From the view of spirituality, each season can link into different aspects of our life’s journey. Advent takes us into the mystery of the unknown and the incomplete; Christmas opens to us new birth and childhood; Lent is the journey from darkness to light, death towards resurrection; and during Easter, we are on a journey of joy in our lives, from the resurrection into mission, into eternity.
A good icon for the Advent journey is the pilgrimage. Anything can happen on a pilgrimage; everything on a pilgrim journey leads to the goal. Hardships and joys are the context of every day; wrong turnings and mistakes are part of it also. Sharing the pilgrimage with others, accepting help and knowing that I am not in control, being able to say thanks for everything that happens, and connecting with others are essential. People who have done the Camino, the Lough Derg pilgrimage or Croagh Patrick in Ireland, the Catholic mission shrines in California, as well as journeys to many shrines in other parts of the world may identify with the first pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph for the birth of their child in Bethlehem.
The spirituality of Advent focuses us on the mystery of the unknown and the incomplete, connecting with the journey of Mary and Joseph. Our Christian life is the journey toward a destination but anything can happen on the way. Our Christian faith is contained in one big certainty that God is always with us. As we make the journey with God, nothing that happens can separate us. We discover ways of living with questions rather than nding answers, and the questions of the journey in prayer give foundations to the meaning of life.
“Always remember this: life is a journey. It is a path, a journey to meet Jesus,” Pope Francis recently said.
Steps on the Path
Some spiritualties present the journey as already over in the sense that we are expected to be perfect. But all of us have steps on our life’s journey that have taken us off the right path, or experiences that tested our human growth and faith. We have struggled with faith doubts, sexual conflicts and orientation, and addiction; there have been marriage breakdowns and painful family contacts. People say, “I didn’t marry to get divorced,” or, “I didn’t get ordained priest to leave,” or, “I didn’t plan that my daughter wouldn’t talk to me anymore.” All of this, too, is part of the journey, and the gaze of the journey is from God and Jesus, like an embryo inviting us to be loved and to grow. Even before birth, people such as John the Baptist in the womb, and Elizabeth the expectant mother, got the strength of his saving love.
Pope Francis says,
A journey in which we do not encounter Jesus is not a Christian journey…. To encounter Jesus also means allowing oneself to be gazed upon by him. “But, Father, you know,” one of you might say to me, “you know that this journey is horrible for me, I am such a sinner, I have committed many sins… how can I encounter Jesus. And along the way Jesus comes and forgives us—all of us sinners, we are all sinners—even when we make a mistake, when we commit a sin, when we sin. We always encounter Jesus.
A prayerful way of making the journey is presented in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. In the meditation on the birth of the Lord, he invites us to take part personally in the journey. As always, he suggests the prayer of the imagination:
It will be here (to imagine) how Our Lady went forth from Nazareth, about nine months with child, seated on an ass, and accompanied by Joseph and a maid taking an ox, to go to Bethlehem.
See the place. It will be here to see with the sight of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem; considering the length and the breadth, and whether such road is level or through valleys or over hills; likewise looking at the place or cave of the Nativity, how large, how small, how low, how high, and how it was prepared. (SE 112–3)
Maybe you can enter into that journey with memories of your own life’s journeys. What would this journey recall to you at this time of the year, this year at this time? What has happened to you on your journey of life as you notice Mary and Joseph making this most important journey of their lives? Would you have helped them or run away? You might think of them beginning the journey and what they might have feared. ey would surely have made this journey in a group: Our life and faith journey is part of a community of family and others. You could play around with these questions prayerfully for Advent!
The Advent People in Luke 1
Elizabeth: We see the prayer of welcome to the Lord in a very human situation, in the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary. We see the prayer of amazement that the mother of the Lord would come, and the prayer of praise as they composed and prayed the Magnificat together.
Zechariah: We see the payer of doubt and pride. God will work my way! There is the good man whose religious practice and views were being challenged—the one who kept his faith even in doubt. The silent, confused believer.
The infant John: He was graced in the womb and born before Jesus. There is some indication that the meaning of his life was to be the announcer always that Jesus is near. Graced when he didn’t know it, and announcing the one he was never sure of, maybe John is a saint for today.
Everything in the weeks up to Christmas can be reminders of the feast to come. The Christmas parties, the cards sent and received, the gifts we buy and the phone calls made—all are made because Jesus is near. As he is near now, he is near always. It can be a crowded time, so a five- or ten-minute time of prayer, an extra Mass, or a bit of sitting in silence can ensure we don’t get lost in the preparations. Let everything in these weeks recall us to what is really happening in our waiting for the Lord.
A Reflection for Advent
Advent is waiting for the birth of Jesus,
but it’s a strange waiting:
we are waiting each year for someone we know is here!
We recall in Advent
that the Lord Jesus has come among us,
is present all the time
and will come again in glory.
He is the child who is born each year,
for the world always needs its God and Savior
He is the child awaited each year,
for our lives are new each year,
and we need him in different ways at different stages of life,
and the world has different needs of God at different times.
We need the child of peace to be born
in our wars and violence,
the child of wisdom in our search for truth and meaning,
the child of gentleness in a world which can be harsh and greedy.
We need to know in Jesus
that birth and life
are among the most precious gifts of God,
and that in the birth of Jesus each year,
is the everlasting promise of God
to be with us.
And Advent looks ahead,
letting us see that the life of Jesus is never over,
that the truth of Jesus is always spoken,
that the love of Jesus is always real,
and that he will one day be seen in glory.
For we are people of Advent and Easter,
of waiting and of resurrection; we are people of earth
and heaven, as he is the Son of God and
Son of Mary,
and leads us through our life on earth
to the eternal glory of heaven.
Excerpted from Prayer in the Catholic Tradition.
Donal Neary, SJ, is Director of the Irish Messenger Office and editor of the Sacred Heart Messenger. He is author of numerous books on prayer, including The Calm within the Storm, Lighting the Shadows, Who Do You Say I Am?, New Reflections on Advent, Praying in Lent, and Praying at Easter. He has contributed to journals and magazines such as The Furrow, Spirituality, and the Messenger. A native of Dublin, he worked for thirty years in youth ministry, then as a parish priest in Gardiner Street Parish, Dublin.