December 2006 - Volume 11, Issue 5
Charles Dickens' classic, Great Expectations, opens on Christmas Eve. It introduces us to Pip, an orphan who was being raised by his sister and her husband. I won't offer a detailed summary of the plot except to say that, as a boy, Pip lacked expectations. His chance encounter with a convict (Magwitch) and with a rich elderly woman (Miss Havisham) and her daughter (Estella) changed Pip's view of himself and the world. If before he felt he had no option except to be an ambitionless blacksmith, his encounter with these people raised his sights. He could envision love, wealth, and newfound social status - all of which he previously thought were unattainable.
As it turned out, the convict was his benefactor and a more noble character than Pip had imagined. Pip's expectations were trimmed and reshaped by undreamt-of adventures, but at the end of the novel, Pip's life turns out better than he might have expected as a young orphan in his sister's house. And we find ourselves harboring great expectations for the rest of Pip's life.
None of us stepped out of a Dickens' novel, but all of us can think of people who inspired us to think about ourselves and our future in new ways. I often think of my high school principal, Father John Lesousky, C.R., who gave me confidence and encouragement to pursue the priesthood. He helped me envision myself doing all kinds of priestly work and modeled the virtues necessary for this great calling. Father John still calls now and then to check up on his old student and to give me a word of encouragement.
Something similar happens in our diocesan high schools. Often when I visit these schools, I meet accomplished and faith-filled volunteers who serve as mentors to our students. These men and women are part of the Shepherds' program. They help the students they tutor and guide to have the vision and confidence needed to develop their God-given talents. Not only do the "shepherds" help students excel in academics, they also help them grow in their ability to relate well to others. These mentors instill in the students they serve "great expectations" for happiness, integrity, and success as they head to college and contemplate the future course of their lives.
Most of us go through life with great expectations though, like Dickens' character, Pip, we learn to temper and shape our hopes with the passage of time. The boundless dreams of youth tend to become more realistic as we grow in age and wisdom. Sometimes life's misfortunes and disappointments can limit our options and diminish our plans. And sometimes, for a variety of reasons, people try to glide through life at a level well below their potential. Still, we can't quite shake those great expectations deep within us.
Nor should we! The One who inscribed those expectations in our hearts is the living God. God made us for Himself and sent His Son into the world to share our humanity to redeem us of our sins and to unite us with Him and with one another. Whether we articulate it or not, only God's infinite love fully satisfies the longings of the human heart. Camouflaged within the hopes, achievements, and disappointments that fill our waking hours is a desire to encounter the God who created us - not because He needs us but because He loves us. Further, through Baptism, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity have been infused within us as gifts of God.
As the newly-published United States Catholic Catechism for Adults teaches us, "[these theological virtues] dispose us to live in relationship with the Holy Trinity." Furthermore, the God who created us to share in His love is not a mere passive presence in our lives. Rather, as Saint Augustine witnessed, God insistently calls out to us. In Augustine's own words: "You called, shouted, and your broke through my deafness. You breathed your fragrance on me . . . I have tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for more" (The Confessions, Book 10, no. 27). In fact, we will never understand ourselves nor will we make sense of our lives unless and until we hear and answer God's call, a call that corresponds to the deepest longings of our hearts.
We can find God's initiative and those deepest longings of ours powerfully expressed in the Church's Advent liturgy. This Sunday we begin the Season of Advent, a time of joyful hope, a time when, as individuals and as a community of faith, we renew our trust in the promises of God. As the norms for the Church's liturgical calendar put it: "Advent has a two-fold character as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's second coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period of devout and joyful expectation." In other words, in these very busy weeks leading up to Christmas, we have the graced opportunity to give expression not to the lesser expectations that so preoccupy us but to the greatest expectation of all - our yearning for God and for union with God and with one another in His heavenly Kingdom. In the words of Father Richard Veras, "Jesus is our fulfillment! He is the happiness we are waiting for!"
If we make good use of this season, we will come to see that those who guided us toward expectations of happiness and achievement were messengers from the Lord inviting us to union with Him. Along with Saint Augustine we will ask ourselves whether we have become so obsessed with the blessings of this life that we have crowded out the ultimate blessing which the Triune God wishes to bestow on us and our loved ones - eternal friendship with Himself. "As God did with Augustine, He does for us again - calling, shouting, trying to break through our deafness, breathing His fragrance upon us" (The Catechism for Adults, p. 346).
Whatever else we can say about Dickens' character, Pip, he made good use of the opportunities that came his way. And we should make good use of the Season of Advent. We should seek a deeper relationship with God through Sunday and daily Mass, frequent reception of the Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance, the prayerful reading of Scripture, and devotional practices.
As we go about preparing our homes for the coming of Christ and celebrating the joys of the season, we should be focused, above all, on preparing our hearts, so that when Christ comes, ". . . He may find us watching in prayer, our hearts filled with wonder and praise" (Preface II for Advent).
May you and your loved ones experience a truly blessed Advent leading to the true joys of Christmas.
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