Be more than 'nice' during Advent Print E-mail
Bishop's Column
Thursday, Dec. 05, 2013 -- 12:00 AM
This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.

Dear Friends,

Already Advent is upon us. We have concluded our Year of Faith with gusto, and now we are called to undertake, once again, the journey of a liturgical year.

This journey begins, as always, with our preparation for entering into the most pivotal moment of human history — the moment that God became man.

That the eternal Creator of the universe should have come amongst us, not only to dwell, but to call us to a life with and like Him, means a complete reordering of everything — every single thing.

The profound reality of the Incarnation and its implications for our lives is why we have a season of Advent each year; we take the time to consider how each of us responds to the presence of God in our lives, and what that means for us.

Christmas: a yearning for Christ

That we should need to take time to prepare for such a reality should come as no surprise, and yet it is often forgotten.

So excited are we to jump into Christmas, that we can’t even wait until the day after Thanksgiving to begin “Christmas” shopping (which seems to have become a very popular day of buying “gifts” for ourselves too).

Christmas shopping now begins on Thanksgiving Day, and I even came across Christmas decorations as early as the end of October this year.

This jumping the gun for Christmas can be troubling in that it tends to trivialize what Christmas really means, but I must offer a positive point of hope in this regard.

The fact that so many people are eager for Christmas is, in and of itself, a good thing. I believe that deep down it is a yearning for Christ which compels people forward — whether or not they would ever admit or realize it. It is Christ who is the deepest yearning of every human heart.

It is only in Christ that mankind finds meaning. Truly, He is the way, the truth, and the life. This desire for Christ still has its residual effect upon what we have come to know as Christmas.

By and large, Christmas is still a time for families and for warm-feelings, for good cheer, and good intentions. Christmas is still marked most of all, by gifts given and received.

All of this is good. It is a break from what we commonly experience through the year, and this is another reason that people are so desperate for it; Christmas is still very nice.

Christmas means more than being ‘nice’

Indeed Christmas is very nice, and niceness is one of the only virtues recognized by our society. But is niceness — understood as putting on a smile and saying happy things to people, and even doing something for them (when it is convenient for us) — really a virtue?

Did God become man just to help us to be nice? Did Jesus live His life in such an intensely nice way, that in the end, the authorities said, “this guy is just way too nice; he makes everyone feel comfortable and happy — we’d better crucify him?”

Or could it be — perhaps — that that to which we are called is far, far more than just niceness?

Of course, the answer is “yes.”

We are called to far, far more than just niceness. We are called to love — and again, not just love as understood in greeting cards or pop songs . . . even Christmas pop songs!

The love to which we are called is the love for which we are to prepare during Advent.

It is the love which gives without counting the cost, the love which is always for “the other.” It is the love which is “not I.”

We should be always ‘not I’

God’s love for humanity, which was made manifest in the Incarnation, was an expression of “not I,” even from the very start. Let’s take a moment to consider how “not I” marked every step of Christ’s life.

Mary’s response to God’s invitation to participate in the Divine plan was, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word (Lk 1:38).” Not I.

Mary, bearing Christ within her, goes to visit her cousin. What is Elizabeth’s response to the presence of Mary (and Jesus)? “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Lk 1:43)” Not I.

Joseph, learning of God’s plan, and despite the outwardly scandalous reality of his betrothed being with child, immediately did what God desired and took her into his home (Mt 1:24). Not I.

All who learned of the birth of the Christ child -- from shepherds to wise men -- dropped what they were doing and came to adore (Lk 2:8-20, Mt 2:1-12). Not I.

John the Baptist spent his whole life calling people to repentance -- to forgetting themselves -- and he gathered quite a following. But what was his message? “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals (Mk 1:7).” Not I.

And we can look through all of the Gospels to find, time and again, the message of Jesus -- it is not my will, but the will of my Father who sent me . . . This was His message of self-gift, his message of “not I,” which culminated in His death on the Cross.

The self-gift of Jesus was offered in accord with the will of the Father, for the good of all mankind.

So what is the message that is to be carried forth by his followers? It is the message is that we should be always “not I.”

Living as ‘not I’

And living as “not I” is far more than simply being nice.

Being nice often means giving from our excess in order to make others feel happy.

And niceness is often carried out with the realization that we will gain something in return.

Even the nice Christmas custom of gift-giving is typically done in a reciprocal way.

So often we give gifts with the realization that we are going to receive a gift from the other person.

And even if we do not receive a physical gift from the other person, we at least receive their gratitude and/or some self-satisfaction.

Here again, this in and of itself is not wrong -- it’s very nice. But we’re called to even more.

We are called to find ways of giving which cannot be returned. We are called to find ways of giving not just from our excess, but from our very sustenance — so that the “I” is poured out.

Submitting to God’s will

In addition, living as “not I” means submitting our own will to that of Christ and His Church.

Living as “not I” means recognizing that Christ becoming one of us and providing us with a real, tangible way of following Him does call for some sacrifice.

It calls for being servants of the Truth and speaking that truth with love -- even when it makes people feel uncomfortable. (Here the secular ideal of niceness comes into conflict with the virtue of authentic charity.)

Living as “not I” must be put into practice in each moment of each day, and it can certainly be difficult.

Even those who are very openly devoted to living a life with-and-like Christ can be tempted into complacency and comfortableness.

We follow Christ, we even sacrifice . . . but we do it in our way.

We give to the poor and to the Church in the way we feel most comfortable.

Married couples and families get into a rut (both individually and as a couple/family) of sacrificing for one another in the way that they want.

Priests, bishops, and religious can be tempted to laying down their life for the people they serve, for their communities, in the way that we want.

And when some new, unexpected opportunity to live as “not I” comes along, we tend to avoid it. We say, “oh, I do enough.”

The disciple of Jesus Christ can never say, “I do enough.”

The disciple of Jesus Christ should be asking, each day, “how do I live more for ‘the other’ today, how do I let thy will be done in me today?”

So, let’s examine our lives this Advent and let’s consider how we can be even more than nice. Let’s consider how we can live more and more the “not I” to which Christ is calling us.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Have a very blessed first week of Advent!

Praised be Jesus Christ!