When Advent Hopes Collide with Christmas Surprises

We are on the brink of Christmas. Advent is coming to a close.  How has this season of expectation, preparation, and hope been for you? For me, it has been a bit of a roller-coaster.

After an autumn of lots of traveling for New Ways Ministry, I was preparing for a rare—nay, unprecedented—month-long vacation, visiting India and Bangladesh with a Franciscan friend of mine. He used to minister there educating Franciscan novices and leaders, and we were going to visit his friends.  Christmas would be spent in a contemplative Poor Clare convent in the hills of Bangladesh.  Just what I needed at the end of an extremely hectic year. Pure bliss.

So, my Advent was filled with travel preparations and expectations:  visa applications, immunizations, finding the right electrical adapters, worrying about wi-fi connections and cell phone service.

And then it ended.  A serious, unexpected health problem in the family of my traveling companion arose just two weeks before our scheduled departure.  We would have to postpone, perhaps until the spring, perhaps indefinitely.  Sadness and disappointment were mixed, I must admit, with a bit of selfish relief that I could stop the worried and frenzied travel preparations, and that I now had some unexpected “found time.”

Well, the “found time” evaporated very quickly.  I soon realized I now had to “shift gears” and start Christmas preparations.  Gifts that I had planned on buying in Asia, now had to be bought at the local mall. Christmas cards needed to be filled out and mailed.  Decorations had to come down from the attic. And what about baking the Christmas cookies?   What I usually rush to do in four weeks now was going to have to be done in two.

Needless to say, not everything got done.

But enough about my tale of woe.   The point is that I learned an Advent lesson from this experience which I think might be pertinent for those Catholics who work for LGBT equality and justice.

Advent is a time of expectation, preparation, and hope.  But what we expect, prepare, and hope for may not arrive as we have planned it.  And it may not arrive on our schedule. God works in mysterious ways, and, often, in more mysterious time frames.  I’ve learned that it is important to expect, prepare, and hope, but that we also need to be open to surprise.

That was my greatest lesson from all of 2014.  Many of us had great hopes for the October synod on marriage and family.  We spent months in anticipation, buoyed by Pope Francis’ positive messages signaling openness to change, by the Vatican’s call for greater discussion by the entire church, and by greater openness from bishops around the world to recognizing the positive gifts of lesbian and gay couples.

We prayed and prepared and hoped.  And as the synod opened, we started hearing positive messages from participants and observers.  And then came the mid-term report, with its strongly worded affirmations of lesbian and gay people.  Our hopes, it seemed, were being realized. I even toyed with the idea that the work of Catholic LGBT advocacy would soon be waning, that our hopes and dreams were now being realized at last.

Then the final report came out, and we found ourselves in the same position that we had always been in.  No positive message.  Was all the expectation, preparation, and hope for naught?

One of my favorite spiritual writers, José Antonio Pagola, in a homily on the fourth Sunday of Advent in his book, Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospel, Year B, notes that the coming of Jesus was also seen as a disappointment for many.  Born in the backwater of Bethlehem, in a stable, in the midst of Roman occupation, to unknown, powerless parents, Jesus certainly did not have any of the earmarks of a Messiah that Israel expected.

But God works in mysterious ways.  And on a mysterious time schedule.  Our expectations, preparations, and hopes are never in vain.  They just may not receive their fruition in the way we expect them and in the time that we expect them.  We have another synod, a more definitive one coming up in November 2015.  And we need to work and pray with the hope that that one will be better than this past year’s.

More importantly, we must learn to be surprised by God.  Isn’t surprise what our secular tradition of Christmas gift-giving and even decorations are all about? Advent is about expectation, preparation, and hope, but Christmas is about surprise, about finding God, love, and joy in the most unexpected of places. Who knows what surprises God has in store for the 2015 synod?  I know that no one I know was prepared for the surprises that came at this past year’s meeting.

I won’t be in India and Bangladesh this Christmas season, and I don’t have all my decorations up, presents bought, or cookies baked.  But, nevertheless, I plan on being surprised, once again, as I always am, by the love of my family and friends, in ways that I never expect. I can’t wait to see what God has in store!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry





14 replies
  1. Carolyn Shalhoub
    Carolyn Shalhoub says:

    I’m sorry about your trip, Frank, and I hope you still find a way to get some rest. This is a wonderful meditation, dare I say “homily”? Thank you for this and everything else you do.
    Carolyn Shalhoub

  2. Jane paris
    Jane paris says:

    Great meditation! Thanks for all your work. There is fruit from your labors unknown to you in wonderful, mysterious ways!

  3. Ryan Sattler
    Ryan Sattler says:

    Let us pray that we will be “open” to the surprises that GOD has planned for us in the New Year!!! Until they come, and they will; we must keep on working for justice and peace for all of GOD’s children!

