The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the Contemplation on the Incarnation from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more about this contemplation, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: The Contemplation on the Incarnation: Why and How Jesus Shows Up”
During my first 5 years of Jesuit formation, I grew accustomed to my locale and schedule changing on a semesterly basis, which kept things fresh and new every couple of months. Then, in August of this year, I began working as a teacher for the first time in my life. As I settled into my new job, community, and schedule however, it began to dawn on me that nothing “new” would be coming my way for a while. I would be waking up at the same time, doing the same job, and repeating the same routine for the foreseeable future. I found this prospect of a relatively static life daunting. While my work as a teacher has proven to be full of novelties that challenge me to stay awake on a day to day basis, I still find myself becoming drowsy and complacent in my general routine. In response to that drowsiness, Advent offers a wake up call, an overarching change in pace and perspective that says routine is not the only reality.
Routine is a part of our lives as humans. Routines help us prepare for each day, handle a plethora of tasks without exerting too much energy, and anticipate whatever lies ahead of us. We set alarms to make sure we wake up at the right time, attend meetings to check our progress at work, and perhaps even structure our recreation by setting aside time slots for a visit to the gym or our favorite show. As helpful as routines can be, they can also limit us, discouraging us from asking questions about why things are a certain way or imagining ourselves and the world in a new light. They also make it easy to fixate on certain parts of our lives while leaving other parts ignored and unexamined. We can begin to think it is more important that things happen at a certain time and in a certain way than it is that things happen at all. Waking up later than I want to can be a disruption to my routine, but I often need to remember that waking up at any time is something to be grateful for. Rushing to make the next appointment in my schedule can prevent me from stopping to consider why I am going to that appointment or from taking some extra time to pray or help a neighbor. Our daily lives make it easy to take many important things for granted.
Advent, however, is a time to break routine. As we prepare for the birth of Jesus, we have the opportunity to examine our lives, consider the world around us, and ask if we are really satisfied with the ways things are. For me, the answer every year is a resounding “no.” Every year, I regret not taking up opportunities to reach out to those in need, I mourn the systems of injustice that place so many in great need, and I find myself trapped in seemingly endless cycles of self-defeating thought patterns. This year, I am horrified by the ongoing war in Ukraine and disappointed by how quickly those headlines became routine for me. I grow more despondent when I recall that war affects millions of people in many places, not just Ukraine. Living in a city with a large population of people experiencing homelessness, I fear I have become more cold than compassionate towards them and feel helpless in the face of this societal plight. In a demanding new job, I am continually tempted to grow lazy and apathetic and find myself thinking I am not helping anyone, a voice that I know is not from God. The routine is not good enough.
Acknowledging my dissatisfaction can be challenging. After all, while things are not perfect, can’t I accept them as good enough? Is there any hope that I can really improve them, or will trying to break routine just make things worse? Where would I even begin? Answering these questions is difficult, if not impossible, if I am trying to do so on my own terms or from my own limited perspective. I need help.
In my own experience of attempting to answer these questions, I have found great consolation in one of the meditations of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and I invite you to try this prayer yourself during this Advent season. In the meditation on the Incarnation (Spiritual Exercises [101-109], the participant is asked to imagine the Trinity gazing upon humanity, seeing the abundance of sin, the failed attempts at self-improvement, the inevitable end point of death. Human routine is not working. However, the response of the Trinity is not helpless dissatisfaction or confused paralysis. The response is one so unpredictable, so filled with love, that it can break through the mundanities of routine and show the possibilities of life previously unimagined. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, will become fully human, born as a baby to a poor couple in a conquered land, and save all humanity from sin and death. This is God’s response. And it works!
This is the kind of perspective and consolation that Advent brings me every year as I reflect upon my life and the world around me. Looking with only my own eyes and the limited perspective of my routine, things seem completely helpless. But when I can pray with God’s perspective and see how God has responded to humanity’s greatest need, I am filled with hope. I do not know what God has in store, but I know that God also is not satisfied to accept our routine as good enough. If God chose the Incarnation to save humanity from sin and death, then I must look at the world in a new way. I have to look for the small, unexpected signs that God is still at work, that God’s promise of love and redemption has not changed. And with trust in God’s love for us, even as I see problems within myself and troubles in the world, I can still say “Merry Christmas” to my neighbors with the certainty and joy that it is indeed a Merry Christmas. “Merry Christmas” comes from the joy in knowing that God will continue to enter the world, disrupting routines to show us the power of God’s love. This joy encourages me to reexamine my own routines as we enter a new year, resolving to live with more faith, hope, and love. What routines are you being shaken out of? How is God inviting you to reconsider yourself, others, and the world this season and in the year ahead?