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First Sunday of Advent

December 1, 2013

Reflection by Joseph O’Keefe, S.J.

I am delighted to welcome members of the Boston College alumni community to join me in taking time to reflect on the meaning of Advent. For each of the four Sundays of Advent and for Christmas Day, I will be offering some thoughts about this holy season based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.

For all of us, the days of December are hectic indeed. For those of us in the university setting, December is the time when we bring our classes to completion and enter into the long process of reviewing and assessing the quality of our students’ work.  In other work settings, December is the time to bring the calendar year of business to a conclusion. In the world of Black Fridays and even shopping on Thanksgiving Day, all of us are prone to the stress and strain of living in our consumer culture. And, of course, these days are filled with holiday celebrations in which we relish bonds of affection with our families, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. In the midst of all of this, I invite us to take time to pause and to pray.

lighting the Advent wreath candles

In the northern hemisphere, Advent coincides with the end of autumn season and the darkening of days leading to the winter solstice on December 21. In our Catholic tradition, we use the Advent wreath to mark this time. It is believed that, with the earth asleep and the harvesting done, Germanic peoples would pause and reflect in the days of respite from the farming cycle. They would bring a wheel from their wagons inside their homes. They would garnish the wheel with evergreens, symbolizing life even as nature enters its winter slumber. And they would attach candles to the wreath during these dark and cold December days as a sign of hope that the warmth and light and life of spring would come again. I’m not suggesting that we take the tires off our SUVs into our homes and garnish them with evergreens and candles. But I am suggesting that, beginning on December 1 and ending on December 25, each of us commit ourselves to carving out 15 or 20 minutes of respite each day to reflect on the ways that God comes into our lives.

The term Advent comes from the Latin “ad+venire,” to come. We celebrate the coming of God into our world and into our lives. We hear once again the rich poetic language of the prophets predicting a time of peace and hope and love. We relive the familiar story of Christ coming into the world, from Mary’s ascent to God’s bidding to His birth in the most humble of circumstances. And as we look back to the coming of Christ in history, we also look ahead to the coming of Christ at the end of time. During your 15 or 20 minutes of respite each day, I suggest that you read and ponder the readings the church presents to us for the daily liturgy. These readings can be found most readily at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Indeed, the readings of Advent teach us about the coming of God in human history and the coming of God at the end of time. In addition, I suggest that you join me during these days to reflect on the coming of God into our lives here and now. I often tell people that St. Ignatius insisted that every Jesuit have a habit. However, that habit was not a garment made of cloth (parenthetically, Ignatius had little concern about what Jesuits would wear). The habit was this: every day a Jesuit would pause once or twice a day to reflect prayerfully on what he had experienced in his everyday life. St. Ignatius called this practice the Examen. Before the founding of the Jesuits, the essential element of religious life was the monastic style of communal prayer at many points during the day. While Ignatius considered that a wonderful way to live a holy life, he wanted his men to be out in the marketplace of people and ideas. For Jesuits, the world is our monastery. As a result, the Examen is a prayer wonderfully suited to anyone who lives an active life in the world, be they Jesuits or laypeople.

Given the nature of the active life, Ignatius thought that the Examen could take place in any number of different circumstances: on one’s knees in a chapel, walking on a favorite path, sitting in front of one’s computer, at the ironing board, or stuck in traffic. What is essential is the intentionality of pausing in the midst of a distracting busy life to focus on what really matters.  I suggest that you take time especially at day’s end to play back the tape of the day.

Though there is not a lockstep way of praying the Examen, with Ignatius I suggest the following steps:

1.  Ignatius often reminds us to be explicit about what we want God to do for us. In this circumstance, we ask God to send His Spirit to give us understanding, to teach us about who God is and who I am. Ask for enlightenment.

sun breaking through the clouds

2. For St. Ignatius, a most abominable sin is ingratitude. As you review the day, name the blessings, from the most significant to the most mundane. And name not only the blessings that are obvious, but ask God to help you see and understand the blessings in disguise.

open palms holding heart-shaped leaf

3.  Now be attentive to what Ignatius calls interior movements:  our feelings, emotions, desires, attractions, repulsions, and moods. Do not be afraid to be attentive to all of these feelings. Life is complex.

emotions word cloud

For every person there are times when we feel alienated from God, fearful, anxious, or confused.  Ignatius calls these moments of desolation.


For every person there are times and moments when we feel especially close to God. When in the past day were you moved by feelings of compassion, mercy, or forgiveness? Did you see God in the simplicity of a beautiful sunset, or in the smile of a child, or in the embrace of a friend? Ignatius calls these moments of consolation.

river bank with flowers

4.  In the rich array of experiences and feelings, ask God to help you focus on what is most important for you now.

the word "focus"

Where does God want to teach you, to bring you deeper insight, or to allay your fears or anxieties? How will God teach you to be patient in times of desolation? Ask forgiveness for those things you regret when you resisted God’s presence. How will God teach you to savor and to remember moments of consolation? Ask for a spirit of gratitude the consolations you have received.

5.  Finally, look to the road ahead. God wants to be with you in every aspect of your life. Invite God to be part of your future, in the long run or the next few hours.

foggy, tree-lined road

6.  Close by speaking to God from your heart or with a personal prayer.

And in this special season of Advent perhaps you want to end your Examen with the following prayer:

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, ever faithful to your promises and ever close to your people: the earth rejoices in hope of the Savior's coming and looks forward with longing to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts and remove the sadness that hinders us from feeling the joy and hope that his presence bestows, for he is Lord forever and ever. Amen.

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