Confronting Secularism in Advent and Christmas
The poor can help us develop an attitude that frees us from attachments to material things
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, the divine Savior and humble man from Nazareth, who told us that we cannot serve God and mammon. Paradoxically, this feast has become the most secular time of the year. How can pastors and other priests bring a sense of the sacred to confront the secularism that Advent/Christmas now symbolize.
To address the materialism of our society, we begin with the greatest sermon ever preached, spoken by Jesus on the mountain. His first words give us a clue on how to combat the secular with the sacred in the aftermath of the pandemic that disrupted our lives and caused such suffering. It begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, / for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3).
The poor help us confront the secular by developing an attitude that frees us from undue attachments to material things and by serving as the objects of our concern and compassion. From them, we can learn an avenue to holiness.
A reflection below centers on the story of Morley, a poor man, seen as a Christ figure. In this way, we recall Jesus’ regard for the poor and discover what they can teach us during this Advent/Christmas.
Morley and the Flint Stone
Morley’s story began years ago, but his memory lives on whenever I see the old round piece of flint stone in my basement. This greyish brown relic with a chipped side, smaller than a baseball, reminds me of him and his meaningful story.
The stone is a Native American play, hundreds of years old, used for play, found by Morley in a borrow pit (dump), where it was buried generations ago. After I purchased it from him, he told me that he found it when salvaging along the Miami River. When I look at it, I picture aboriginal children playing on the banks of the river, where Morley unearthed it.
My appreciation of Morley as a person changed as I watched a commercial that requested donations for disabled veterans. It pictured a veteran with a disfigured face. Immediately, I thought of Morley. He, too, had a scarred, disfigured face, resulting from burns suffered in a military battle during the Korean War.
Until I saw the soldier on television, I thought only of the ball’s history but never of Morley. I now recognize his value as a child of God and see that the real value of the ball is not found in its scarcity or financial worth, but as a symbol of Morley’s struggle to find his life’s meaning after the accident. This awareness helped me appreciate why Jesus was loving with the poor and why early Christians were especially mindful of the needy.
After Morley returned from combat, he shied away from people and lived in a small house near the river. Rarely did he go into town except for food and to work at odd jobs to support himself. He was at peace with who he was and the life he lived. When I looked beyond his face, I discovered a wonderful man who spent most of his time alone.
Morley’s scarred face reminds me of the child of Bethlehem who became the disfigured Christ on the cross. When thinking of Jesus, I understand why the first Beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit …”
Confronting the Secular
With the earth-wrenching results of the COVID-19 pandemic still evident, this Advent/Christmas season allows pastors/priests to confront the secular with the sacred and to give priority to persons rather than things.
The materialistic signs, evident during this season, invite us to accept this challenge and convey it to our parishioners. It is a time of soul searching and prayerful reflection. Confronted with the temptations of the secular world, we look to the poor while ministering to parishioners and taking care of ourselves.
We remember the limitations of secularism and how little comfort it provides in times of stress, sickness and death. The materialistic signs evident during Advent/Christmas are not the answer. Rather, we look to the broken world that Jesus came to save for a road map to happiness.
Morley’s story is a small segment of this broken world. And we remember that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God for everyone, especially people like Morley.
God’s kingdom is one of love, peace, forgiveness and justice. The heart of this kingdom is about repairing the brokenness resulting from sin and its consequences, and announcing salvation to the poor and disenfranchised.
Pastors/priests confront the secular by recognizing our personal brokenness and the poverty we experience because of it. Doing so helps us on our spiritual journey and provides hints for assisting parishioners in their struggles.
These hints, centering on Jesus’ teaching on the poor, and illustrated in Morley’s story, suggest four kinds of poverty for us to meditate on during the four weeks of Advent. These include physical, psychological, spiritual and material poverty. Each is addressed for personal consideration and for use with parishioners.
