Of course, the holidays are naturally a time for preparation. We're busy at work preparing for the end of the year, busy buying more lights and ornaments for our Christmas tree and yards, busy shopping for more Christmas gifts and other things.
Our preparation should have less focus on buying more things and more focus on our relationships. When the crowd asked John the Baptist "what should we do to prepare", he didn’t tell them to spend their time hoarding food and supplies or batten down the hatches for the storm. Rather, he told them to spend their time improving their relationships with others. He exhorted the tax collectors and the soldiers to treat people fairly and with respect and dignity. He exhorted the crowds not to be greedy but to share their food and clothes with those in need.
Here we are 2,000 years later, and John is exhorting us too. He urges us to stop focusing on "things" and start focusing on our relationships. Good relationships are the key to happiness. Of course, my wife tells me I can strengthen our relationship by getting her more things. She didn't really say that. The truth is, no matter how much money we have, how big our house is, or what car we drive, if our relationships are bad, life is not going to be all its supposed to be. Rich with things but poor in relationships is a recipe for isolation and loneliness.
Sometimes we hurt those we are close to. Sometimes we are betrayed by family or friend. And we find ourselves at the crossroads. One path leads us to carry a grudge, never speak to them again, might even try to hurt them in revenge. The other path leads us to swallow our pride and to forgiveness. One path leads to resentment and hatred. The other path leads to reconciliation and happiness.
This is why Church is so important. Church is all about relationships. The Holy Trinity is a relationship between the Father and the Son, and the infinite love they share with one another and all creation. Our marriages and families are relationships made in this same image of God. The family is where we learn how to live in relationships. Where we first learn how to share and how to care, how to fight and how to forgive. The family is where we first learn to love and be loved.
Once we learn to relate to those in our immediate family, then we are ready to have relationships with the rest of the human family. We reap what we sow. If we learned to hate in our home, we will hate those outside our home. If we learned to love in our home, we will love those outside our home. It's that simple.
The very purpose of Church is to help us develop and maintain good relations with God and each other. And to give us the means and the opportunity to reconcile when our relationships fail.
In our preparations for the holidays, we need to keep in mind the reason for the season. Our preparations should focus on reconciling with our God...reconciling with those whom we have hurt...and reconciling with those who have hurt us. Bad relationships are like a cancer that eats us up inside. All of us have a family member or a friend or a co-worker with whom we are estranged, and we feel bad about it. Yes, the Holy Spirit is talking to you. This Advent is a good time to do something about it.
We don’t have to look too far to see what happens when relationships go bad. Many kinds of relationships are at an all-time, record low. Political relationships, race relationships, relations between our law enforcement and the people, relations between Muslims and Christians…seems like everywhere we turn…relations have turned so ugly. And there is lots of hatred and violence all around us.
What the world needs is a good dose of mercy. Thankfully, our Holy Father, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy. This past Tuesday, on the Feast day of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis inaugurated a special Year of Mercy with the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica.
In our Catholic tradition, the Holy Door represents the passage to salvation, the path to a new and eternal life, which was first opened to us by Jesus. The Holy Door also symbolizes God’s mercy, the ultimate and supreme act by which He comes to meet His people, face to face. Mercy is the bridge that connects God with humanity, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever by our Creator, despite our sinfulness and our failings.
This eternal life can never be earned, or achieved, or merited; it can only be received as a gift of God’s mercy. What are we to do with this gift? Accept it freely and share it just as freely as we receive it from God. Then we become workers of God’s mercy.
We are the Church, all of us. And just like his mother Mary, we are called to be bearers of Jesus and witnesses of his love. It’s not always easy. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, goodness will prevail over evil. The Holy Spirit, freely given to us in baptism and strengthened by the Sacraments, gives us the grace to forgive…and the power to love with the very love of God.
Through the centuries, the Church has echoed John the Baptist's message to be prepared, urging the world to pay attention to Jesus and see what God has in store for us. Heaven and earth come together when the Word is made flesh. When God comes to meet man. Be prepared.