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Monday, December 1, 2008

Welcome to Advent--The Priest in the Jungle

On Sunday night I had the 5:00 mass. I knew it was the First Sunday of Advent, but it honestly didn't occur to me until I arrived at the church that there would be a few different things to do. Thankfully, the parishioners quickly got me up to speed. We lit the first Advent candle, as soon as someone was able to help us find the taper to light it with. It was hidden in plain sight (it wasn't very big). Then there was the light show. They accidentally turned out all the lights just before the Gospel (at first I thought it was deliberate, but I couldn't imagine why!). Then, when it came time for the Eucharistic prayer, BAM!, two spotlights shining right in my eyes! It looked as if the congregation was sitting in a fog! Thankfully, they were turned off before communion, so that I could see again. All that said, I enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate my first first Sunday of Advent! (and, bonus!, it meant I wasn't watching the Patriots get rolled over) Anyway, the whole experience kind of fit in with my homily. So, I'll share it here:

Today we begin the season of Advent. I always approach Advent with a bit of trepidation. Because I feel as if it is a time during which something wonderful should be allowed to happen; that if were to fully take advantage of the spirit of watching and expectation that I might find myself spiritually renewed and invigorated for a new year. Yet, Advent has been almost inevitably, for as long as I can remember, one of the busiest times of year for me. The expectation that I feel is not for the coming of the Lord, but rather all those things expected of me, all those things I have to accomplish in addition to my usual busyness in the coming weeks. My own expectations for having fully appreciated the graces of Advent, are usually disappointed as Christmas arrives and I wonder where those 4 weeks have gone. I expect that I’m not the only one here that has had this experience.

So, with that in mind, I was thinking about the final invocation of today’s Gospel: Watch! And it reminded me that my feelings were not so far removed from that of the characters in one of my favorite stories, Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. It’s a story that’s all about watchfulness, and which warns us not to be confounded by our own expectations—or our own egos.

The story begins as the two main characters, John Marcher and May Bartram meet at a party. Though John does not remember, May reminds him that they had met some years before. The certainty that they had met comes when May reminds him that he had shared with her one of his deepest convictions. John is astonished because he realizes that she knows something of him which he had shared with no one before or since. She describes to him what she still remembered so well:
“You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you."
Marcher explains that even in the intervening years, he has not achieved any greater sense of what this rare and strange thing might be, but that he is certain he would know it when he sees it. A deep friendship is forged by this intimacy, and May agrees to watch with John for its coming.

Remembering this story helped me to recall something else about the importance of this season. It’s not just that we watch for Jesus’ coming in the Incarnation, but that we watch together. Our lives, however busy, do not necessarily dictate what we do or do not get out of Advent, if we can together, like the Israelites in today’s first reading, recognize our need for God. And, just as importantly, how Jesus is incarnated in each one of us.

Back to the story. John and May become almost exclusive friends as they watch together. John even expresses his concern that May might be putting off her life for his sake, and the sake of what is to come. But May seems untroubled by this, and they continue this way for years. However, there comes a time when May, haven fallen ill, starts to become impatient. She even, it seems to John, appears to know what it is they have been waiting for, and seems even to believe it has already come. During their conversation she gathers the little energy she has, rises up from her chair and stands uncertainly before him, challenging him to see it. But he doesn’t understand her sudden impatience after all this time, and even regrets having burdened her so. Eventually, May succumbing to her illness, tries once more to help him realize the truth before she dies, but he cannot see it. A year later, John sets out to visit May’s grave and, on the way, he sees the pained face of a man who had so obviously lost the one he deeply loved. In that face he recognized what he should have been feeling, had he but realized that which he had been watching for had been there all along, and he flings himself face down onto May’s tomb.

John and May’s story reminds us certainly of the message in today’s Gospel to watch and prepare ourselves for Christ’s anticipated and unexpected arrival. But it also reminds us that Advent is a time not to be so distracted by the jungle of our lives—or even our hopeful expectations for Advent—that we miss the many ways in which we catch a glimpse of that final coming in the ways in which Christ becomes incarnate to us in the events and in the people—especially those who watch with us—of our daily lives.

If you're interested, you can read Henry James' full story here.