There is a modern saying, Bring it On. It refers to a fearlessness of the future. I suppose that if this saying existed in the 16th century, a certain teenager from the south of France would have embraced it.
Having been born into a poor family, each day, Vincent tended the cattle, sheep, cows, and pigs; barefoot, it is said. Despite the reality that the work needed to get done, Vincent’s father knew that his son had a different gift. After much sacrifice, he sent him to a Franciscan School in the city of Dax, a prosperous city of wide streets and beautiful mansions. There, Vincent found himself happy with his studies and happy to have left his past life— behind. But while excelling in his studies, amidst other students from deeper financial means, Vincent came to feel ashamed of his origins and his own father.
Later in life, he reflected about a time that most surely haunted him…
As a young man, when my father took me to the city, I was ashamed of going with him and of recognizing him as my father because he went poorly dressed and limped. I recall on one occasion in the school where I studied, I was told my father came to see me, a poor farmer. I refused to go out and see him.
To this day, I can still hear the nun who, in greater detail, told me this story. And after doing so, how she paused and remarked: “And Kurt, that was Vincent’s sin.”
Now if you know the rest of St. Vincent de Paul’s story, you know that Our Lord led him along curvy roads (including a few years when he was enslaved) until, at the age of 36, he came to know his mission in life: to serve Jesus through service to the poor.
Poor. I mention this word again because in our day and age, most of us think about this word in terms of material things we might lack: money, housing, food, healthcare, and transportation. Our earthly list goes on and on.
And all of this is true.
But when we step away from the earthly stuff (and whether we have enough or not), how many of us step back and stop our busy lives to consider if we are lacking in the things that matter, things we’ll take with us, we hope, to heaven? I know I do— a lot!
And what are the things that matter? If we were to pass a hat and have everyone write one word on a piece of paper and pass the hat along, I bet we’d find words like: compassion, kindness, caring, nurturing, and love. But even after the hat was full, our list of things that matter would be incomplete. Because, at day’s end, we are incomplete—without the Lord!
As I like to repeat at baptisms—over and over— what truly matters is this: Do you and I have a personal relationship with the Lord? Daily, do we lean on Him? Do we invite Him along with us? Do we share our joys and sorrows with Him? Our challenges? Our worries? Do we really acknowledge Him as Lord of our lives?
So, Advent begins! Bring it on!
During Advent, we are wise to lean on the wisdom of another Frenchman and saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived 500 years before St. Vincent. He tells us that during the holy season of Advent, we should ponder the three comings of Jesus Christ: (1) Nativity; (2) Second Coming; and (3) the ways that Jesus comes to us every day.
First, the Nativity…
Jesus comes to us in Bethlehem—as a baby.
Poor. How much more lacking is a newborn baby? And this was Jesus. Unable to care for himself, the second person of the Holy Trinity entered time and was dependent upon Mary and Joseph.
Additionally, He also chose not to be born at some luxury spa. Rather, He chose to be born poor and lowly and as, the Gospel of Luke reminds: “…He was laid in a manger, because there was no place for them [the Holy Family] in the Inn.”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once described those gathered around the Holy Crib (Mary, Joseph, and Shepherds) as experiencing the exact opposite of our “directional” conception of heaven; namely, that heaven is up! He noted that, for those gathered around the Christ child, as they gazed upon Him, heaven was down! Eternity had entered time. During Advent, just what does this mean to us?
Second, Jesus promised that He will come in glory at the end of time…
I’ve always found this to be frightening but perhaps it shouldn’t be. For when Jesus does return to render a final judgment on every person who has ever lived, if we are His friends, why should we be frightened at the prospect of this?
Until that time, Wisdom dictates that we be watchful, vigilant, and live out our vocation as Christians!
Thirdly, there is a coming of Jesus into our hearts—right now!
For Jesus is never passive. He is always the initiator, present to us, and actively seeks us out. Indeed, He is the One who, at the Baths of Bethesda, asked the man who had been ill for 38 years: “Do you want to be well?”
During Advent, He asks you and me the very same question: “Do we want to be well?”
In my own life, this past September, I experienced such a profound moment when the retreat leader passed out prayer questions to ponder and pray with. On one of them, he asked us to reverse the question Jesus posed to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” By turning it around, it allows Jesus to speak to us and let us know who we are—to Him! For me, in the deepest part of my heart, I heard “I created you. I died for you. I love you.” Needless to say, the experience is one I’ll never forget.
On this first Sunday of Advent, I leave you with words spoken by St. Pope John Paul II to the young people [and those young at heart] of America during his visit to Los Angeles in 1987:
I would like to invite each of you to listen to His voice. Do not be afraid! Do not be afraid! Open your hearts, open your hearts to Christ. The deepest joy there is in life is the joy that comes from God and is found in Jesus Christ, the son of God. Jesus Christ is the hope of yours and is my hope. He is the hope of the world.