The themes of Advent come to us every year and find us in a different place. Just think back to last year’s Advent when most of us had never heard of COVID-19. This year, Advent and its themes resound in new ways. Not only is the world different this year, we ourselves are different. This fact is true every year, of course, but for most of us never in such a dramatic way.
Advent focuses our attention on the humility of God. We don’t often think of God as humble, but consider it closely. Think of what our God has done. We sing during Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” Our God is not only with us, our God has emptied himself into our human nature.
St. Paul reminds us to imitate Christ and to “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:3-8).
Humility (from the Latin humus, “earth”) means being “grounded,” knowing who we are, with no illusions of grandeur at one end or a false, groveling humility at the other. Humility means being in relationship with “the other”; as St. Paul said to the Philippians, we are to see others as more important than ourselves and tend to others’ needs before our own. This, too, is a participation in the humility of God. God is always about pouring forth: God brings life; sustains and provides; heals, restores, and saves — all so we can share that life with God forever. The Son of God tells us often that he came not to be served but to serve: again, this reflects the humility of God.
What does that mean to us deacons during this year’s Advent? First, the Son of God teaches us that humility means not clinging to things, things that might even be ours by right. Therefore, for us who are baptized into the life of the Trinity and ordained into the servanthood of Christ, we must be similarly kenotic: no honor, glory, reputation, status.
But why did Christ pour himself out like that? To what end? And why should we?
Christ emptied himself so as to use that humanness to connect with us, to have human hands to touch us and heal us, human eyes to see us, even a human heart to burn with love for us. He uses that emptiness to elevate us, to fill us with his own mercy and compassion. He shows us how we, even in our own human weakness, can lift up others and bless them. Those who have strength give that strength to those who are weak. Those who have resources can raise others out of poverty. In short, whatever skills, strengths and gifts we may have, through the grace of God, are to be used for the good of others. Gifts received are gifts to be re-gifted to others.
The first week of Advent calls us to be on watch, to be alert to the actions of God. We watch for God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of our people. Our God is coming to us and does so not with trumpet blasts and military parades welcoming the conquering hero; we must be alert to God’s coming in a manger, in the powerless form of an infant. Around us are people who are themselves struggling due to depression, illness or loneliness. What can we pour out for them?
The second week of Advent calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, and the first reading from Isaiah begins, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Only when this is done do we “make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” by filling in the valleys and bringing low the mountains. We are to give away, to pour out comfort to our sisters and brothers. The approaching holy days were challenging to many people even before the current pandemic and other crises that we face today. What will best give comfort to God’s people? What do we “have” that can be given for the comfort of others?
The third week of Advent focuses on John the Baptizer. Everything John did, even before his birth, pointed the way to Christ. His life and ministry was all about the One who would come after him. What a sublime act of humility: to constantly point away from oneself to highlight the Word of God! We are to do no less. John humbly surrendered his own ambition, family, even his very life to make sure Christ was proclaimed to the people.
Finally, the fourth week of Advent offers us the chance to encounter the humble young woman of Nazareth, Mary, as she receives the news about God’s plan. The great mystery of the Annunciation is that she could have said no! Salvation history hinged on that wonderful, humble fiat. Mary holds nothing back and pours everything she is into accepting that divine Will. Through her humility, the humble Christ comes to us.
Throughout Advent 2020, may we consider the humility of God. The disciple of Christ seeks to follow the Lord’s path, and this demands no less a kenosis on our part as deacons. In his reflections on Advent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas” (Westminster John Knox Press, $16): “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness. … In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you.”
What would our Church look like if every member, from the newest neophyte to the pope, from bishop to novice, from cardinal to deacon, from curial prefect to parish staff volunteer, laid down “all power, honor, reputation, vanity, arrogance, individualism”? What if each and every member of the Church lived out St. Paul’s admonition to live “in humility, treating others as better than yourself”?