|by Angela Lambert|
November 26th, 2016; 1st Sunday in Advent
Gospel Matthew 24:37-44
Jesus said to his disciples: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
Advent, the beginning of a new year (liturgically speaking). It reminds us that we made it, by the grace of God, and that we don’t know what the next year will bring. It could bring unexpected joys and successes, it could also hold life-changing sorrows or failures. In the spirit of new year’s resolutions, Advent provides the opportunity for Christians to step back, evaluate their lives, and make renewed goals for personal growth. Like most resolutions, we hope to imbue the next year of our lives with deeper meaning and healthier living (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). We don’t know when life will end or when Christ will come again, we can however, be our best selves whenever it does and try to live with as few regrets as possible.
Before making goals, however, one needs to identify the finish line. During Advent we recall that the most meaningful and healthy goal we can achieve is deeper relationship with Christ and more devoted discipleship. We all grow lax over time and can’t help but get overwhelmed by daily life periodically. Nevertheless, these annual pauses can reorient us in a positive way if we use our failures as fuel for greater success.
For example, last year during faculty workshops leading up to the start of school (I’m a middle and high school teacher), a colleague and I decided to go for a walk during our lunch break each day. We lamented that our healthy summer living would be quickly replaced by the frenetic schedule of the school year and our summer habits of regular exercise would fade away leaving us tired and depressed. We resolved to walk together once a week after school. Plenty of reasons presented themselves every week to cancel the walk but we resolved to prioritize that small bit of exercise (and friendship) together. This was the baby step that kept me in the habit each week and soon I added another day of exercise on my own. Not long after a friend told me about an opportunity for a family gym membership that was affordable and a good way for our kids to burn off energy together. By the time school began this year I smiled as I didn’t have to complain to my colleague about the impending physical atrophy and stress. Instead I felt terrific knowing I had been able to develop a much healthier balance in my life and knew I could take care of myself and keep up at work and home.
Like our bodies, our spiritual lives have a tremendous ability to bounce back with a little determination and perseverance. It’s tempting to look back with nostalgia at our previous achievements and make excuses for our current atrophy. Instead, find a friend and make a small, achievable goal to reinvigorate your spiritual life. Over the course of the year, similar to exercise, it will begin to bear greater and greater fruit, spurring you on to take more steps toward spiritual health and endurance. What sometimes begins as feeling laborious and painful eventually becomes something that feels so good you look forward to it and find ways to increase it.
Begin with the basics – go to Mass every Sunday. No excuses. (Unless you are seriously ill of course). My kids and I have a tradition of getting doughnuts afterward to celebrate Sunday. As they’ve gotten older doughnuts are sometimes replaced with McDonald’s breakfast or some kind of mocha latte fun coffee drink. Whatever the treat, find a way to keep the celebration of Christ at Mass going afterward.
Pray, every day. Start with saying thank you. Praise God and consider His goodness and greatness. Next, be honest with God about the day ahead and the help you will need to radiate Christ in the situations you will be in. Finally, intercede for others. Consider the needs of those around you, especially your family and people at work. Ask God for his help. Decide ahead of time when this conversation with God will take place. Know yourself and be realistic. For instance, as much as I wish I could end my day with prayer, as soon as I remotely begin to relax I immediately fall asleep. I’ve considered a midday prayer but I get distracted by everything in the day. However, when my kids were infants and toddlers, midday during their nap time was the only chance I had for scheduled time with God. Now that my kids are older and I am back at work, I choose morning to pray, when my mind is clear and I can enjoy a cup of coffee with the Lord. Once I got into this habit it was so fruitful I wanted more time with the Lord but struggled to get up earlier. Then, when day light savings time began I used the opportunity to get up at what my body felt was the usual time but actually afforded me an entire hour.
Next steps, read a spiritual book about the faith. Unlike fiction or pop culture, spiritual books are best read a few pages at a time and may take a year or more to complete. A good book about the faith should inspire a movement of love and reflection in your heart and spur contemplation. Don’t get caught up in the progress of pages as much as the progress of personal transformation.
Praying with Scripture is always a great idea. You could read through a book of the bible, especially the Gospels, a chapter or so at a time. You could also read the daily readings for the Mass and reflect on the Gospel of the day. You can go to usccb.org and click on the calendar on the right hand side of the page to see the readings for the day. You could pray with the psalms or even pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
Finally, if possible, try to add 5 minutes of silence with the Lord into your day. Lots of distractions will fill your mind but gently push them away and try to make 5 minutes of space for being in the presence of the Lord and listening. Personally, I like to end prayer with 5 minutes of silence. I set a timer on my phone so I don’t have to check the clock. Other times, spiritual reading moves my heart and I pause then and there for 5 minutes of silence with the Lord.
Like building any new habit, you will have to make your own prudential decisions about what merits exceptions and the slippery slope of letting other things edge out your time with God. I have experienced both. For instance, when I would pray during my kids’ nap time I often felt pulled by the long list of things that needed to get done. I could easily excuse skipping prayer for doing dishes or cleaning up by considering my work as prayer. Although our work is prayerful if offered to God, actual time alone with the Lord is irreplaceable and a higher priority. On the other hand, I have also encountered situations where I was up all night with sick kids or unavoidable extra work at my job or in works of mercy that presented themselves. On those mornings I sometimes have to cut into my prayer time to get the necessary sleep I know I need to function for the Lord the next day. I try to be prayerfully prudent though to make sure I’m not letting other things come before prayer and try to say no to things that would interfere. Even on mornings I get a little extra sleep I make sure I still retain some time for prayer and not skip it altogether.
Don’t be afraid to adjust your new year’s resolutions to your current state in life. Things change from year to year, making Advent a perfect time to consider where you are now and what your next steps should be. Some times in life are very peaceful and you can plan structured times for prayer and methodically work on building needed virtues. Other times you may feel like you are in survival mode and leaning on the Lord takes a different form for the time being as you are in the trenches together. Whatever you decide, make the decision with Christ and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. Reach out to fellow Christians and accept the support of others and of grace. In this way, whenever Christ comes, He will find you ready – reaching for him.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you need to grow.
- How might you grow deeper in prayer?
- How might you develop more virtuous habits?
- How might you be more Christ-like toward others?
- Consider past spiritual resolutions you have made. How have they born fruit in your life? Reflect on the effort it took to begin them and how they are now simply a norm.
- Where do you need more balance? What undermines higher priorities? How might you put boundaries on those things to keep your priorities better aligned?
Make a Resolution (Practical Application):
- Make one prayer resolution. Decide when, how, and what you will do to deepen your prayer life.
- Make one virtue resolution. Identify one way you would like to better imitate Christ and make a daily plan to grow in that virtue.
- Make one detachment resolution. Choose one vice or sin to overcome. Ask others to keep you accountable about it, pray daily for grace to overcome it, and practice the opposite virtue.
~ Written by Angela Lambert © 2016
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