Let the Christ child grow in your heart this Advent

Imagine being a parent waiting for the birth of a child.

Imagine that baby and your new life together, the longing and desire in your heart. Imagine how your life will change once he or she arrives. Your life will never be the same, people tell you. You’ll have to make space for the child. Things you once thought were important will have to give way to the all-important task of caring for your baby.

That anticipation and preparation is what Advent is like, spiritual directors say, as the faithful make way for the presence of Jesus in their lives.

For some, the Advent experience might be that of new parents as they welcome Jesus into their lives for the first time in a meaningful and deliberate way, said Father Damian Zuerlein, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Omaha.

For others who already have a relationship with Christ but want to deepen that relationship, their Advent experience might be like welcoming a second or third child, he said.

He said people must ask, “Is Jesus really alive for me in a real relationship, or is my faith like a club I belong to?” Like parents of a small child, the faithful need to take Christ everywhere they go, and consider him in all decisions, Father Zuerlein said.

Diane Johnson, a member of St. Frances Cabrini, said she likes the analogy of Advent and pregnancy. Her work on a church decorating committee, which aims for “noble simplicity with elegance,” also shapes her Advent prayer.

“Mary, mother of Jesus,” she prays, “we know that Jesus lives in our hearts. Help us prepare for him in a noble, simple way.”

Doing too much can overpower the message of the season, in church decorating and in life, Johnson said. The attitude that “less is more” helps keep people focused.

Her prayer in the morning might be a simple “Dear God, help me to be like Jesus. Let me bring joy and peace to someone. Let me bring a smile to someone’s face.”

When Christ lives in someone, it’s apparent – and attractive – to others, she said. They notice and say: “That person has something, and I’d like that.”

Jessi Kary, national director of the Pro Sanctity Movement, based in Omaha, said she shares advice from the late Caryll Houselander, a popular Catholic writer and mystic, to pay attention to the Christ Child growing within us.

Even amid the hustle and bustle of the season, the Holy Spirit can transform people to make more room for Jesus, Kary said.

“Stay attentive,” she advises, as a pregnant mother, like the Virgin Mary, would be to the life growing inside her.

“It’s hard for pregnant women to forget something as all-consuming as that,” Kary said.

Using the imagination in prayer, as St. Ignatius of Loyola taught, can be helpful in developing that mindset, she said.

“Imagine the presence of Jesus growing within, and moving within,” Kary said. Instead of a physical womb, he grows spiritually in hearts.

Men might consider St. Joseph’s perspective as they pray and contemplate, she said, focusing on the saint “making space in his own heart for the Christ Child.” She recommended an Advent reflection written by Father Mark Toups, “Rejoice! Advent Meditations With Joseph” as a resource to facilitate that prayer.

God made humans with physical senses, Kary said, and they can be used in a spiritual way, engaging the imagination to encounter him as one imagines oneself in a Scripture passage, taking in sights, sounds, smells and touch.

Kary recommended resources by Father Timothy Gallagher of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary to help learn this style of prayer, particularly “An Ignatian Introduction to Prayer: Scriptural Reflections,” which offers directed meditations for learning Ignatian prayer with Scripture.

Accompanying this article is Kary’s own Scripture reflection to try.

During busy times, even for just a moment, people can reflect back on their imaginative prayer, she said. “You could be standing in a store and have some sense of that meditation from the day before.”

This type of prayer can be done as a family, too, she said.

Although people can encounter Jesus in their imaginations, his presence is real – speaking as the Living Word of God and in the Eucharist, Archbishop George J. Lucas reminded parishioners at St. Frances Cabrini in a Mass homily during a pastoral visit on the first weekend in Advent.

“Jesus is not just in our imagination,” he said. “Now crucified and risen, he comes to live with us in the present moment.”

The Lord is present for everyone and not given by the Father “as a prize for the perfect,” Archbishop Lucas said, and we can “invite him in to touch us and heal us.”

As Jesus “lives in us and with us,” people will notice, he said. From Mass, worshippers are sent out as “ambassadors of hope.”

“There are people not too far from the door,” he said, “who need us to give them his presence.”

For more on Advent prayer, click here.

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