  4. Loretta m. Larkey
    Loretta m. Larkey says:

    Thank you for this lovely meditation which has conjured up all manner of thoughts and ideas within me. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Thanks for all you do. Loretta Larkey/Minneapolis

  5. Mary Moran Kilbride
    Mary Moran Kilbride says:

    Thank you Frank. A meaningful reflection. My expectations for Christmas changed when I learned I will be working both days. God works in mysterious ways but I am open to surprise. And our loving God is surprising me alredy in many unexpected ways. Wishing you and your family and all our New Ways friends a blessed and joyful Christmas. –love ‘ya

  6. Barbara Blough
    Barbara Blough says:

    You got me thinking…

    Christ, the Word made flesh, came to bring the Word. WE HAVE TO DO THE WORK. He never said it would be easy. He never said it would all come together on OUR schedule. He pretty much tried to tell us that those were NOT ways to measure the message He was bringing us.
    In Marty Haugen’s The Song of Mark, one of the scenes is the Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mount. The song he composed for this scene is one of my all time favorites because of its view of human beings and their inability to “get” the bigger picture. The song communicates what I have always thought to be God’s patient, slightly amused, incredibly tolerant and loving understanding of us, His oh-so-slow-to-catch-on, yet special enough to die for, creation. It really is mind-blowing. Jesus came to deliver the Good News! He telling us how GREAT this universe IS, and what wonderful existences we could actually HAVE if we would just make the effort to “unpack” the depth of this message. But so far, we are more like the boys on the Mountain:

    “So Good to Be Here” by Marty Haugen (from The Song of Mark)

    Jesus took James and John and Peter, high upon the mountain. They saw him wrapped in shining light and their hearts were filled with wonder.

    It’s so nice on the Mountain of Tabor.
    No crosses to bear, no worries or care.
    And so peaceful to rest from our labor.
    It’s so good to be here with Jesus.

    Verses 1
    From up here, the Romans look tiny,
    From up here, all our problems look small.
    All the world is wondrous and shiny,
    It’s too much to take in it all.

    It’s so nice on the mountain of Tabor
    No journeys to take, no life to forsake.
    What a moment to treasure and savor.
    It’s so good to be here with Jesus.

    Verse 2
    In these hights I feel so inspired
    Smell the air and just look at the views.
    We could set up camp and retire!
    Just kick back and write the Good News.

    It’s so nice on the Mountain of Tabor
    No people in need with faces to feed.
    When you’ve had it to here with your neighbor,
    It’s so good to be here with Jesus.

    Verse 3
    Over there, could that be Elijah?
    Over there, is that Moses I see
    Such a lofty circle we move in,
    I can tell, God’s smiling on me!

    It’s so nice on the Mountain of Tabor
    No crosses to bear, no worries or care.
    And so peaceful to rest from our labor,
    It’s so good to be here with Jesus.
    It’s so good to be here,
    So great to be here,
    So good to be here with Jesus.
    And Elijah…,
    With Jesus,
    And Moses…,
    With Jesus,
    And you guys…,
    With Jesus.

    He’s given us the Good News, the Word, and armed with that and the Eucharist, we need to CHANGE OURSELVES to resonate with the Message and the Messenger. We can’t just WAIT. CHANGE will take sometimes painful effort. But change we must. Free Will makes it up to US now. We have all the tools we need and then some (the surprise of Grace everywhere!). Can we make up our minds to do the work needed? I sure it isn’t impossible. But when am I going to get serious and actually DO it? I am soooooo like Peter!

  7. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
    Fran Rossi Szpylczyn says:

    Frank, thank you for your post, which really touched my heart this morning. I made a mental note to come back and comment later and here I am at last. I’m sorry that your trip did not work out – prayers for your friend’s family member’s health crisis be healed.

    All I can think of at these times is the quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, about trusting the long slow work of God. I am so often impatient, and yet as I grow older I see the things that my impatient will would have denied me if I had the power that I wanted back then.

    This also makes me think about the injustice of how slow God’s time seems to move, but then again I do know that justice will come. Not on my timetable maybe, but it will come – built brick by brick, slowly. That is the work of your hands, my friend. God bless you richly for it.

    May your Christmas – and every day – be blessed.

  8. KathNZ
    KathNZ says:

    Like many people here, I thank you for your work, Frank. I am constantly amazed at your dedication and faith in the face of the many disappointments our Catholic LGBT family experiences. You just seem always to hold fast to hope as you strive to remind our church of the unconditional love of Jesus. This advent reflection is another joy to read.
    May you and your endeavour be richly blessed at this time and in the year ahead.

    • Angela
      Angela says:

      Thank you for this insightful meditation–so genuine and with sentiments that each of us can relate to. I’m so sorry for the disappointment you had and for your friend’s family member’s illness. But, selfishly, I’m glad you were here in Greenbelt! Thank you for your dedication and witness to justice and equality. A joyful–and surprising–New Year to you.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Let us resolve in 2015 to making this epiphany a reality. Resolve to ensure that the next trans* youth contemplating suicide finds positive faith voices and inclusive communities. Resolve to support parents in loving their trans* children as Deacon Ray Dever wrote about so beautifully last week. Resolve to challenge anti-transgender prejudices and correcting false information about gender in our faith communities. Resolve to be open to God’s power that breaks into our world through Jesus’ divinity and remains today through the Spirit, for with God all things are possible and indeed surprise is often God’s means. […]

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