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The Gift of Christmas Prayer

As 2020 got underway we could not have anticipated words like self-isolation, social-distancing and Covid-19 entering our vocabulary and becoming part and parcel of everyday life. Nor had anyone expected a national ‘lock down’.

The closing of our churches was a painful and difficult time. But it also presented an opportunity to discover anew the gift of personal prayer. It became a time of renewal in our relationship with God, our loving Father, Jesus our merciful Saviour and the Holy Spirit, our guide and counsellor.

Advent prayer has its own charism. It is very much focused on expectation and longing, but also thanksgiving and rejoicing. Advent contemplates the great truths of our faith: the Incarnation, God made man, the Word made flesh and the Second Coming of Christ. These profound truths open up our hearts to receiving Jesus into our own lives in a way that deepens faith and draws us close to God.

Our faith in God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the bedrock on which we live. Prayer is the first and loving expression of this relationship. Prayer is an acknowledgment that we are not in ultimate control of our lives or our world. Prayer is the recognition that our lives, individually and communally, are marked by failure and sin. Prayer is an expression of our turning to God for the grace which alone can heal us, strengthen us and give us the resolve and wisdom we need.

The season of Advent invites us into a wondrous encounter in prayer in which we contemplate God made man, born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

We can but lift up our hearts in praise and thanksgiving to the Father for giving us his Son and sending the Holy Spirit. The joy of Advent, then, is that we have some share in the prayer of Mary, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,’ and we never tire of joining with the angels in their hymn of praise and adoration: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased’.

The word ‘Advent’ means ‘arrival’ or ‘presence’. In its oldest use it pointed to the arrival of a high official, of a king, queen or emperor. We now use the word to express our special relationship with Jesus, whose coming we await in this Advent season. We await the joyful celebration of the birth of the Servant King, God made man, born in poverty in a humble stable, into a poor family. We pray with eager anticipation and renewed expectation for the coming of Jesus the King into our lives also, renewing our inner being, refreshing our weary and flagging spirit. Often we do not know how to pray; then we are ready to receive the gift of prayer. What is prayer and how do we pray? Prayer is the raising of our mind and heart to God and the requesting of good things. Certainly prayer involves effort.

It is an inner struggle, sometimes a battle. But the wonder and mystery of prayer is that it is first and foremost a response to God our Father, Jesus, the Son, our Saviour and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the giver of life, whose desire and thirst is for us to be a sharer in this divine life. The blessing of being a child of God, and a grace of baptism, is that God is no longer remote or distant but closer to us than we are to ourselves. Our hearts cry out to him ‘Abba! Father!’ God,
who called us from nothing into existence, calls us ever more deeply into that mysterious encounter known as prayer. Jesus’ teaching on prayer encourages us to be precisely those things – bold, confident and expectant. Our favourite attitude is gratitude, which leads to the art of thanksgiving and praise. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek eucharistein meaning literally ‘to give thanks’, and the Mass is sometimes referred to as the Sacrifice of Praise.

The Holy Spirit gives us the strength to overcome lethargy, cynicism and a hardness of heart, pouring out his love upon us. When we think of prayer we often think of our own needs and desires. This is human and understandable, and be assured that God hears our prayers. However, in teaching us how to pray Jesus taught that thanksgiving and gratitude are the highest forms of prayer. To give God glory, honour and praise is the natural response of a heart overflowing with thanks, because we have received so much grace, so many blessings and spiritual gifts. A grateful heart counts its blessings and rejoices in the Lord always; its favourite attitude is gratitude. It is better to lose count of our blessings than to lose our blessings counting our troubles.

I humbly pray that during Advent
a new song comes into my heart,
a song of worship and praise,
of love and adoration of the Father,
in the power of the Holy Spirit
for sending Jesus, the Saviour,
the Eternal Son, God made man,
the Word made flesh,
the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, born in a manger;
Christ the Lord,
Christ the King.

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