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Advent Day-by-Day: A Season of Surprises
By: Kathy Coffey

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Here comes another Advent and we aren’t up to it. The thought of digging through boxes in the basement, finding the Advent wreath, mustering the energy to shop for gifts may leave us drained. We were numb and cozy in our safe routines; how will we ever find the time or the resources to do more?

Alone, we won’t. Isaiah offers comfort: we are the clay; God is the potter. With exquisite care and a tender hand, God shapes us into something useful or beautiful. Achieving the perfectly orchestrated holiday doesn’t matter. What matters is watching for God in every situation, being attentive to small signs and fingerprints. These brief meditations may sharpen awareness and bring a reflective calm into a busy time.

First Week of Advent

Sunday: God’s Initiative

We can begin Advent with noble intentions, but the readings remind us that the main initiative is God’s. Standing on the threshold of this season, we are achingly aware of our need for someone greater than ourselves. Alone, we can’t create Christmas, or even a decent Advent.

Jesus asks us to be alert, aware of his awesome work. God’s action may come when we least expect it. We’d like a more dramatic sign: rend the heavens or shake the mighty mountains. But God enters softly, quietly. Are we waiting, awake?

(Is 2:1-5; Mt 8:5-11) Utter amazement

When a Roman centurion asks for help, Jesus responds immediately. He doesn’t quibble over nationalities or occupations but immediately focuses on healing the servant. When he hears the centurion’s tribute, he has the grace to be amazed. In the exchange of a few moments, the kingdom expands, larger than he ever dreamt. When we confront the glimmer of hope in our day—the truce, the breakthrough, the dramatic reversal—can we too stand astonished?

(Is 11:1-10; Lk 10:21-24) The child

In Isaiah, the child guides the calf and the lion, unaware that wild animals like these are murderous enemies. Innocently, the child rests a tiny hand on the snake’s den. Jesus praises those who, in childlike simplicity, understand mysteries hidden even to the most educated. The season holds many changes. The season confounds appearances, offers reversals of the usual, “the way things are.” Our response? Praise and gratitude that we have seen and heard these surprises.

(Is 25:6-10; Mt 15:29-37) No more tears

“How do we find this place in Isaiah where death is destroyed and tears are wiped away?” We want to buy one-way tickets there. The answer comes in the gospel and it’s not a place, but a person. The leader Isaiah foretold takes on flesh in Jesus. Compassionately, he restores God’s original vision of wholeness and beauty to the mute, lame or blind.

(Is 26:1-6; Mt 7:21,24-27) Built on rock

Jesus’ metaphor of housebuilding snags our interest because most people long for secure homes. We’ve seen too many foreclosures and flimsy structures destroyed by storms. Like a master builder, Jesus not only speaks; he models. We in turn imitate the compassion, directness and courtesy of Jesus. He directs us to a lifestyle which is less about pious phrases, more a matter of determined work, strong sinews and aching muscles.

(Is 29:17-24; Mt 9:27-31) Coming to sight

Our point of view changes over time. With God’s help, we gradually come to see better. Just as Jesus touched the eyes of the blind, so he shows us a clearer picture of another person, or the solution to a problem. Slowly, we begin to appreciate God’s presence in a situation which seems impossible, God’s energy in an area where we flag, God’s beauty if only we take time to notice. This Advent, we might all ask for a graceful touch to lightly brush our eyes.

(Is 30:19-21, 23-26; Mt 9:35—10:1, 5a, 6-8) Finding our Teacher

Today’s readings sound like call and response or two voices talking on the phone across a long distance. Isaiah promises: “your eyes shall see your Teacher” and in Matthew, Jesus goes to all the villages, teaching. The yearning for bread and water, direction and security voiced in the first reading is fulfilled in Jesus. He is moved by compassion for the plight of the people because their leaders have failed them. He must feel as a farmer does when the crops are ready to harvest, but there are too few workers to bring in the ripe grain. But his frustration does not lead to anger, as it would for many of us. Instead, he asks his friends to get involved.

Second Week of Advent

Sunday: Hope, not wrath

For those who lean forward expectantly, desperate for good news, John the Baptist offers hope. We want to join his crusade for straighter paths and a more just world. We yearn for a savior who asks our participation in his magnificent enterprise. We have a role to play here: Contribute to the kingdom. Prepare the way of the Lord. We are part of God’s plan to transform ourselves and the earth.

(Is 35:1-10: Lk 5:17-26) Desert drama

It’s not such a long leap from the desert Isaiah describes to the southwestern U.S. desert. There, hopeful immigrants endure searing heat, debilitating thirst and lost paths through a huge wasteland, seeking a way to support their families. Where is the strength and healing the prophet promises? It comes through the hands of human rights workers who bring them water and medicine. People still need God’s gracious highway.

