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The Pilgrims can teach us about Advent

This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving and begin the liturgical season of Advent. While the two events may not appear to be related, I believe that the spiritual practices behind Thanksgiving can prepare us to live Advent well.

The most widely accepted story about the first Thanksgiving is that it was held in November 1621 in Plymouth, Mass., after settlers from the Mayflower were able to raise their first successful crop of corn.

The tradition of setting aside a day to thank God for his blessings was one that the Pilgrims brought with them from England, but this practice has a spiritual counterpart that is often forgotten today. In times of difficulty, the Pilgrims would declare days of fasting and penance to purify themselves and to help them see how God was working in the trials they were experiencing.

The spiritual principle underlying this is one that we can benefit from as we begin Advent and get ready to renew our welcome of Jesus with the celebration of Christmas. Just as we clean our house and prepare food when we are expecting guests, we are called to prepare our hearts for Christ’s arrival. And the more ready we are to welcome him, the more thankful we will be, and the more our families will be filled with the joy of Christmas.

One passage of Scripture that illustrates this principle well is Chapter 5 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, where he urges the Christians of Ephesus not to abandon the true God by returning to pagan practices, but to dedicate their lives to seeking God’s will.

“Therefore do not be foolish,” St. Paul writes, “but understand what the will of the Lord is … always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father (emphasis added)” (Eph 5:18, 20).

The ability to give thanks “always and everywhere,” he explains, flows from the true God and our rejection of immorality. In other words, we are able to give thanks when our hearts are pure and our wills are conformed to God’s.

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This is something that we should imitate, especially as we walk through Advent toward Christmas, toward the manger in Bethlehem where Jesus came into the world as a child.

If we spend Advent purifying our hearts as the Pilgrims did in the times of difficulty that preceded their first harvest, and as St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians, then we will be able to prepare a deeper and more intimate place in our hearts and families for as we rejoice at Christmas.

This is the true meaning of Christmas: welcoming Jesus, encountering him, loving him and giving thanks to the Father for the gift of his Son, Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matt 1: 23).

I encourage everyone in the archdiocese to spend this Advent seeking God’s will and purifying your hearts through his grace.  Let each of us cry out each Advent morning, “Lord, purify my heart and make it like yours.”

The world needs to see the authentic joy that comes from welcoming Jesus at Christmas, especially since attempts are made every year to remake the celebration of Christ’s birth into a secular holiday.

Just last week, SkyView Academy, a public charter school in Highlands Ranch, decided to cancel its involvement with Operation Christmas Child. The program delivers shoeboxes filled with gifts to poor children around the world, accompanied by a message inviting them to consider Christianity.

The school decided to pull out of the program because it received a letter from the American Humanist Association threatening a lawsuit if it did not suspend its involvement. The Humanist Association’s action demonstrates their lack of understanding of the values upon which our country was founded and is a rejection of the historical event of Christmas.

The local story of SkyView Academy is one example of how attempts are being made to set God aside in favor of the anti-values of atheism, consumerism, busyness, gluttony and greed. This stands in opposition to the message of the manger: the message of littleness, meekness, contentment and interior conversion.

Our society needs to see Christians transformed with the real joy caused by the good news of Christmas and Jesus’ entrance into our history. People are wondering who is right. Did Jesus really come at Christmas? Did the all-powerful God truly become a helpless child to save us? Or is Christmas just another holiday that gives us a chance to shop and make big meals?

May all of us spend this Advent purifying our hearts so that we can welcome Jesus at Christmas with joy and thanks for his love for us, and may we proclaim his message with boldness and humility in our world, following the example of the little child who changed history forever when he was born in Bethlehem.


Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).

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