By Br. Kyle Berceau
Advent is often described as a time of waiting in joyful preparation. Christ’s bright star has risen in the skies and we know our Savior is to be born into our lives again this Christmas. Perhaps it is not so hard for us to experience this season with joyful anticipation as we reflect on past memories filled with family and friends, delicious food and fellowship, gifts, Christmas songs, lights, etc. Perhaps we figure we can expect more of the same, only newly special because it is a new year and a fresh gathering of hearts. That is wonderful, but at once I challenge us to believe Christ has something more for us this Christmas. Does not the Holy One throughout Scripture say, “See, I am doing something new” (Is. 43:19) or “Behold I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The joy we await this Christmas is to be more than a parallel grace, but rather a new one. The Incarnation is more than a special event that repeats itself each year, it is a living Mystery in which Christ desires to come, to be born, into our lives in a whole new way.
When we think of joyful preparation then, I think it is helpful for us to ponder what it is like for expectant parents to await the birth of a new child; and principally, what it was like for Mary and Joseph to await the birth of Jesus, their child of such hope and promise. The birth of a child, and especially the Savior of the world, is of course no small joy. There is obvious anticipation of all this child will be and what the future will hold. What then is the experience of parents in the stages before and after birth, having had this joy announced to them?
There is much to be said here, and one who is a parent can assuredly say much more than I. But I would like to point out just a few things. Before birth, there is much mystery as to what this child will be like and in what manner exactly it will affect its parents and family’s life. Parents want to best facilitate the early life of the child and its sense of being unconditionally loved and welcomed into the family and world, so a lot of energy and love is put into preparing for the child’s arrival in the home. First, what do we want to call this child? How should we design his/her room; what color should we paint it? How should we rearrange the house so that he/she will be safe? It is impossible to know what the child’s exact needs will be as well and what kind of flexibility will be required of the parents to support those needs, so before and after birth, especially for new parents, there will be an ongoing educational process of learning how to be the most nurturing parents possible.
What all this points to is the fact that the joy of new birth is a joy replete with mystery, surprise, hope, selflessness – uncertainty – it could be overwhelming or scary, but for the grandeur of the gift. Whatever challenges may come, this new child is the light of world, whose existence and bond of love alone is enough to make the challenges more than worthwhile. And the anticipation is new for every child; what will this child bring?
Returning to Advent then, we are invited this year to dream beyond cookie-cutter Christmas joy, and rather to listen in the silence for the voice of God’s Angel, contemplating how Christ seems to be announcing his birth anew in the world at this time, in our personal lives, in our families, in our communities, in our world.
It is particularly striking to me that one of the first qualities of Jesus’ incarnation in the world is the birth of community. The betrothed Joseph and Mary become a family, as this baby of promise arrives in the manger. This helpless little baby. I think it is important for us to remind ourselves that on Christmas, Jesus is yet a little babe, even as he bears within himself the promise of all that he is to grow into as Savior of the world. Could this invite us perhaps to consider that this Christmas the joy of Jesus might come not in our planning how we wish our own needs or desires to be met, but in being open to the unexpected of how the Mystery of the needy Christ-child will draw us out of ourselves to serve him in others, as Mary and Joseph are blessed to serve Jesus? Mary and Joseph could have no idea as to the adventures that were ahead of them shortly after Jesus’ birth in fleeing persecution. His birth brought many unforeseen challenges, but through it all they received the grace to serve/care for him and watch him grow and experience the highest dignity of motherhood and fatherhood. And in giving, they ultimately received the eternal treasure of becoming our heavenly parents and our strongest models of human virtue. Our openness to enter into Christ’s surprise invitation this Christmas can offer us a similar grace in a truly new and special encounter with Jesus.
That the incarnation births community is striking to me because it speaks strongly to our time as we cross the threshold of the worldwide pandemic of individualism to what seems to be an increasing longing for and recognition of the need for renewed community. Let us then contemplate this Christmas how Christ is desiring to be born into our communities. Here at Mepkin, the Lord is inviting all kinds of different people to discern the life here in a serious way. As each newborn child is different, so it is evident that each person arriving at the monastery is bringing a totally unique background and set of gifts from which to grow from and to share with the community. That presents all kinds of opportunities and challenges, but I pray that we as a community can look at it with the eyes of the Incarnation. No parents can fully anticipate the changes a newborn child will invite in their lives and the flexibility that might be demanded of them to provide the best circumstances for the child to grow. We can expect the same to be true with our communities. Each of the people the Lord calls to the community is a gift to be welcomed. How then will the unique gifts and needs of each individual invite us out of ourselves in joyful service of the other to adapt and be flexible as a community so that each new member can experience the joy of God in family and have the opportunity to be nurtured and grow in the love of God all the same?
As Mepkin and all our communities labor to deliver new birth in this time, Advent is the time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ in the new reality. We can ask ourselves, do we anticipate this mystery of new birth with joy, in all its uncertainty? That speaks a lot to our outlook on the world, our love for others, and our heart of faith in the promises and providence of God. Are our hearts open to being pulled outside of ourselves to create space for and welcome others as the gift that they are, offering to all a space of grace and the benefit of the doubt, believing in those even who initially tend to rub us the wrong way? Are we courageous enough to wash the feet of the helpless one otherwise left behind by the world community, whose only gift to offer might be their being-there, and yet being-there in the Love in whom they were created? At Mepkin and each of our families and communities, might we begin or continue blessing in our hearts with anticipation those whom the Lord will be sending into our lives, so that when they arrive we have already prepared a room for them in our hearts?
The Christ-child undoubtedly desires to be welcomed anew into our hearts, our families, our communities, this Christmas. Too many in the world, like Jesus, have not found room inside the inn and have been suffering outside of a deeper experience of communal love and belonging. May we be Marys and Josephs to them, wrapping them in the swaddling clothes of our hearts warm for welcoming them into our Christian family. The harvest is ripe. May laborers be sent out for the harvest, and may we be among their ranks. May this time of Advent be a time of continued joyful preparation of our hearts, softening them, making them more faith-filled, joyful, and flexible, to welcome the Christ-child in whatever way he wishes to come.