(Is 40:1-11; Mt 18:12-14) Pausing for comfort

Today’s readings should help change images of a punitive God. Comfort is the first word, breathed tenderly as a mother leaning over her newborn, then repeated in case we miss the point. Our response? Initially, we may want to simply bask in the contentment of knowing such a God. If our prayer is usually asking for help in difficulty, we should try a happy rest in God, which some name contemplation. Then, strengthened for mission, we do God’s work. Naturally, we want to hurry forward, to quickly meet such an empathetic friend. We’ll eliminate the detours which drain precious time and energy away from God.

(Is 40:25-31; Mt 11:28-30) Take heart, take rest

Jesus must have understood how quickly we tire, how soon our burdens become heavy. Looking at a crowd bent over from years of manual labor and oppression, he speaks words that spring from deep compassion. Because he understands our need for rest, he promises it to all, no matter where we work, no matter how fast we tire. 

(Is 41:13-20; Mt 11:11-15) Held by the hand

Anyone who’s crossed a desert can appreciate the Isaiah reading today. In the vast, barren wilderness, God offers a helping hand. Fountains of water will spring up; trees will flourish. This passage should speak to our dry times and places. Where are we feeling desert-like (paralyzed, depressed or frustrated) now? Where do we need God’s life-giving hand?

(Is 48:17-19; Mt 11:16-19) Another lens on success

In today’s readings God interprets success differently than we do. God offers the ultimate consolation: our names never cut off from God’s presence. Have we delighted recently in ordinary blessings: the growth of a child, good health or the satisfaction of a meal? Do we fully appreciate the magnificent creator who abides with us every minute, guarding the smallest details of our days?

(Sir 48:1-4, 9-11; Mt 17:9a, 10-13) Totally awesome!

Jesus’ disciples ask him about Elijah right after the transfiguration. They are leaving the glorious mountaintop, trudging back to the squalor of cities and an epileptic boy. Jesus brushes aside the question, seeming to say, “Just as Elijah calmed wrath, so you too can learn to deal constructively with anger. He was awesome, but so too are people in your midst, today.” 

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Third Week of Advent

Sunday: Clarity

John the Baptist knows exactly who he is: a witness who can’t even do the servant’s work, unfastening a sandal strap. Such conviction about one’s self is a quality all need in Advent. When we’re tempted to be the extravagant Santa, the perfect hostess or the wise guru, we feel frazzled and torn, our energies pulled a hundred ways. Just as John knew who he was, so do we: God’s child; God’s messenger.

(Nm 24:2-7, 15-17a; Mt 21:23-27) An unsettling faith

At times we honestly do see Jesus; at other times we’re not so sure. So we can sympathize with the chief priests and elders who approach him. Jesus deflects their question with another question. They realize that either answer they give will lead into a quagmire. We can admire their answer, “we do not know.” Often “we don’t know” is the best response, showing the dilemma of being human: already here, not yet arrived.

(Zep 3:1-2, 9-13; Mt 21:28-32) First or second son?

God’s promise to remove braggarts from our midst is exhilarating. God will send instead faithful, humble people who don’t lie about what they’ll do; they simply, quietly get the job done. In gospel terms, they are the first son. Maybe they don’t collect awards or trumpet achievements, but eventually they do the father’s work. When have we been more like the second son than the first?

 (Is 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25; Lk 7:18b-23) A bright torch in jail

One intriguing thing about today’s Gospel isn’t recorded—John’s response to Jesus’ description of his work. Jesus’ answer doesn’t mention glorious trumpets, excessive wealth or triumphant armies. But the word he sends corresponds to the core of Scripture, directly attuned to the prophets. We can imagine John receiving this word and retreating to a dark corner. There, perhaps, he grinned broadly and treasured Jesus’ message for the rest of his life.

Late Advent
is a time when we intensify our desire for the coming of the Lord Jesus.

Thursday - December 17
(Late Advent)
(Gen 49:2, 8-10; Mt 1:1-17)
A feminine viewpoint

One diversion during the long string of “begats” in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is to listen for the names of his great-great-great-grandmothers. Tamar’s story, found in Genesis 38, is summarized: Widowed twice, she becomes pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab runs a brothel; Boaz must negotiate for Ruth at the city gates; King David has Bathsheba’s husband murdered so he can marry her. They are sad stories because the women are faceless; with Jesus’ coming, women finally start being recognized as persons with full rights.

