In the movie The Untouchables (1987), starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro, there was a scene in the beginning of the film where FBI agent, Eliot Ness, had to make a decision.
It was in a catholic church, in Chicago, where Ness met privately in a pew with an old-time cop named Jimmy Malone (based on a real-life, Irish-American policeman) who was fed up with the corruption which had paralyzed his beloved city during the crime-ridden era of Prohibition. Ness, naively, was determined to lay down the law; Malone knew better.
The question posed to Ness by Malone, as he was fingering his beads in the pew, was a timeless one: “what are you prepared to do?” The same question is, once again, asked – no, this time it’s demanded by Malone to Ness, as the Irish cop lay dying in a pool of blood at the end of movie, his body riddled by a machine gun: “what are you prepared to do?”
This is a question that needs to be answered. Both at the beginning of something and at its conclusion, because our journey is continuous. Like climbing the rungs on Jacob’s ladder, until we reach our final destination. Each rung on the ladder is an immediate challenge – as a 100-meter dash is to a marathon. Sure, Second Timothy says it right about finishing the race. But, I believe the race is not one, long uninterrupted run; but a series of races, maybe a billion of them, more than anything you can keep track of on your Fitbit. And, each Advent and Lent gives us the opportunity to re-enter the race. To get back on track, atone, forgive and seek forgiveness, and keep our eyes on the prize, as fleeting as this always seems to be.
Recognizing the Ordinary as Something So Much More
As we begin this season of Advent we have to ask ourselves a simple question and it’s in the present not in the past tense: what do we want to prepare for? And then, step-by-step, how are we to proceed with this preparation and ultimately achieve our goal? Then, and only then, can we possibly know what we are prepared to do as we welcome the Christ child into our homes, our hearts, and our lives.
In Latin, Advent, ad-venio, means “to come to.” The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way:
With Advent the ecclesiastical year begins in the Western churches. During this time the faithful are admonished
- to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love,
- thus to make their souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer coming in Holy Communion and through grace, and
- thereby to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world.
Proper preparation starts with a mea culpa; to get down on your knees and admit to yourself that you are unworthy, as we all are, for the reception of the King.
It’s not some form of self-abasement, rather it’s a concrete recognition that He is God and we are not. We didn’t create the universe, nor did we order the sun to rise in the east and set in the west every day. We simply take it for granted that this will happen on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to happen unless our Father wants it to be this way. The moon doesn’t have to orbit our earth; the stars do not have to appear in our sky unless they are directed by a higher power whose angels see to it that all things move and are subject to the Creator of all things. This is not a random coincidence as a result of some peculiar big bang that happened eons ago, but rather a divine portrait painted upon our very lives in real time that happens not once, but every day. We just don’t realize it or we simply can’t really appreciate it because we are so busy being busy in our busy lives that we’ve lost our love for what is steady and certain and true.
Instead, we look not to the heavens, nor the majesty of God’s creation here on earth as St. Francis did. Rather we enthrall ourselves with the thrills and chills of human propaganda. We pay attention to fads and fashions. The latest that Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the music industry, and ESPN can force down our throats. And we gulp all of it down as if it was our daily bread. As if it was real. But we all know, deep down, that it’s not. It’s an illusion. A fabrication that infests our minds and distorts our souls.
We all know what is real: paying the electric bill, putting gas in the tank, mowing the lawn, cleaning the bathroom, making dinner, finding time to spend with our loved ones when we’re not on our smart phones. We also instinctively know when something is not right inside ourselves: when our souls scream for reconciliation, peace, and what’s more, understanding and acceptance by the very God who made us, because we need to feel His love just as much as He needs to convey His love for us.
And, that we, myself included, do not prepare ourselves properly for the second-coming of our savior. I’m not talking about end-times. I have no idea when that will happen nor do I want to. I’m talking about my death – my end-times.
Knute Rockne, the All-American football player and legendary coach at Notre Dame once said “build up your weaknesses, until they become your strong points.” But, how are we do that?
It starts, I think, with identifying what your weaknesses are in the first place. And, that’s a very good starting point in preparing yourself during the season of Advent. After all, when we were babies, we had to learn to crawl on all fours before we could stand up on two wobbly legs and take our first, brave yet uncertain steps. We innately learn this. It must be something imprinted into our DNA. All babies who are physically able to cross the divide between the cradle and the carpet do so even without encouragement. They simply know to do this.
We do, too. No matter what age we are. We all know we need a new start. We all crave it. Because we want to be true to ourselves and closer to God and feel his loving embrace. In our gut, we don’t want to disappoint Him because we want him to be proud of us.
Years ago, when I was a kid, and I did something wrong, mom always threatened me that she would tell my father about it. This, more than any corporal punishment, gave me pause. I never wanted to disappoint my father. I loved him that much and I wanted him to be proud of me, too.
For me, for my Advent, maybe for yours, we can close the divide between baby steps and scale another rung on that ladder. Maybe we can dare to expose ourselves to heights yet unseen. Maybe we can welcome our little baby, Jesus, our savior, with contrite hearts and receive the joy of Christmas morning welcoming our king and lover, our Redeemer, and our judge all at the same time.