Many readers know that this past weekend I hiked with a group up Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean, as a fundraiser for BLUE Missions Group. Specifically, money raised was designated for projects that will bring water to rural Dominican households that have suffered its lack for too long. Many thanks to all who supported me financially, personally, and spiritually.
Yes, I made it to the summit and back down without special assistance. It was grueling and at times painful, but I did it and felt good about it. A genuine encounter with nature should teach one humility. We hear sometimes about “conquering” a mountain, but such talk is absurd when faced with the scale of God’s creation. It is more like when a six-year-old “beats” his father at arm-wrestling. The apparent victory is actually the result of a generous condescension. I am grateful to Pico Duarte for letting me climb it this time, but I know it has the power to crush me and 50 years from now, it will remain strong—I presumably will not. In the meanwhile, thanks to the height it lent me, I was able to walk with my head in the clouds and my feet on the ground at the same time.
Certainly a large part of the hike’s appeal was the physical challenge itself, but there is also something about making a sacrifice for the sake of a cause. It would have been more effective to simply donate money directly to a water project without diverting anything to the expenses associated with this trek, but I think we often choose to suffer—irrationally, romantically—because we know that the act of willful endurance will invest the object of our suffering with greater personal meaning. Rightly or wrongly, at times we measure love by sacrifice. This is one reason Catholics typically favor crucifixes with Jesus’ suffering figure still on the cross, rather than the empty cross favored by Protestants and Evangelicals emphasizing the Resurrection.
Love does not necessarily require suffering, though certainly it involves a willingness to suffer if necessary. Gratuitous suffering without love as a motivation however is senseless.
Advent is my favorite liturgical season, but the Advent readings that I most prefer sound like they belong in Lent, a season that we, perhaps wrongly, associate with suffering. My spiritual advice for Advent resembles that for Lent, insofar as I think both are important times to focus on repentance—turning our loves around. Why then prefer Advent to Lent, aside from it being a couple weeks shorter? I suppose to me, they are two different sides of the same coin. I think in Lent we often focus on how we should respond, hopefully in love, to God who, we should remember, loved us first and unconditionally. In Advent, this season of hope and expectation as we both remember Christ coming 2,000 years ago as well as his promise to come again, the focus is squarely on God’s loving desire to be among us. Nonetheless, this still calls for a loving response on our part.
This Advent, let’s really get ready. Let’s hear the long-suffering prophets of yesterday and today and join them in their longing. If Jesus were to return right now to lift up the lowly and level the exalted, I would have much to give up in the great rebalancing. How about you? Probably few if any people reading this inhabit the safe middle ground that we may imagine ourselves occupying. Any of us who experience comfort more often than we do lack probably have an idea of at least one way we can prepare for Jesus’ coming, lest he catch us unprepared. Advent is a great time of waiting, but when you are anticipating an important arrival, how many of you sit around at home doing nothing? My Advent challenge to you is not simply to find time for calm reflection, as important as that may be, but rather in your inevitable seasonal busy-ness, to make time to truly rearrange some aspect of your life in order to welcome the coming of God among us. If you do this however, make sure your motivations are correct—that you are driven not by fear but by love.
The “ear candy” and “brain food” for this week will hopefully both help us enter into Advent! Because Advent is about knowing that someday things will get easier, we have a song that really drives that point home—and as a special treat, the link below is to a live performance on Soul Train. The brain food is a reflection by Fr. William J. O’Malley, SJ reminding us that even as we try to turn our lives around, we will come up short… and that’s ok.
Ear Candy: “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps
Brain Food: “Jesus Loved Imperfect People” by Fr. William J. O’Malley, SJ