Preparing for Christmas as Missionary Disciples
How to reclaim the spark of the season
Liturgically, New Year’s Day is the first day of the season of Advent. Will it bring surprises, wonder, joy? Or have we been through this so often that we feel Advent is like a movie or play that we’ve seen holds no surprises anymore? We know the plot and we know the outcome, and unlike the children who still believe in Santa and gather eagerly around the crèche, we may be a bit jaded and casual about the whole thing.
But if we, pastors and clergy, have lost the spark, the frisson of anticipation, how will we “infect” the faithful with the real meaning of Christmas: the Incarnation and celebration of God-coming-closer, and God-with-us: Emmanuel?
When my younger siblings were about to be born, everything in the home became more tightly focused. Even the young ones knew what to do to prepare. Dad was responsible for family order and allocating the jobs, while Mum attended to the details in preparation for the home delivery. When all was ready, some of us would be sent to be looked after by a neighbor, and the midwife would take up residence in our home. Then, a day or so after the birth, we would be paraded up the road to see my mother in the bed, and the tiny baby in a bassinet. We were wonderstruck, overcome, lost for words. It happened as they said it would, and the new arrival would create a change of perspectives and relationships for every single member of the family. Life would never be quite the same.
So, what are we waiting for this Advent? We should be preparing to celebrate the arrival of Jesus. We know it happened 2,000 years ago, but unless we are too jaded, we should still have imagination and memory.
Anamnesis is the word for remembering — but not in a nostalgic way. Anamnesis is a vivid calling to mind, a re-creation or making present. At the Last Supper, Jesus would call his disciples to “Do this in memory [anamnesis] of me.” If we vividly bring Jesus to mind in the Eucharist, we will keep him and his memory alive; if we do not, we will forget (the opposite of remember).
Although Advent is not a preparation for the Last Supper, when we look back from the vantage point of that final meal and reflect on the legacy of Jesus’ whole life and mission, from birth to death, we should be able to form a vivid picture of what he is asking each of us as we prepare for a new beginning this Christmas.
Mark’s Gospel is constructed around a journey: Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and his destiny. But as he moves inexorably to his destination, he will go out of his way to encounter people who have lost their way. He will encounter a wide range of people and invite them to join him on the way to Jerusalem. In this way, he creates a group of people who will be co-missioned to continue his mission, in his way, after the Resurrection-Ascension. They will be called disciples, and in the Book of Acts, People/Followers of the Way.
The Call to Discipleship
In Matthew 11:25, Jesus prays, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” And then in verse 29, “Learn from me.”
The word for “disciple” (mathētēs) means “a learner” and is half of a pair, the other being “teacher.” Jesus, the teacher, is looking for learners to learn from him and follow him. So, he thanks his Abba for hiding this possibility from the “wise and the learned” — that is, those who think they know it all and thus have nothing more to learn. These are the arrogant, inflated and self-important.
By contrast, the “childlike” here are precisely those who know they have a lot to learn and are not self-sufficient. They include those who are poor, mentally ill, physically or morally broken and marginalized men and women. But his final instruction is “learn from me”; I will be your teacher. He does not say “learn about me” (“academic,” or “outer” knowledge), but “learn from me” (“apprentice,” or “inner, intimate” knowledge). This is the call to discipleship and partly explains why many people do not follow his invitation or his way.
The Shape of Discipleship
There are many ways to describe the mission of Jesus. What does it look like? If we survey his life as a whole, we can perhaps visualize it as built on or around four pillars: encounter, table-fellowship, foot-washing and boundary-crossing.
Encounter: Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and renowned psychotherapist, said, “to love, you must encounter.” God does not make “generically.” Jesus epitomizes love of actual people — not the poor, sinners or the brokenhearted, but this man, this woman, this actual person. He literally goes out of his way to encounter them, individually. It’s the only way to love.
So, what about us? How do we shape up? Who do we encounter? Who do we avoid or simply not notice? We should be careful if we walk past someone on the street; we may be metaphorically walking on them. The shepherds and the Wise Men went out of their way to encounter Jesus, while others slept.
Table fellowship: “He eats with tax collectors and sinners,” people said. He looked them in the eye and responded, “Yes, I do; and unless you do likewise, you cannot be my disciples.” Jesus chose to eat in all the wrong places, at all the wrong times, and with all the wrong people. His first bed was a manger — a box or basket in a stable, containing hay, food for the cattle. Here is a kind of table fellowship, a sharing with the domestic animals. So, with whom do we share our tables and food? Who do we like to eat with? And whom would we never think to invite to our table? Maybe this Christmas we can go out of our way to invite a hungry or lonely neighbor to our table.
Foot-washing: John’s Gospel does not describe Jesus’ action with bread and wine at the Last Supper. Instead, he tells us that Jesus rose from the table, approached Peter, and knelt before him with a bowl of water. Foot-washing was precisely the act of a slave, and so Peter was understandably shocked and embarrassed. But not only did Jesus proceed to wash Peter’s feet and command him to follow his example, but he explained that Peter was not a slave with no choice but a free person who nevertheless must choose if he was to be a true disciple.
Pope Francis was doing this long before he became pope — indiscriminately — and drawing criticism from the sanctimonious. And when he said he was only doing what Jesus did, they were unmoved.
