Today’s beginning of Advent coincides with World AIDS Day. The 2013 World AIDS Day theme is “Shared Responsibility”. As we learn the facts about HIV and put that knowledge into compassionate action, we also recommit to our shared responsibility this Advent. We return to the very source of our compassion: the Incarnation.
“I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” -St. Francis of Assissi in correspondence with his friend, Giovanni
We worship through our senses. We smell incense, hear bells, touch hands in a sign of peace, taste the Eucharist, and see the liturgical pageantry unfold in a Christmas Mass. Against the Church’s rich history of cerebral theology, canon law, and dogma, the power of tactile knowledge can be forgotten. Not by Franciscans. Their spirituality is firmly centered on the Incarnation. Anyone desiring to enter Advent in a way that penetrates consumerism should start where St. Francis sends us: The Nativity.
Nativity scenes are rarely, if ever, historically accurate. People ridicule them for disregarding the reality of delivering a baby two millennia ago. But children don’t ridicule the Nativity. They have to be taught how to do that. They learn cynicism when the Incarnate Baby Jesus ceases to be their focus. In Jason Bach’s illustration for this year’s Advent Campaign, Mary and Joseph turn their eyes to where ours should be: Jesus.
Advent is spiritual gestation. As Mary carried Jesus within her, he experienced what her body experienced. When she ate, he grew stronger. When her heart beat faster, so did his. During Advent, we each carry a new self within us that will be born at Christmas. It is the new gift of our selves: ongoing conversion. Advent asks us to take care of our selves with the same love of a mother like Mary taking care of her baby during her pregnancy. Advent also asks us to prepare to give our selves to the world during the Christmas season. There’s nothing more vulnerable than a woman giving birth. It is the most perfect reference we can comprehend to liken to the mystery of God’s divine vulnernability in the Incarnation. Advent isn’t just waiting for Christmas to come to us. It is preparing to give our own vulnerability to the world. Without expecting anything in return.
Family, community, and friendship are the most common themes in America’s cultural narrative of Christmas. But observing the spirit of Advent is actually intensely personal. It’s not secretive, just intimate. St. Francis contemplated the poverty of the Incarnation; we can also contemplate the Incarnation in poverty. St. Francis famously created the first living Nativity for us to better worship through our senses. We also serve through our senses. We can ignore foul smells and praise good ones. Listen to stories. Touch in affection. Taste and savor food given to us. See each encountered face as uniquely beautiful.
Each beautiful encounter in our life changes us. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi couldn’t return to their home by the same path after they encountered the Infant Jesus. Inspired by this, FMS has asked contributors to write reflections on a single person who inspired them toward a different direction in their life. Through the Advent and Christmas seasons, FMS will publish these reflections daily with an accompanying photograph. To paraphrase St. Francis, FMS wants to do something to recall the memory of the child Jesus, born in poverty to love and serve.
Check our blog every day to read the wisdom and vulnerable love of the many contributors: returned missioners, current missioners, religious and secular Franciscans, and all varieties of women and men following Christ. Share the blog reflections with others. Like all true Nativity scenes, the Franciscan community itself is centered on Jesus. We look forward to experiencing Him with you.