I have my Christmas shopping done. Thanks to gift cards. Now it is on to those Christmas cards, gathering greens for decorations, and putting up the Christmas tree. It’s Advent, the season for Christmas preparations. Those preparations should be a happy time, but sometimes all the parties and holiday festivities can be demanding and cause anxiety. We all want Christmas to be perfect, but it can be work, and we can have difficulty feeling joy this time of year.
Since the beginning of Advent, I’ve been talking with you about how we can make preparing for Christmas more joyful by using this time to grow in an attitude of gratitude. If we take time during this season of preparation to give thanks, it will become more relaxing and happy.
Ingratitude is a trap, and it sucks away our happiness and wellbeing. It causes us to become self-centered and entitled. Psychological studies and our own experiences prove that people who are thankful for little joys in their daily lives are healthier and more productive. Having an attitude of gratitude doesn’t mean we ignore problems in the world. It isn’t false optimism or a Pollyannaish outlook on life. It is the realization that it is in our best interest to grow in gratitude to enjoy life’s fulness.
We can take some simple steps to live with more gratitude in our lives. They are simple steps but not easy ones, and it takes disciple, dedication, focus, and commitment to live with gratitude. The first step is recognizing the gifts and blessings that come about every day. That can be challenging because, at first, they can seem very small. They can be as small as exchanging a greeting with a stranger on the street.
Several weeks ago, I suggested keeping a gratitude log this Advent. I recommended at the end of each day writing down at least five things you were grateful for that day. Several parishioners told me they planned to do that this Advent and they were going to encourage other family members to do the same. How is it going? I’ve been trying to do it. I admit I’ve missed a couple of days, but often I find more than the five things to be grateful for each day.
Step number two is to turn to the giver of every good gift. When you finish tabulating the good things, recognize that God is the giver of every blessing and say a prayer of thanks to God. We live in a very individualistic society, and we can begin to believe our gifts in life are our creation, but they aren’t. God gives us very personal blessings tuned to our individual needs. God wants to have a personal relationship with us, so he gives us exactly what we need to grow closer to God.
Practicing gratitude can be difficult because we face problems in life, and they can be big problems. Ones like losing a job, meeting a chronic health problem, worrying that we will outlive our retirement savings, or concerns about broken relationships with those we love. They can be minor problems such as the daily anxieties of life that add up to weigh us down. Living a lifestyle of gratitude means looking at all our problems and seeing blessings beyond the burdens. Faith is thanking God in advance for the personal growth of confronting our problems.
Last week I talked with you about thanking the people in your life who have mentored you and helped you grow to your potential. They may be a teacher, parent, friend’s parent, or coach that had an impact on your life, and you may never have taken the time to thank them.
In last week’s reading, we had the example of St. Paul, who wrote his Letter to the Philippians as a thank you note. Paul had an especially close relationship with the Philippians because they had supported him in his ministry, especially while he was in prison. They didn’t only pray for him; they helped him financially and even sent a member of the community to see to Paul’s needs.
Paul continues in today’s second reading to encourage the Philippians to live with gratitude. He tells them, “The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” Paul wants them to be grateful in the face of suffering as he is grateful, even when he is imprisoned. Maybe write a letter to the person you feel most thankful for their encouragement. If they are deceased, say a prayer for them.
This week the gospel reading encourages us to show our gratefulness by giving. John the Baptist is a central figure in our Advent Season, and the gospels tell us John preached as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. He offered good news of the arrival of the Savior. John preached renewed faith to the people. He called them to conversion from sin and offered a baptism of repentance to them. People from throughout the cities and villages answered John’s call, and it was the marginalized people who were most responsive to him. Tax collectors and soldiers wanted to become more faithful to God.
John the Baptist preached to everyone they had work to do to receive the Lord. They couldn’t rely on their religious heritage to get them by on the day of the Lord. Just because they were descendants of Abraham, that wasn’t sufficient to gain them salvation. Their lives had to reflect their faith.
Some cultural Catholics can live the same way. They believe they are good with God if they receive the Sacraments. They contend, “I’m baptized, I made Communion and received my Confirmation, I’m good to go. I don’t need to live out my Catholicism, and I don’t have to worship God or pray.
Some parents can have a similar outlook. They can believe if they bring their children to religious education and the child receives Confirmation, they have completed their job as a Catholic parent. No, they wouldn’t allow their child to quit school at that age. Parents still have a responsibility to nurture their child’s faith through adolescence and young adulthood.
John the Baptist preached against that mentality. The faith he reminded the crowds who listened to him must be alive and lived every day. We can’t take faith for granted, and if we do, sin will enter and disrupt our relationship with God.
John convinced his listeners with his preaching, and they wanted to respond to him. They asked him, “What shall we do?” John answered, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Caring for those in need is the essential response to preparing for the coming of the Lord.
Several weeks ago, we held our Stewardship Sunday. I asked you to evaluate how you share your gifts of time, talent, and treasure with the parish. Thank you to those who responded. I’ll be following up with you after the holidays. Giving to your place of worship is an act of worship. Giving some of our gifts back to God even before our other expenses needs to be our top priority. Offering your gifts to help our parish flourish and grow should be a top priority with each of us.
Giving to the poor from our surplus is our next priority. This year I had quite a bit of excess income because of the pandemic relief payments I received from the government. I was lucky.
My income didn’t suffer because of the pandemic. So, I contributed those payments to groups helping those suffering lost income because of the pandemic. Giving is an expression of gratitude for what is ultimately a gift from God. Sharing is an expression of thanks to God for our excess.
This Advent, the parish is sponsoring a particular project to help the poor. It’s called a Reverse Advent Calendar, and every registered parishioner got one with my Advent Letter. If you would like one, they are on the table at the back of the church. We ask participants to buy a particular item each Advent day. Please box your items and leave them at the Parish Center the weekend of January 7/8. We will share them with our local food pantries.
Many items on the calendar are health and beauty aids or name-brand food items. They are things clients of food pantries need but can’t afford. Food pantry clients often receive a pre-selected bag of basic foodstuffs, and they have little control over what they receive. Occasionally offering them a name-brand item or something particular adds just a little dignity to lives that don’t often have much. I hope you will participate in the Reverse Advent Calendar this year.
While we think to share our material wealth during our Christmas preparations, we can’t forget to share our spiritual gifts. Today we are reminded to be people of joy, and joy grounded in faith is the presence of the Lord in our midst. Be generous with your gifts of faith this Advent. Make sure you appreciate all those you are in contact with during your Christmas preparations. Share the spirit of Jesus with them.
Plan to invite someone who usually doesn’t come to church to Christmas Mass this year. If you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who doesn’t come to church anymore or has never been to church, invite them this year. If you haven’t been attending church because of the pandemic, consider returning to Mass this Christmas.
Advent is the time we celebrate awaiting the birth of Christ. It is also the season when God awaits the birth of Christ in us. Living a life of faithful gratitude for God’s blessings and being willing to share those blessings with the materially and spiritually poor will undoubtedly give birth to a renewed presence of Christ in all of us this Christmas.