue paper until Christmas morning. But I’m delighted to have a bishop who actually asks us to do stuff, so I’m game.
His directive to bring that baby right on in made me think of the Roots of Empathy program, which has teachers in poor, tough neighborhoods welcoming babies (real ones, not plaster statues!0 into their classrooms. They believe these visits, and subsequent discussions, teach the school kids empathy, rather than the lesson of “survival at any cost,” which is what they’re learning everywhere else they go. This story from the Washington Post says:
Roots pairs each classroom with a baby, who visits nine times throughout the year with his or her mom or dad, a volunteer recruited from the community. Each child has a chance to look the baby in the eye, squeeze its toe and say hello before the class settles into a circle around a green blanket.
They watch the baby respond to songs and games, and they talk about what he’s feeling and why he behaves as he does. The kids and the teachers have noticed a great change in the classroom: more peace, more respect, and better learning, too.
The idea is that recognizing and caring about a baby’s emotions can open a gateway for children to learn bigger lessons about taking care of one another, considering others’ feelings, having patience.
Our bishop is looking for a similar transformation in his flock, putting the Baby right in front of us before the altar, and having us sing lullabies before we head back out to the world on Sunday morning. In his letter, he says:
during the Advent season, we take the INFANT as our centerpiece, remembering that He came as one of us. When an infant is in the house, everyone must be conscious of that presence and speak more softly, be more attentive, welcome family and visitors, exercise patience, accept inconvenience—even in the extreme, for the sake of the fragile life entrusted to our care.
Okay, but . . . the Church demands a bit more than being caring and considerate, yes? It’s all very well to acknowledge that babies can teach us to be kind, but the Incarnation was not some kind of inner city niceness project, and “considering others’ feelings” is not one of the Ten Commandments.
Can we not, as a millennia-old institution, set the bar a little higher?
No. We can’t.
Don’t you roll your eyes at me! The older I get, the more I realize that God usually wants us to do very basic, mundane things — and the more I realize how hard it is to do those mundane things well, with my whole heart.
And here’s the main part: The older I get, the more I realize that the whole point of the Incarnation is that the divine and the mundane are now inextricably linked. There cannot be a meaningless act of service, because of the incomprehensibly great service God has performed for us. There is no longer any such thing as a small act of love, since God, who is love, became small and asked us to care for Him. There is literally nothing greater, more meaningful, or more transcendent we can do than to care for each other for His sake. All acts of love are great. All acts of love make us more like Him.
In his letter, Bishop Libasci says,
To be judged as having achieved a fuller awareness of human fragility and potential, is to be judged as growing more closely to “the full stature of Christ.”
Anyone can blaze with righteous glory for a moment. Anyone can get wrapped up in an exquisitely arcane theological puzzle. But just treating each other well, day after day, in and out of season, whether they deserve it or not? That’s hard, hard, hard. As hard as caring for a baby who won’t stop crying no matter what you do. As hard as being that Baby, when you didn’t have to be.
Step beyond your duty and be actively generous. Be gentle when you could justifiably be harsh. Acknowledge that you are “disadvantaged,” that you think too much of your own survival and not enough about the unreasonable needs of the helpless people around you. Fight down the battle cry and substitute a lullaby.
The Baby’s needs are simple and basic. Start with those before you consider yourself ready to move on to higher things. There are no higher things. Start with the Baby, because that’s what God did.
(This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, on Aleteia in 2015.)