Advent Anticipation and the Embrace of Sacrifice

It’s easy to forget that Advent is a season of fasting. All around us, the world has seemingly
already begun to celebrate Christmas with parties, treats, and the kind of shopping frenzy that
bears no resemblance to a sacrificial fast. Of course, recent horrific events in the Middle East
and terrible fires closer to home in east Tennessee remind us that the suffering that afflicts
humanity does not pause for any season, liturgical or otherwise. In fact, we never need to look
across the world or outside of our own community to find souls in need of comfort and healing.
Cheerful jingles and the glitz of holiday decorations cannot really conceal the hurting in the lives
of so many around us and often in our own families. We need only pause to reflect to see that it
is indeed the case that what we and the world truly need, and what we are truly waiting for, only
comes through the promise of that baby born on Christmas.

Here at school, we have worked to help our students to prepare themselves for Christmas in a
spirit of anticipation and preparation. Among our preparations, we have memorized the Novena
of St. Andrew to remind ourselves that Advent is a season in which to make ready our hearts for
the coming of Christ. And this week’s observance of the memorial of St. John of the Cross is an
appropriate occasion to reflect on our response to suffering as a part of our Advent preparation.

St. John of the Cross’s life story is a sobering account of perseverance in response to sacrifice,
persecution, and suffering. In his case, the suffering was especially acute because it came at
the hands of his own religious brethren. St. John joined the Carmelite order of friars and worked
with St. Teresa of Avila to restore the devotion of the order that had lapsed. John founded new
monasteries and worked tirelessly to reform and restore the vitality of the order. So vigorous
was the opposition that he received from other Carmelites that he was kidnapped by members
of the order, imprisoned, and beaten multiple times a week for nine months—until he escaped
and began again his work of reform.

During his captivity, John composed poems and hymns of praise to God. His two great poems,
the Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, reflect on the conditions and preparations for
entering into union with God. For John, the path to holiness can be painful because of our
attachment to lesser good things that too often we prefer to the greater good of being with God.
St. John’s mediations remind us that through self-denial and sacrifice, we often come to see and
understand what our hearts truly long for and set aside our excessive love for those lesser
goods:

“One inordinate appetite alone….suffices to make the soul so captive,
dirty, and unsightly, that until the appetite is purified, the soul in incapable
of conformity with God in union.”

Of course, the path to holiness in this life can be very long. No matter how far we think we have
come along, we cannot be satisfied with anything less than the example of Christ. St. John was
unsparing in his self-examination, reminding us that “It makes little difference whether a bird is
tied down by a thread or by a chain. The bird will be held down just the same.”

In John’s case, he endured great suffering that was not of his own making. Even in the case of
affliction, we may continue to grow closer to God by becoming more like him. This is the
example of so many of the saints. St. Thomas Aquinas commends to us the example of the
Cross and exhorts us to follow Christ’s example of willingly dying to ourselves:

“If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great
patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or
when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid.
Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he
suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and
he did not open his mouth.”

Apart from our own lives, the reflections of these saints and their examples take on broader
application when we consider them in light of history and the awful suffering across the globe.
Pope Benedict XVI helps us to make sense of even such horrific realities, and to find in them a
deeper appreciation for the Christ event that we anticipate during Advent:

“All the terrible events of world history seem to constitute a grave
accusation against God. But when God appears before us, unarmed, with
his love as his only might, all the frightening images of God lose their
plausibility. The human existence of the Son is the glory of the Father. In
the crib and on the Cross, the glory of God is raised aloft in this world. And
wherever men follow this God, a new humanity begins, even if only in
fragmentary fashion.”

May God bless your families, may he sustain you through any suffering and sacrifice, and may
we find ourselves transformed through this Advent season as we prepare to celebrate the
coming of the Savior and await his coming again.

Douglas Minson

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