Friday - December 18
(Jer 23:5-8; Mt 1:18-25)
Not the scene on Hallmark cards

Much as we enjoy the coziness of our decorated homes, approaching this special feast, it’s important to remember that the first Christmas was chaotic, unplanned, uncomfortable. Life for refugees isn’t easy, and Jesus chose to come in the hardest possible circumstances, showing from the beginning his solidarity with those who suffer. Joseph’s fidelity to Mary, despite the public shame, is the anchor that holds the small family together.

Saturday - December 19
(Judg 13:2-7, 24-25a; Lk 1:5-25)
The symphony begins

Today’s readings sound like a musical overture, touching themes which climax on Christmas Day. The first theme is that God’s work happens without fanfare in remote regions. The second is the surprising group of people God chooses: barren women who have profound hope. The third is the initial response of people who meet God’s heralds: terror.

We know from our experience that God often comes through what we dread: change, insecurity, disease or death. Then we must sit with our fears long enough to become confident of transformation. 

Fourth Week of Advent

Sunday: Startled by Good News

Today Elizabeth gets the last word: praise for God’s stunning intervention in a lonely life. Through her story, we can learn to trust God as biblical women did, sure that surprising interventions bring great good.

Monday - December 21
(Song 2:8-14 or Zep 3:14-18a; Lk 1:39-45) A lovely interlude

Let’s imagine today’s Gospel conversation, beyond what Luke records. “But I’m not married!” Mary wails. “And I’m old!” Elizabeth adds. Then, in the hopeful way of women, they don’t get stuck on the problems. They move to the joys, the enormity of God’s blessings. Settled comfortably with a snack and tea, they marvel how the impossible has happened.

Tuesday - December 22
(1 Sam 1:24-28; Lk 1:46-56) Canticle of joy

Mary’s song echoes back to her ancestor Hannah and forward to Jesus. (Compare the Magnificat to the Beatitudes.) Caught in perplexity, she sings praise. She faces enormous challenges, but her response is perfect, never doubting God’s justice. Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth begins as an ordinary encounter, a family reunion—then breaks forth into exuberance.

Wednesday - December 23
(Mal 3:1-4, 23-24; Lk 1:57-66) Glad tidings

The stories of the high holy days are interwoven with the joys that still lighten our days. What could be more uplifting than the news of a baby’s birth? John’s is further enriched by his father Zechariah breaking his long silence—agreeing with his mother’s name choice.

More good news: “The hand of the Lord was with him” is true for all of us too.

Christmas Eve
(Is 62:1-5; Mt 1:1-25) Jesus’ great-great-grandmothers

The Incarnation blesses us all. Jesus’ life was enmeshed in gritty human stories just as ours are. We heard the same Gospel earlier, in Advent—so we know it’s important.

How did Tamar feel about being passed down to the men of the family like an heirloom? Rahab was as spunky as the feisty women with whom Jesus enjoyed mentally sparring. Ruth is touchingly loyal to her mother-in-law, but how did she feel about Boaz bargaining for her? And did Bathsheba love Uriah, or David? It’s food for thought.

Christmas Day
(Is 52:7-10; Jn 1:1-18) Words like bells

One translation of John 1:14 is that the Word “pitched his tent in us.” That’s something to celebrate today: God chose to dwell not only among us, but within us, a human like ourselves. Do we act with the confidence and kindness of those who carry God within?

Kathy Coffey gives retreats and workshops nationally and internationally. Her latest book is The Art of Faith (Twenty-Third Publications).

NEXT: The Holy Family (by James Martin, S.J.)

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Martyrdom of John the Baptist: The drunken oath of a king with a shallow sense of honor, a seductive dance and the hateful heart of a queen combined to bring about the martyrdom of John the Baptist. The greatest of prophets suffered the fate of so many Old Testament prophets before him: rejection and martyrdom. The “voice crying in the desert” did not hesitate to accuse the guilty, did not hesitate to speak the truth. But why? What possesses a man that he would give up his very life? 
<p>This great religious reformer was sent by God to prepare the people for the Messiah. His vocation was one of selfless giving. The only power that he claimed was the Spirit of Yahweh. “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). Scripture tells us that many people followed John looking to him for hope, perhaps in anticipation of some great messianic power. John never allowed himself the false honor of receiving these people for his own glory. He knew his calling was one of preparation. When the time came, he led his disciples to Jesus: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus” (John 1:35-37). It is John the Baptist who has pointed the way to Christ. John’s life and death were a giving over of self for God and other people. His simple style of life was one of complete detachment from earthly possessions. His heart was centered on God and the call that he heard from the Spirit of God speaking to his heart. Confident of God’s grace, he had the courage to speak words of condemnation or repentance, of salvation.</p> American Catholic Blog Those who pray learn to favor and prefer God’s judgment over that of human beings. God always outdoes us in generosity and in receptivity. God is always more loving than the person who has loved you the most!

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