As this awful year has unfolded and as the second wave of the pandemic has spread across many lands, fears began to grow about our Advent and our Christmas. Would we be able to celebrate together, or even be together? The Pope’s prayer intention for December, offered to all through the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, can give us a vocabulary for our Advent prayer each day. This month, the Pope invites us to pray ‘that our personal relationship with Jesus Christ be nourished by the Word of God and a life of prayer’.
‘Today, I announce great news to you’, proclaims the Christmas Scripture, words that we wait to hear over the four weeks of Advent. This December, we know that we need more than ever to hear those words; we long to hear them. ‘Be aware, never forgetting to pray’, Scripture suggests.
In praying this intention with the Pope, we will be asking to be given a life of prayer. That might seem a little odd at first. Surely, we’re called to pray? After all, in the Pope’s own prayer network, we heard last year from the Pope that, ‘the heart of the church’s mission is prayer’. But if we ask, we will receive, as we have heard from Scripture. And what we would receive is the gift of prayer, the grace of a life of prayer. We will begin to remember, or perhaps realise for the first time, the deep truth of St Paul’s insight, that it is the Spirit of God who prays within us (Romans 8:26-27). This does not excuse us from making a certain effort. We each need to be intent upon prayer, doing our best to make time and space available for prayer and developing helpful habits. That can be hard work. If we remember that we’re preparing ourselves to receive a gift, and to respond to it, we will find that the Spirit is indeed praying in us, in our hearts.
The Pope’s suggestion this month tells us that the life of prayer, for which we ask, will ‘nourish’ our relationship with Jesus; for such a personal connection is our ultimate aim. Scripture, the Word of God, also nourishes. It calls our attention, for example, to the many people in those gospel times who wanted to see Jesus. Those rather scruffy Bethlehem shepherds were among the first, then soon afterwards those mysterious and fabulous travelers from a faraway land; not forgetting Herod, whose motives were so much darker. All were, in their own ways, in relationship with the God who was calling them and were responding to the Spirit who was moving within them. Without realising it, they were sensitive to the voice of God calling them and the Spirit’s desire to pray within their hearts.
If you decide to pray this intention with the Holy Father this month, what might it look like for you? Doing that would make you an Apostle of Prayer. How can your relationship with Christ be nourished by prayer and Scripture? You may well have a nourishing habit of prayer and sacred reading in your life already. But perhaps this month, this Advent, you could try something a little bit extra, or new to you? The daily readings for Mass all speak in various ways in hope and belief that the mysterious infinite God once again will approach us in solidarity and compassion. Spend time with those readings each day, especially when lockdowns make it hard to get to church.
The December page in our popular Living Prayer 2020 booklet notes that, a ‘person of prayer enjoys wasting time with the Lord, sometimes chatting and at other times just being there and listening. Half of the time of our prayer is just turning up! We can also get to know the Lord through prayerfully reflecting on his Word, where we become familiar with his story, the story of how he is always there for his people and calls us to life.’
Three prayer proposals for this month:
- Make an Advent mini retreat. Resolve to make time and space gently available, each day, to read and absorb the Mass reading of that day. Allow your heart to be lifted by those inspiring passages from Isaiah, for example, or of Mary and Joseph as we get near to the Nativity. Think about lighting a candle, which can be your Advent candle, so that its light accompanies your sacred reading. It might not be possible to do this at the same time each day, but, if you can, it will quickly become a special moment that you’ll look forward to each day.
- Intensify your prayer about the middle of the month by turning to the ancient ‘O Antiphons’, chants sung or recited at the beginning and end of Mary’s Magnificat during Evening Prayer on each of the days leading up to Christmas Day, from 17th to 23rd December. You do not need to have a breviary to do this as they are easily found online. If you don’t already, consider trying Evening Prayer each of these days. It is, of course, very easy and fruitful to pray with others.
- As we reach Christmas, follow the guidance of St Ignatius with a nativity contemplation, as shown below. This will probably take a little longer, so give yourself more time for this, as a Christmas present to yourself and to the world.
St Ignatius suggests that we imagine ourselves with the Holy Family, really present at the Nativity scene as described in Luke’s Gospel. Place yourself there, in the imagination; see the people, the surroundings, sense the cold, even the smell of the farmyard animals. Let Our Lady beckon you to come close to the newborn child. Then, let her say what all proud Mums might say to their friends; she asks you if you would like to hold this little one in your own arms for a moment. Accept her offer. As you imagine yourself holding, with great tenderness, the infant saviour in your arms, what do you notice? What words might you want to say to him, and to her? Give thanks for what you receive in these moments.