My boys have made their Christmas wish lists, and so begins their season of longing.
This is a good, even great, thing. If their longing for Christmas presents—the likes of Xbox games and graphic novels—gets conflated with their longing for Christ, I’ll take it, because they are eleven, and like most of us, products of our present culture as much as our eternal Catholic faith.
Advent is anathema to our American ways. From fast food and fast fashion, to on-demand entertainment, there is little longing left in secular life. And while we long for normalcy in 2020, features like curb-side pickup of groceries and library books have replaced standing in line, waiting our turn: expectation has all but been erased. Advent, on the other hand, is all about longing, waiting, and expecting, together. To my school-age boys, these four weeks feel like an eternity. I think they’ve got it right.
What to do with such relentless longing but contemplate, pray, and – as an avid fan of modern Catholic writers – read?
My favorite story to sit with during Advent is the late Catholic writer John L’Heureux’s at least semi-autobiographical story, “Communion,” which begins on “the short bleak morning of the day before Christmas.” The setting includes snow, something my boys and I long for this time of year. But in the story it’s not too much snow that our protagonist, a young Jesuit priest named Conor, won’t be able to get from his cozy Jesuit novitiate, Shadowbrook, to his weekend call – “out in a parish, hearing confessions and saying Mass for real people facing real problems in the real world.”
The jury’s still out on whether 2020 is real, unreal, or maybe surreal, but there have been real problems and sorrows plenty. I often think on that word, “sorrows,” because my family’s parish is an Our Lady of Sorrows, and non-Catholic friends have commented on what a depressing name that is for a church. Of sorrows, I take a communal view. And I quote often one of my favorite poets and essayists, Ross Gay, who says in The Book of Delights: “What if we joined our sorrows…What if that is joy?”
A story like L’Heureux’s “Communion” can help me contemplate my faith and longing during Advent—as I deal with both sorrows and joys. I don’t go into the text expecting easy takeaways. Fresh-faced Conor is confronted by staid old parish priest, Father Mahoney, and the two verbally spar – on old religion versus new ways, God’s will versus free will – in between hearing confessions and saying Mass. The crux – staid old Father Mahoney asks Conor, “Whom are you serving? Who is your God?”
The question haunts Conor as he says Mass on Christmas morning, holding up the chalice for the consecration, and speaking these communal words: “For this is the chalice of my blood, of the new and everlasting covenant… which shall be shed for you and for many others…” But it’s only Conor’s own hard reflection he sees in the metal cup.
I thought of this story of priests and service the other night, after receiving the list of presiders at the Christmas and Christmas Eve Masses at our parish and sister parish. There is shuffling around. There will be, as in the L’Heureux story, young priests sent out into real-world parishes. There seems never to be enough priests for our quarter-full churches.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, Advent endures, and I think so can we. We hold fast, as the greetings cards roll in with impatient messages, like “Peace Out, 2020!” and “Come on in, 2021!” Make your wish lists, I tell my boys—wishes are acts of faith, after all. Light another candle in the Advent wreath. And try to remember whom we are serving, whom we are longing for.
Rebecca Moon Ruark is a writer, a twin mom, a Mass cantor, and a kitchen dancer. Her short reflections have appeared in Ruminate, at her own blog, Rust Belt Girl, and at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where she serves as features editor.