First Week of Advent — Physical Poverty
Morley’s disfigured face exemplifies the physical poverty that confronts people. It includes various kinds of bodily sickness occurring through life.
Advent/Christmas invites us to reflect on our physical limitations, be grateful for where we are on the health scale, and ask for God’s peace regardless of our physical condition. Morley, a model for struggling people, found this peace after he became comfortable with his limitations.
Developing a positive approach to our physical health frees us to assist needy people. When they see Jesus mirrored in us, it helps them realize that only God’s presence brings ultimate healing.
Second Week — Psychological Poverty
Imagine Morley’s reaction when he realized that his face was severely burned. Emotionally, it must have devastated him. He needed to deal with his psychological poverty, as does every person who experiences serious trauma resulting from sickness, broken relationships, divorce or the death of a loved one. Such psychological poverty also can result from the disruption of education, work or personal matters. Psychological poverty can be more disruptive than physical brokenness.
Pastors/priests often face traumatic situations. These may occur when we are under great pressure or exhausted from overwork. They provide opportunities to trust God, seek counseling or ask for the advice of a good friend.
Reflecting on psychological brokenness helps us develop a greater sensitivity to the needs of parishioners and makes us better ministers. By the time I got to know Morley, he already was at peace with his psychological brokenness and the life he lived. May his calm demeanor be an example for us!
Third Week — Spiritual Poverty
Imagine what went through Morley’s mind as he laid in a hospital, realizing that life would never be the same. He must have asked himself, “What meaning does my life have and what will I do when I recover?” Such questions pulse through us as life becomes difficult or we face trying times and wonder about the future.
Spiritual poverty arises from a lack of meaning. The worst kind of results from sin and its aftermath can result in spiritual brokenness. Regardless of its cause, a sense of meaninglessness accompanies it, and our hearts seem empty.
On such occasions, we need God’s grace and the support of colleagues, friends and family. Remember Jesus’ words when he endured his own spiritual poverty, as he neared his death while hanging on the cross. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46).
Because Jesus trusted his Father, he is the eternal source of strength for us when we cry out in suffering. Let us renew our trust in God and repeat the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Advent is a time of waiting and reinforcing our confidence in God.
As we remember our spiritual poverty, recall the lack of meaning that others, especially young people, feel. Many fail to see much more in their future than ambiguity and uncertainty, and recognize no reality beyond the material. In our pastoral ministry, we can remind them to trust God, who never abandons them.
Fourth Week — Financial Poverty
As Christmas approaches, the Nativity story reminds us that Jesus was born in a condition of financial or material poverty. Symbolized by his birth in a stable, this encapsulates the other forms of poverty.
This final week of Advent allows pastors/priests to consider our attitude toward money, finances and material things. In so doing, ask the Holy Spirit to give us proper regard for the things of this world.
When I think of financial poverty, I remember how Morley struggled to get his life together, spending most of his time in his small home by the river. Like the cave on the first Christmas, Morley’s house symbolized another challenge in dealing with his poverty.
He did so by being poor in spirit. Morley did what he could to sustain himself, even though this was often limited to gathering fossils and having menial jobs. His inner peace is an example for others that they can make it, regardless of what has happened to them.
Advent/Christmas encourages pastors/priests to remind their congregation that trying times are bugle calls to see their personal poverty as redemptive and to help those in need.
FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.
Christmas — Accept the Task
Christmas is a time of hope. It reminds us that Jesus was broken not only on the cross but during his entire life. The joy at his birth and the glory of his Resurrection are eternal bookends telling us that life is worthwhile, that the poor will remain with us, and that hope always overcomes despair and gloom.
To confront secularism means putting our poverty and that of others in proper focus. This challenge invites us to be faithful to Jesus’ command to reach out to the poor and to recognize that poverty can free us.
Priests have wonderful opportunities to share such thoughts in homilies and other ministerial work. May the Holy Spirit enlighten us, as we minister in the New Year!