Attentiveness in Advent

Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ.   These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.

Advent wreath in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel

Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son.
Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)

John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah.
There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)

And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)

To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming.  ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)

Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.

These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them.  What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between.  The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.

As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus.  The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.

The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?

Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t.  We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email.  And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible.  We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us.  During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.

Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit.  It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.

And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.

When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday.  With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.

I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task.  By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.

Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change.  It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work. 

It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God.  It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting.  In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us.  We closed our eyes.

Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah.  When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up?  Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.

He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal?  Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.”  When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things?  Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.

When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.

This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing.  Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate.  It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.

As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives.  Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us.  We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”

This quote was cited by the first Jesuit during his Advent homily.

A sacrificial feast

Written  November 2010.

Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiest holiday in the Islamic calendar. It is similar to Christians’ Easter celebrations, in that it is the most important holiday of the year, yet the worldwide festivities and preparations are less extensive than those during the month of Ramadan (which is similar to Christmastime in terms of the scope of celebration.) However, in Mecca, where over two million Muslims have traveled on pilgrimage, or hajj, the celebrations and rituals could not be grander, as I expect is also true in Jerusalem during Easter.

Muslims circle the Holy Kaba in Mecca
Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem during Easter

Eid al-Adha celebrates the sacrifice Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to make when God asked him to slaughter his son (Ismaeel/Ishmael).  The story is quite similar to the Christian one, but with notable changes that speak to the differences between the two faiths.  In the Bible, the story focuses solely on Abraham, and his willingness to give up his son in order to serve God.  We never hear from Isaac, who, at least in my mind, is likely scared and confused.  In the Islamic story, the focus too is on Ibrahim, but we also hear from Ismaeel, who is about to be killed.  Understanding what his father is about to do, Ishmael welcomes the action, telling his father to kill him if that is God’s will.  Luckily, in the end, both boys survive thanks to a ram caught in the bushes sent by God, who is pleased by his followers’ faithfulness.

Depiction of Christian story

When I first heard the Islamic version of the story, I was struck by the emphasis on Ismaeel and his willingness to submit to the will of God.  His faithful trust in God’s plan is emblematic of the attitude that I’ve witnessed in so many of my Muslim friends and teachers.  So often I hear the phrase, “In ‘sha Allah” muttered by my friends in the place where Christians might say, “hopefully.”  The Arabic phrase translates to “God willing,” and is used when discussing anything that may happen in the future.  My friends work hard to detach themselves from their own wishes and instead try to accept whatever God places in their way.  This core quality is even expressed in the name “Islam,” which means “submission to God,” and “Muslim,” literally means “the one who submits.”

A few weeks ago, I participated in the Muslim Students Association annual Fast-a-thon, an event in which Georgetown students fasted in solidarity with their Muslim friends and classmates in order to raise money and awareness for a cause.  We fasted from sunrise to sunset, without food or water, as if it were the month of Ramadan (which took place earlier in the year.)  At the iftaar meal at the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to give a reflection on fasting and sacrifice in Islam.  The following is what shared:

Hi, my name is Jordan Denari.  I’m a member of the Muslim Students Association; I live in the Muslim Interest Living Community on campus; and I’m a Catholic.  A lot of people have asked me if I’m converting to Islam, which is not surprising given my involvement.  But no, I’m not converting.

However, learning about Islam here on campus has been crucial to my religious growth and has in many ways brought me back to my Catholicism.  Through my attendance at and participation in MSA events, I’ve seen the beauty in Islam, which helped me to find the beauty in my own faith, which I had been unable to see for a long time.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon is really where all of that learning began.  Two of the biggest things I noticed about fasting in Islam—as I hope you’ve also noticed—are the emphases on sacrifice and community.  Fasting from food, drink, and negative thoughts all day for a month is clearly a sacrifice, especially when compared to the less intense forms of fasting I’m familiar with in Catholicism.  To my surprise, I quickly realized that Muslims were excited to fast, not only because their sacrifice was giving glory to God, but also because of the sense of community at the iftaar dinners, where Muslims gather together every night to celebrate their daily sacrifices.

I was struck by the power of these themes, and wondered why I wasn’t seeing them in my own faith.  That encouraged me to take a closer look at Catholicism and find those themes—sacrifice and community—that are so prevalent in Islam.  Through a lot of exploration last year, I found those things, but it was only while reflecting for this talk that I was able to see how similarly these themes intersect in Catholicism as they do in Islam.

That intersection is found in the Eucharist, the communion meal that occurs during Mass, in which we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice.  As Catholics, we too are called to sacrifice as Jesus did by serving the marginalized in our communities in order to bring God’s goodness into the world.  Every week, when we gather as a community for the Eucharist, we are celebrating the sacrifices we live out every day in our own way.  We may not be sacrificing food or water, but we are sacrificing our own time, our own goals, to follow the will of God.  In that way, the Eucharist is very much like the iftaar meal we are sharing in tonight.  At both meals we join in community to celebrate the sacrifices we make for God.

Finding this intersection point in the Eucharist makes the communion ritual that much more meaningful for me.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon was for me the unconscious beginning of a process of religious learning here at Georgetown.  I hope all of you make this meal a conscious start to your own growth.  I encourage you, whether you adhere to a specific faith or not, whether you believe in God or not, to take advantage of the opportunities you have here to learn from people of other faiths.  It not only fosters inter-religious and cultural understanding, but it also has the potential to increase your understanding of yourself and God.

I want to thank the Muslim community on campus for its support and for bringing us here tonight.  And especially, for helping me become a better Catholic.”

While Muslims today are slaughtering animals in remembrance of Abraham and Ishmael’s sacrifice, I am reminded of the Church’s own ritual slaughtering—the Eucharist—in which Jesus is offered up as a sacrificial animal, so that we, like Isaac and Ishmael, can be spared.  Unlike my Muslim brothers and sisters, I don’t have to wait another year to engage in my faith’s sacrificial ritual.  Fortunately, I just have to wait until Sunday.

Want to read and hear the Qur’anic passage from which the Ibrahim and Ishmael story comes? Qur’an, Chapter 37 (As-Saffaat), Verse 103

Want to learn more about Eid al-Adha and see pictures from the Hajj in Mecca?

 

 

Click here to see photos from the Washington Post.

 

 

Summary of the holy day

Al-Jazeera Special Report: Hajj 2010

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Also, today is the 21st anniversary of the murder of 6 Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador.  This weekend at the Teach-In we celebrated their lives and their sacrifice.