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“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” 

The French Catholic author Léon Bloy wrote these words in his 1897 novel La Femme pauvre. With eloquence and power, Bloy’s words urge us to say a wholehearted “yes” to the call to holiness. To share in Christ’s life more fully and perfectly is the aim of the Season of Advent. This liturgical season is a time of renewal in knowing, loving and imitating Jesus Christ.

A distinguishing feature of Advent is the attitude of vigilant anticipation to which the season calls us. We prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ at Christmas and we look forward to his coming in glory at the end of time. The coming of Christ into the world and our hearts is the basis for the very possibility of our personal holiness. Without Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” we could never hope to become like God.

According to Blessed Columba Marmion, an Irish monk and author of many spiritual masterworks in the early twentieth century, there are three reasons Catholics celebrate Advent:

  • “God wishes to be praised and blessed in all His works”, including the works by which he prepared the world and his people, Israel, for the coming of Christ;
  • “God wishes us to find in (our Advent preparations) a confirmation of our faith”;
  • “She, the Church, wishes to prepare us, by the weeks of Advent, for the coming of Christ within us. It is a coming that is wholly interior, mysterious, taking place in faith, but full of fruitfulness.”

It is essential to the life of holiness that we see the marvelous works God has performed for our salvation. Only in seeing the riches of the Old Covenant, the Covenant of patriarchs and prophets, of judges and kings, of ordinary people called to extraordinary missions on God’s behalf, can we put our faith in the Lord who first prepared the way for the coming of his Son.

Without knowing the journey of faith recounted in the Old Testament, it is difficult to appreciate the full weight of the Archangel Gabriel’s words to Mary at the Annunciation, that she is “full of grace” and that “the Lord is with you.” Mary is a daughter of Israel but she is blessed beyond all others because God has prepared her from her Immaculate Conception in the womb of St. Anne to receive the gift of his Son, who would also be her Son.

We do well during Advent to read and pray with the texts of the Old Testament and the beginnings of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, in order to see and put our faith in God’s preparations for the coming of his Son. Reading the Scriptures appointed for daily Mass and  looking ahead to the readings appointed for the Masses of Christmas is one excellent way to do this.

We also need to welcome Jesus into ourselves, into our hearts and souls. This is not just a pious sentiment, a bit of refrigerator magnet spirituality. Marmion points us to our need for Christ’s coming within us by calling it “wholly interior, mysterious, taking place in faith, but full of fruitfulness.” This coming of Christ into believers is invisible but nevertheless real. And it has a powerful effect not only on the individual who receives Christ but on everyone.

Christ is the Word of God and comes to us in his word of Sacred Scripture. God plants his word in our hearts, and that word works powerfully to make us a fit dwelling place for the Word, God’s only Son. As we read in Isaiah 55:10-11:

Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,

So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

Having been prepared by hearing God’s word and putting our faith in him, we become ready for the coming of the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to live in us and to speak and act through us. We receive Christ most completely in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The sacrament fills us with his presence and transforms us so that we become more like him.

To become like Christ is the irreplaceable key to holiness. There is no other key to unlock the door to sharing God’s life. Only Christ is God and man, fully divine and fully human. As St. Athanasius and the whole Catholic tradition following him has taught, God has become human so that humans could become divine.

Participating faithfully in Holy Mass and the sacrament of penance (confession) is essential to celebrating Advent and welcoming Christ. Becoming holy is essential to sharing God’s life not only here on earth but forever in heaven.

I recently participated in the Rite of Acceptance of catechumens at the parish where I assist on Sundays. I was struck by the first two questions of the ritual, which express a great deal in their brevity:
What do you ask of God’s Church? Faith.
What does faith offer you? Eternal life.

There are lots of things catechumens do not mention in this rite. They do not say that faith offers them great music or captivating preaching, friendly people, the indefectibility of their parishes or the permanence of their favorite parish priests. They do not claim that becoming Catholic will bring them perpetual euphoria, good health, financial prosperity or any other personal gain. Eternal life is the promise God has made, and that is the hope of all who follow Christ.

Holiness not only brings life-saving power to the individual believer, however. The gift of Christ in each believer brings a blessing for all people, especially to those within the communion of the Church. 

In his book, The Gift of Faith, Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer writes of the influence each person has on others. “Your every good as well as evil, has its social dimension because it brings out a specific supernatural basic pressure for good or evil in others,” Dajczer writes. Focusing next on prayer, Dajczer adds the following:

In such a system, it is never a solitary prayer. As a member of the mystical organism of the Church, you either enrich or impoverish it through your prayer of faith … In order to have an effect on others, prayer does not have to have the character of clear intercession for someone. It is enough that faith, hope, and charity grow in you at the same time as your prayer life intensifies, the Church and the whole Mystical Body of Jesus will be able to feel the beneficial, saving influence of your prayer.

To become holy is to exert a saving influence on others. Many Catholics are at a loss about how to address the myriad problems of the world, in the Church and in their families. The way of the saints, Dajczer suggests, is to see the evils around them not as a summons to first reform the world or the Church or family members and friends, but to reform themselves. A call to repentance and conversion. A call to holiness. By responding to God’s call and becoming holy, I will be changed and change others for the better.

Advent is the perfect time to deal constructively with the righteous anger we feel at seeing the culture of death advance, with the frustration that comes from seeing people question the basic elements of their human identity and the status of institutions as fundamental as marriage and family. Advent gives us a perfect opportunity to meet head-on the challenges brought by a lack of faith and a disregard of religion. 

Advent calls us to welcome Christ, allowing him to transform us from within and to use us to draw others closer to himself.