So, what is our attitude to foot-washing, literal or metaphorical? Whose feet do we wash? Who do we expect to wash our feet? What might we do this Christmas to go out of our way to show gratitude to those who serve us each day but are hardly noticed: transportation workers, cleaners, garbage collectors and the rest?
Boundary-crossing: Jesus did not cross oceans, but he did cross many boundaries — of gender, social class, religious affiliation, reputation, privilege, power and purity. This brought him into face-to-face contact with many undesirables. It was the only way to fulfill his mission. He did not wait for people to come to him; he went in search of them, crossing whatever invisible boundaries separated him from them. And some people were scandalized. So how does our pastoral approach measure up? It is not enough to say “all are welcome” unless people can tell that we really mean it. Our world is polarized by racism, sexism, clericalism and so many more isms. Christmas is surely a time to think differently and to act differently: a measure of our missionary discipleship.
Stages of Discipleship
If we scan each of the Gospels to get a bird’s-eye view of Jesus’ ministry we will be better able to identify the process of becoming disciples — or failing to do so. The three stages identified here do not apply in every case described in the Gospels, but cumulatively they do appear to shape the overall process of discipling.
Call/Encounter. Sometimes Jesus calls a would-be disciple explicitly, but sometimes it is the would-be disciple who encounters him, without his prior call. For example, the rich man (cf. Mk 10:17-22) encounters Jesus but has not first been called; but Jesus does call Zaccheus from his hiding place (Lk 19:1-10). But whether by an explicit call or simple encounter, the stage is set. This is the first step on the way to discipleship.
Disturbance/Displacement. Before a person can become a disciple, he or she needs to be reoriented. Life will not be the same hereafter. Jesus will make great and surprising demands: “Go, sell what you have … then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). This shocked the rich man and was too much for him to bear. But whether by a shocking disturbance or a lesser form of reorientation by a displacement of some kind, such as blind Bartimeus having sight restored and life instantaneously changed (cf. Mk 10:51-52), this second stage is necessary for disciples to negotiate. Unless a person can do so and accept this displacement, he or she is not ready for discipleship.
Sending/Co-missioning. After Jesus calls or encounters someone, and assuming that person is ready and willing to follow Jesus, there is then, explicitly or implicitly, a commissioning or sending forth to follow Jesus. Ultimately this implies following him to his destiny, or to wherever God calls that person, whether or not his or her way leads directly to Jerusalem. If this stage is reached, then the would-be disciple is now a true disciple, a follower of the way, and not simply commissioned but actually drawn into participation in the very mission of Jesus — hence, co-missioned.
The Shepherds, the Magi and Me
Advent is a time of waiting, but also a time of preparation. We are not only preparing for the Savior’s birth, we are preparing to be changed, transformed, refocused and redirected — if that is what we truly seek. But we are also in the enviable or privileged position of knowing the outcome of the story at the outset. That should be a great encouragement and motivation: this time, this Advent can be different from the rest. God came to us as the baby of Bethlehem — one of us — to show us how to be more like him, like God. We are not called to be God (an utterly impossible aspiration), but to become our Godlike selves. And so there is much work to be done.
The shepherds were nobodies, outsiders, largely irrelevant and with nothing to teach their betters. But they surprised and surpassed themselves, and were the first to “get it.” They brought their whole, real, ill-smelling, poor selves and placed all that before Jesus.
Even the Three Kings were outsiders, strangers, members of another religion and a doubtful profession as astrologers. Whether they were real people, like the shepherds, or figures of fable, the shepherds and the kings were people from each end of the human spectrum.
Each one of us is a real person, situated at some point on the human spectrum. And each of us is called to make this a different kind of Christmas, called to become a different kind of person. If each of us were to attempt this, the world would become very different, and the angels might sing again: “Glory to God on high. And peace to all people of goodwill.”
FATHER ANTHONY J. GITTINS, CSSp, is emeritus professor of Theology and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, where he taught for nearly 30 years. A missionary-anthropologist in West Africa and beyond, he ministered to and with homeless women in an Uptown shelter.
Father Gittins observes that down the centuries, well-intentioned people have tried to follow Jesus, but many have thought that this requires them to become — or explicitly imitate — people like Bartimeus, the woman who washes Jesus feet, Martha, Mary, Lazarus. And some have given up because they feel so inadequate. But God is not asking any of us to be who we are not.
The call to discipleship is an invitation for each of us to realize our potential, to be generous in our service and to strive to follow the whisperings of God in our actual daily lives. For this, we pore over the scriptural stories of the call to discipleship, and then try to distill some challenges and lessons, and apply them to our own lives. What is the; “jar” that I must leave behind — Woman at the well (Jn 4:28)? What is the “cloak” I must throw off — Bartimeus (Mk 10)? What beautiful thing can I do, that will be told in memory of (me) (Mk 14:9)? Do I believe, even though I have not seen (Jn 20:29)?
Each of the stories offers me challenge and encouragement. I can hear the words, internalize them, reflect and respond, in such a way that I am more closely in tune with the God who calls each day, in the present moment. I do not try to be who I am not; I try to collaborate with the call of the Spirit and become the person God is calling me to become.