Rich indeed in spiritual treasures are the days that are given to us. Each and every day has its own grace, and the attentive and devout soul will cherish each one as a gift of God’s merciful love. But the approach of the great solemnities of the Church’s liturgical cycle is, or should be, always a time of deeper attentiveness to the realm of the spirit. As I write these lines we celebrate the feast of one of the greatest apostles and missionaries of all times, St Francis Xavier. But we are also in the novena of preparation for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and of course, in Advent, with Christmas beckoning to us, raising up our minds and hearts to the stupendous incarnation of God.
It is rather interesting for a monk, forced by events to spend some time in the world in these weeks leading up to the establishment of the Australian Priory, to see how the Christmas season has lost nothing of its excitement. Clearly, there is something in the air, something quite special that most people look forward to. You will even find that many people let themselves be softened to a greater spirit of solidarity, conscious of the need, in the midst of what appears to be an affluent western civilisation, to reach out to the less fortunate. Dickens’ Christmas Carol comes to mind as epitomising the effect the season can have even on the most hardened hearts. All this is good, very good indeed, and we must never despise or neglect the efforts to spread the spirit of charity among men. But at the same time, it can be painful to see that, beyond the surface of what appears to be a very special time of the year, there is an immense sadness that hangs over our world. Why is the world sad if it received 2,000 years ago the treasure of the universe? Why are human beings overwhelmed when the answer to all our problems has already been given? Why is there so much evil in the world, when the source of grace and healing lives in our midst? But these questions bring up another question: the Saviour comes, but are people truly prepared to receive Him?
The Eternal Son of God takes upon Himself our flesh, becomes a babe in the womb of the Virgin, is born in the destitution of a stable for animals, and most people do not care. Jesus the Saviour enters our world to bring us eternal salvation and lead us to the Father in a blessed eternity, and there is hardly anyone to welcome Him. There are of course Our Blessed Lady and St Joseph. And then there are a handful of hard-working, humble shepherds, and then a few righteous Magi who were truly seeking God. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not, we say each day in the Last Gospel of the Holy Mass. His own people did not welcome Him, they did not even recognise Him! Again, with the exception of a handful, for we must not forget that the first members of the Church were all Jews, true heirs to the Patriarchs, true Israelites who opened their minds and hearts to the ways of God, those startling ways which lead, through poverty and suffering, to the eternal Kingdom.
What lesson are we to draw from all this? How can this help us prepare for Christmas? I suggest that each of us, whatever our state in life, no matter how long we have been a practicing Catholic, or a religious, or a priest, be mindful of the fact that we could possibly be like the inhabitants of Bethlehem who had no room for the Infant God. Perhaps we will think that if we had been in Bethlehem, we would have slept on the floor to provide a bed for Mary and Jesus. But the real question is: are we prepared to sleep on the floor tonight to provide hospitality to an abandoned child? Are we prepared to give up our leisure time this weekend to go and work at the soup kitchen for the homeless? Do we spend time answering questions about the faith brought up by an upset neighbour who accuses us of being an idolator and not reading the Bible? Are we ready to give up a career in order to heed the possible call of Jesus to religious life? And what about our prayer life: are we disposed to give some time to Jesus today, to go and make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, to spend time in mental prayer? Can we cut back on our personal agenda to visit a sick or elderly person in a nursing home, or help an abandoned mother care for her children, or support a pregnant young woman under pressure to destroy the growing life within her? Such are the questions we need to ask ourselves each day of our lives. Jesus comes today as He came 2,000 years ago to Bethlehem. Let’s make sure we are among the hard-working shepherds, keeping watch, fearing God, serving neighbour, ready to meet our Maker, and if we are, then the light of that blessed night will shine upon us, and through us, on the world.
But before Christmas, there is the feast of the Immaculata, the 8th of December, a date that should be dear to all Catholic hearts. Our faith tells us that Mary was conceived immaculate, that is, without sin. In other words, she was saved in advance, thanks to the future merits of her Son, whose Blood washed her clean even before she was defiled by original sin. God had a very special design for that little girl in the womb of St Anne, for He wanted her to give birth to His own Son, and therefore she had to be immaculate, sinless, perfect in every way. She had to be replete with such a fullness of grace, from the very first instant of her existence, that a creature could not possibly receive more. It is mind-boggling to think of the treasure of grace that the Holy Trinity poured into her soul at the very moment she began to be! And how consoling it is to think that that little girl has become not only the Mother of Jesus, but our Mother as well. Let anyone who is tempted to think that the Church does not acknowledge the grandeur of woman consider what she teaches about Mary. Mary is the greatest human person who has every existed. Jesus is a Divine Person with a human nature, but He is not a human person, and so He is entirely apart, for there can never be any comparison between God and any creature. The greatest human person is a woman, and she is our Mother, and as a Mother, she has solicitude for each of us, for being so exceptionally favoured, she has a God-given capacity to pursue the duties of her maternity for each of us. Yes, Mary watches over each of us as a good mother watches over her only child.
And what does Mary want for us? She wants us to achieve as closely as we can, the model of her own closeness to God. Immaculate we are not. But purified and cleansed we can be. Let us, in preparation for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, seek to purify our minds and bodies. Let us make a good examination of conscience and go to make a good confession, humbly acknowledging our sins, our stains, opening the wounds of our soul to God’s minister in the sacrament of penance, certain that our humble sincerity will be rewarded by the infusion of greater purity, and we shall become more like unto our Immaculate Mother. If we do so, then we shall truly prepared for the coming of Jesus on Christmas night.
My dear Friends, Jesus wants to come into our lives in new ways. He has a plan for each of us. He wants us to realise it, to achieve it. Let’s not sadden His Sacred Heart by insisting on doing it our way. We need to discern His ways, and His ways are sometimes disconcerting; they baffle us; they leave us in awe, but they lead to undreamed of happiness and fulfilment far beyond the finite horizon of our earthly ambitions. Let God do the great things He longs to do in our lives, let Him be God, and let us be His creatures.
Which brings me to a final word about St Francis Xavier. This great apostle, one of the patron saints of Australia, has so much to teach us in terms of making ourselves available for God’s plan. Like so many of us, Xavier had his own plans for the future. He wanted to become a brilliant teacher and make a name for himself. But then he encountered Inigo (Ignatius) of Loyola, who stepped into his life quite unexpectedly. Ignatius was a soldier who had a deep conversion during his period of convalescence after being wounded in battle, and who now was ready to fight for the Lord. Ignatius kept asking Xavier, using the words of Our Lord: What will it profit a man to gain the whole world, if he lose his own soul? And one day Xavier realised his own folly; he understood that he had been chasing after the wind, and that at the hour of death the only thing that will matter will be what we have done for God. After making the Spiritual Exercises, Xavier was ready to go and preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and it is thanks to him that hundreds of thousands of souls were baptised and received into the Church. For sure, the conditions in which the Gospel is preached have changed much since the 16th century, but the Gospel and the truths of our faith do not change, and the need is as great as ever, for the entire world is now mission territory. May St Francis Xavier inspire us each with an ever-growing love for Jesus and Mary, the courage to let it be known, and the right words and gestures to share our treasure with the world.