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Return to the Beginning

by Fr. Michael CumminsDecember 17, 2015

The week before the first Sunday of Advent I ventured into a local craft store in search of Advent candles.  After inquiry, a sales associate led me to the candles.  We passed one, then two, then three, four and five full aisles of Christmas decorations.  Arriving at the last row she pointed to a small stack of Advent candles on the bottom corner of a shelf.  Quite sad in comparison.  I cannot help but reflect on the symbolism.  As I write this reflection there has been yet another mass shooting in our country.  I do not make this jump from searching for Advent candles to a mass shooting in order to be flippant or sensational, I share it because I believe Advent offers needed lessons for our world today but honestly I fear these lessons may fall on deaf ears because they will require work, sacrifice and even risk on our part.     

One of the virtues that Romano Guardini explores in his book Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God is the virtue of patience.  In the course of his reflection he offers these words:

Therefore patience, which always begins again, is a prerequisite if something is to be done.  In “The Imitation of Christ” we find the phrase “Semper incipe!” … At first sight, it is a paradox, for a beginning is a beginning and then we go on.  But that is true only in mechanical matters.  In actual life, beginning is an element that must operate constantly.  Nothing goes on if it does not at the same time begin. 

So he who wishes to advance must always begin again.  He must constantly immerse himself in the inner source of life and arise therefrom in new freedom, in initiative – the power of beginning – in order to make real what he has purposed: prudence, temperance, self-control, or whatever it may be that is to be accomplished. 

Patience with oneself – not carelessness or weakness, of course, but the sense of reality – is the foundation of all progress."

The wisdom that Guardini offers here is a wisdom found at the heart of the season of Advent.  In Advent, we as Church, “begin again”.  We return to the beginning and we join with the saints of this season (Ss. John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph and Mary) in awaiting the coming of the Messiah. 

Advent calls us to honestly acknowledge the darkness and brokenness of our world and our lives not in order to shut down in despair but in order to open a window of hope.  If approached correctly and not rushed through, the season of Advent offers profound lessons to help us learn patience with ourselves and our world.  We recognize that there is something fundamentally broken within ourselves and the human condition that is just not possible for us to heal and fix.  It is too mysterious, too deep and too painful.  Further, we recognize how all of creation stands in need.  We come to learn that the ultimate answer cannot be found in us.  Yet, we also recognize that there is a deep yearning for wholeness within and, if we sit with it long enough, we recognize that this yearning itself has been planted within us by God.  It is part of our makeup, part of the essence of who we are and Scripture tells us that God is a God who does not disappoint.  God will answer our need.  God will answer the deepest need of our world with the coming of Christ in glory in the fullness of all history.  God has answered the hope of the ages with the incarnation of the Son! 

“Semper incipe!” is a spiritual truth and we learn it from the Advent saints themselves.  Zechariah and Elizabeth began again when they were reminded that nothing is impossible for God.  Joseph began again when he was reminded that God will act as God so chooses and our job is to trust.  John the Baptist began again when he went into the wilderness to meet the Lord just as the people of Israel had encountered God during their forty years of wandering in the desert.  Mary began again in her profound “Yes” to God – the heart of Israel’s history and hope.

We live in a dark time.  There is much violence, isolation, pain and fear in our world today.  In such times patience is called for all the more.  We must overcome the temptation to rush to judgment, to rush to condemnation, to rush to separation, to rush to retribution.  Patience rightly lived is a needed antidote rather than a weakness.  If we are to move beyond the darkness of these times we can neither naively try to wish it away nor pretend the darkness does not exist, rather we need to be honest about the state of things and then get to work!  And as Guardini rightly notes, patience is the foundation of all true progress.  The saints of Advent were anything but naïve.  They knew the brokenness of their world and their own need and they clearly show the willingness to begin again. 

This particular Advent, this season when we as Church return to the beginning, should be different.  This celebration of Advent which marks the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy ought to initiate a transformation in us as Church that will affect our world.  In this will Advent truly be authentic.  No longer can Advent just be my or our personal preparation for the celebration of Christmas, rather Advent must light hope and mercy for our world.  We need to live the anticipation of this Advent not for ourselves but truly for all of our sisters and brothers – especially those who are suffering and forgotten.

Our world is in a dark place.  There is work that needs to be done.  Before we rush to the work, we should return to the beginning and immerse ourselves in that inner source of life which is our faith in the work of God himself.  Patience is the foundation of all true progress. 

I would suggest that in a particular way this Advent we stand with the saints of this season and we learn from them how to return to the beginning.  This lesson is too important; too critical to the times we now live in, to bypass.

When all is said and done we may very well recognize that human history was carried neither by the proud nor the arrogant nor the centers of our world’s powers but rather by the patient – the ones who learned how to continually return to the beginning in order to arise in new freedom and new awareness.

About the Author

Fr. Michael Cummins

Fr. Michael Cummins

Fr. Michael Cummins is a priest of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN.  Ordained in 1995, he has served in a variety of r...

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