How St. John of the Cross can save your Advent season

Waiting is never easy. Time slows down and the mind tends to run uncontrollably. Yet, the Church teaches the art of waiting and uncovers its meaning and importance. Advent is that time to await the coming of Jesus. What does that mean? St. John of the Cross has the answer.

Advent is a time of hope, of faith, of expansion of the heart’s desire to receive Christ: A time of waiting for and in love.

St. John of the Cross lived for the “adventus” (the coming) of his greatest love, Jesus, and sought him tirelessly, knowing his limitations and letting himself be molded.

“During Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on the coming of Christ, and that’s what St. John of the Cross focuses on,” said Sister Rita Therese of the Sacred Heart, local superior of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles in Denver. “We prepare for him by seeking, with our whole lives… to become more like him.”

Nonetheless, in this process, what the Christian can do through acts of penance and self-denial is limited, she explained.

God, in his mercy, steps in and purifies what man alone can’t cleanse, to lift him up to perfect union with himself. This purification is what St. John calls “the dark night of the soul.”

St. John systematically describes two different “nights,” or stages, of this purification to reach such union with God: the night of the senses and the night of the spirit, explained Father David J. Centner, expert on St. John of the Cross and Discalced Carmelite friar of the province of Washington, D.C.

The Christian’s job is then mainly to let God work in him, growing in desire and love for him, he added.

“In the night of the senses nothing satisfies,” Centner said. God’s love is at work, cleansing man of all sensory desires to help him see and love more.

During the night of the spirit, other challenges arise. Freed from all sensory desires, man can see more clearly, yet still struggles with his ego and truly loving God before himself, Centner continued. God steps in again to purify to perfection, taking away all gratification, even in religious practices.

“[It seems that people in these nights] no longer have anything to live for,” Centner declared. “In fact, they might die in a reactive depression if God did not draw them on from time to time through consolations that give them hope… until their desires are satisfied with nothing less than God.”

Advent and the Night

The relationship between this journey and the Advent season does not mean that Advent has to be painful.

The Dark Night is primarily about love, Centner said, “We often obsess over the darkness and miss the point entirely.”

What they hold in common is that Advent teaches the meaning of waiting in love for the loved one. An anticipation that is active but also passive: Allowing God to work in the heart, in the daily tasks man can’t control.

“Advent means awaiting, but it’s an awaiting that gives hope,” said Sister Juanita of Jesus and Mary, member of the Carmelite Sisters in Denver. “St. John of the Cross teaches us that even though [the night or our many difficulties] may feel terrible and painful, we always keep the hope that God is at work.”

“This hope and awaiting dilates our heart into the silence and quietness of Advent, so that our hearts are more able to receive God’s love when he comes at Christmas,” added Sister Faustina of Merciful Love, also a Carmelite and principal of St.’s Peter and Paul School in Denver.

God molds man’s heart when he awaits, when he prepares, when he lets himself be shaped. While the Christian is called to seek to love him actively, ultimately, God will have to come in and purify his love.

Advent is a time to hope and let the heart be transformed by the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome.

In the many situations that a person can’t control, God wishes to work in him, so like St. John, he learns to desire God above all else, and desire everything else in him – as he expressed it in his “Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love:”

“The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me.

“What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in something less.”

COMING UP: Why should you spiritually prepare for Christmas?

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The holiday cheer, the Christmas music, the warm drinks and the shopping deals — these are just a few of the things we love most as we get close to Christmas. While good and fun, these things, in all the noise and busyness, might lead us to overlook the days leading up to the celebration of Christ’s birth as an important time of preparation — otherwise known as Advent.

So what is Advent and why does the Church set aside time for it?

Comprised of four weeks leading up to Christmas Day and set aside by the Church as a time to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus in a deeper way, the season of Advent is a crucial time to reflect on our relationship with God and to truly be awake to his presence, according to Msgr. Bernard Schmitz, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Denver.

“Anytime you have a major liturgical celebration such as Christmas or Easter, or even before a solemnity of some kind, there’s always a vigil, there’s always some kind of preparation,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “You come before the Lord with the acknowledgement and the awareness that we’re really unworthy to be present there, so it’s a desire to really claim our poverty of spirit and be open to the gifts the Lord has for us. So Advent is exactly that.”

Advent is the preparation for two comings: The second coming of Christ and the Incarnation, when Christ became flesh. And the preparation is a grace offered to us to enter more deeply into those mysteries.

“God’s grace is always available, but we have our own free will. We have the will to ignore it or receive it,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “So if in Christmas what we focus on is the Incarnation and God’s presence with us, I have to prepare my heart for that.

“Because if all the Advent season has been primarily [focused] on me, and on what I’m going to get or do for somebody else, or being able to brag about getting my Christmas cards sent, how am I going to be awake to the Lord?” he added. “It’s not magical. In order to be able to enter into the mystery of Christmas, I have to get myself out of the way.”

Just another Lent?

What’s the difference between Advent and Lent? Is Advent just another, shorter season of penance like Lent?

According to Canon Law, it’s not penitential (“The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent,” Can. 1250), but it is still a time to prepare our hearts for Christ and is an opportunity for reconversion.

Anytime you have a major liturgical celebration such as Christmas or Easter … there’s always some kind of preparation. You come before the Lord with the acknowledgement and the awareness that we’re really unworthy to be present there, so it’s a desire to really claim our poverty of spirit and be open to the gifts the Lord has for us. So Advent is exactly that.”

“Advent, [although somewhat penitential], its focus is more in terms of opening my eyes to see the presence of the Lord, and Lent is a more serious penitential intent on imitating Christ’s 40 days in the desert to really cleanse myself,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “If I was going to make a comparison, it would be between the Lord and his 40 days in the desert as preparation for ministry. In Advent, my comparison would be the Blessed Mother, her preparing to give life. If we’re to give birth to the Word of God, we have to prepare to do that.”

While the season of Lent is penitential and Advent more characterized by hopeful longing and joyful expectation, both are a time of prayerfulness, almsgiving and sacrifices.

Another similarity is that both seasons use the color purple in the priests’ vestments as a symbol of penance, sacrifice and preparation, as well as a second color: Rose (or pink), which is worn on the third Sunday of Advent, known as “Gaudete” Sunday, symbolizing joy.

Practical preparation

There are plenty of ways we can practically prepare for Christmas during the Advent season, according to Msgr. Schmitz. One of the most popular ways is the Advent wreath, which symbolizes Christ as a light in the darkness and has four candles, three purple and one pink for each of the four weeks of Advent.

More than just a tradition, an Advent wreath is a great way to prepare for the coming Christmas season. It has one candle for each of the four weeks of Advent, and symbolizes Christ as a light in the darkness. (Stock photo)

“I remember as a child we had an Advent wreath and every night before dinner, we would pray the prayers and light it and we always enjoyed as kids to see which one of us was going to get to light it,” he laughed.

“Certainly attending Mass is helpful, confession during Advent, and most parishes have Advent penance services,” Msgr. Schmitz continued.

He also recommended a Christmas novena, fasting from meat on Fridays, saying a rosary as a family, or fasting from Christmas music for a couple weeks until the day the Christmas novena starts, or delaying celebrating until Christmas Eve.

“Probably the most important thing is [asking], who do I need to forgive, or who do I need to ask forgiveness from before we get to Christmas?” he said. “Because the greatest gift we give each other is our presence. So who have I not been present to? Who do I need to find a way to reach out to to heal?”