And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. ... From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. - John 1: 14, 16-18 (NRSVCE)
I have always found it appropriate that the start of the new liturgical year overlaps with the end of the secular year. There is something supremely fitting about the beginning and the end happening at the same time, as it reflects the cadence of life in everything meaningful:
Getting married, ordained, consecrated, or entering religious life ... a beginning overlapping with an end.
The same goes with parenthood.
And earthly death.
And Advent, actually. Not just because of its coincidence with December, but because Advent has a dual meaning.
Advent calls us to remember and make present, through our acts of worship, that singular event which took place in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago--when the flesh of God entered into the world, moving beyond the tabernacle of His mother's womb.
But Advent also asks us to repent, and to make straight the paths of Christ for His triumphant return.
I remember very vividly when I actually learned about the eschaton— the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time.
I was sitting in a Theo 101 classroom, my freshman year of college, and our professor asked us to think about the Nicene Creed:
I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come
He spelled it out for us: "Our ultimate goal is not to be disembodied spirits in heaven. Jesus became incarnate so that our bodies could be with Him forever in the New Jerusalem."
And that, my friends, is when everything changed. It was my own "advent" of sorts, the slow realization that if this were true, everything was different. It meant that my body had dignity and was just as much a part of "me" as my soul. It meant that I couldn't neglect my body when I thought about virtue and holiness.
Perhaps you're laughing at me, because this should be obvious for Christians— especially Catholics who have such a rich theology of the Sacramental life!
But it wasn't obvious to me. And when I was invited to join a Theology of the Body study group, it was like discovering a whole new language to help me express the thoughts that were now reeling in my head.
I left my pre-med studies and, much to my father's chagrin, became a Philosophy and Theology major. I didn't have a plan beyond some nebulous idea that maybe I'd go to law school... but I knew that I desperately needed this for myself.
I'll spare you the details of when I first learned about Natural Family Planning, and how it took me a really long time (like... embarrassingly long) to understand that my time as a pre-med major was not an anomaly in my educational career: it was a foundation that has led me to where I am today. And if I hadn't been lucky enough to have that professor who took time to state what should have been obvious, I really don't know what I'd be doing. Because as someone with two degrees in theology, I can wax poetic about the theological implications of the incarnation... but I can also testify to the fact that embracing and wrestling with this teaching has drastically changed my life. And I hope and pray that I can play a part in helping the Church, who is the BODY OF CHRIST, understand the dignity of her physical reality.
I want to invite Catholics to understand that our fundamental biology is part of our call to holiness.
In this life, it is through our bodies that we learn a particular type of suffering, weakness, and dependence upon one another. But our bodies are also the way we experience love: through physical touch, gestures, words, and — in a unique way — the Sacraments. This is only possible because God chose to be born in the flesh, to die in the flesh, to be resurrected in the flesh, and to rule in heaven in His human flesh.
The Church needs to be a place where the bodily aspect of our personhood is proclaimed with joy and reverence, so we can empower ourselves and our children to stand against a culture which rejects the self-revelation of the body, sees fertility as an optional biological function, and seeks to reshape the meaning of "man" and "woman" into its own image.
And we can ONLY do that if we are consistent and explicit about proclaiming the goodness of our bodies, in ALL of their functions.
So, this Advent, I'd like to invite you to pray with your favorite image of the nativity side by side with an image of the Last Judgment, like this icon from Fr. Luke Dingman:
Questions for prayer:
What difference does it make in my life to know that my body is eternally loved by my Creator?
How will I pass this teaching on to my children, especially in the tumultuous years of puberty, when our bodies can feel so "foreign"?
How will I embrace my body as both the recipient and the giver of God's tangible love in the world?