Early in Advent, a line of Scripture struck me strongly and has stuck with me ever since: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert’” (Jn 1:23). This Advent brought more revelations about the abuse scandals in the Church, exposed more injustice and racism in our country, and shed light on so much that is ugly and evil in the world. Through the months of the pandemic, things that were previously masked or concealed were stripped away. It has become very clear that we do, in fact, live in a desert where God’s kingdom of truth and justice has not been fully realized.
We have now arrived at Christmas, following a long Advent where the stark and painful reality of our desert was made clear.
At the beginning of Advent in 2018, Pope Francis said, “Advent invites us to a commitment to vigilance, looking beyond ourselves, expanding our mind and heart in order to open ourselves up to the needs of people, of brothers and sisters, and to the desire for a new world.” In years past, I’d always thought of Advent vigilance in terms of watching over my virtue, as if the only reason to be vigilant was to wait and prepare for my own particular judgement. But, once again, Pope Francis did what he is so good at doing: pulling us out of our self-absorption to remind us that Christ is calling us here and now to live out our mission in the world. Jesus is found in our brothers and sisters, especially in the poor. How vigilant are we to in looking for those in need? How attentive are we in listening to their needs?
This year saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, when Black people all across our country raised their voices to communicate the injustice and disadvantages they’ve faced through systemic racism. It’s astounding how so many Catholic public figures (not to mention Catholics in my own life) completely dismiss those who are speaking out—many of whom are Black Catholics—and reject their message entirely. And these figures are often the same people who consistently use apocalyptic language to warn us that the Second Coming of Christ is nearly upon us. Very few seem concerned about being vigilant to Christ in the poor and marginalized, here and now. So many of these Catholic figures have loudly expressed their longing for Jesus in the Eucharist during this pandemic. They have made clear that they are outraged that they cannot receive Jesus in the Mass whenever they want. Imagine if every Catholic longed to receive him in people who are poor and suffering with the same fervor.
At the beginning of Advent of this year, Pope Francis told the new cardinals that vigilance requires effort. Vigilance is not passive. He warned them of what he called the “slumber of mediocrity.” Without vigilance, we become indifferent. Without putting in the effort to remain attentive and to love God every day, or to listen and be watchful for him, “we become mediocre, lukewarm, worldly. And this slowly eats away at our faith, for faith is the very opposite of mediocrity: it is ardent desire for God, a bold effort to change, the courage to love, constant progress.”
Francis told them why indifference is extremely dangerous, because, “Those who are indifferent see everything the same, as if it were night; they are unconcerned about those all around them. When everything revolves around us and our needs, and we are indifferent to the needs of others, night descends in our hearts. Our hearts grow dark. We immediately begin to complain about everything and everyone; we start to feel victimized by everyone and end up brooding about everything.” Here the pope makes a startlingly clear diagnosis: making false claims of victimization and failing to show charity is the result of a lack of vigilance. Is it any wonder that the Catholics who dismiss the cries of those calling for social justice are often the same people who refuse to wear masks or follow simple public health protocols? Meanwhile, they will not hesitate to insist that they are victims of injustice or religious discrimination. This connection between a lack of charity and perceived victimization is something that everyone should reflect upon in our own examinations and personal discernment. Because charity is the antidote to indifference and mediocrity. As Pope Francis puts it in the same homily, “To rouse us from that slumber of indifference, there is the watchfulness of charity. Charity is the beating heart of the Christian: just as one cannot live without a heartbeat, so one cannot be a Christian without charity.”
In order to shift our understanding of vigilance from the desert of self-absorption or indifference to actively seeking our Jesus in other people, many of us will have to be open to change, and to question some of our tightly-held thoughts and feelings. But to experience this shift is to be converted and to be made new. In Advent 2016, Francis said, “In this season of Advent, we are called to expand the horizons of our hearts, to be amazed by the life which presents itself each day with newness. In order to do this, we must learn to not depend on our own certainties, on our own established strategies, because the Lord comes at a time that we do not imagine. He comes to bring us into a more beautiful and grand dimension.”
For me, this Christmas is in many ways the culmination of a year that forced me to question who I am, what I believe about my country, how I understand my fellow Catholics, who my neighbors are and what they need. True vigilance and the change it requires can be painful. And as we celebrate Christ’s birth this year, nothing seems as it was. This stressful year has made it difficult to find God in the triumphant Gloria of the angels or in the extravagant cathedrals and material riches of the Church. But I do find God in the babe who lays in the animal trough, and in the suffering and trials of the needy. I understand so much more why this world needs a Savior.
Most importantly, I celebrate Christmas with a deepened awe at the incomprehensible depth of the love of God, who willingly entered into this world of suffering—into this desert—on a cold winter night. To imagine the goodness of our God who came to us to bear it all, vulnerable, poor, hated and hunted, spared of none of humanity’s hardships. And he did this to redeem us. What wondrous love must our Lord have for us, that he willingly entered into our world, with all its sufferings?
This Christmas season, as we adore this babe who did just that, let us ask him how we can emulate that love in the world, in this desert.
Have a blessed Christmas.
Image: Adobe Stock. By rudall30.
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Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California's Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.