Growing up in the United States, I always knew Advent would begin before we had properly digested out Thanksgiving dinner. Thursday morning we would be at mass singing ‘Now Thank We All Our God,’ with harvest-themed decorations all around, then go home to cook and eat our Turkey feast; and Sunday we would return (as our turkey stock simmered at home) to sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel,’ and to light the first purple candle. Liturgically, in three short days we had gone from feasting with full hearts (and fuller bellies) on all we had been given to feeling acute hunger for what we lacked.
Of course, Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a part of the Church’s universal calendar, but it does fit nicely with the triumphant tone of the liturgical year end: Christ the King meets every need of the world, and a well-ordered creation can only answer with gratitude and praise. Too, it is always celebrated, since Abraham Lincoln so decreed it a national feast, on the fourth Thursday of November, and Thursday is of course the day we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, a word which itself means “thanksgiving.” So, while Americans commemorate the Pilgrim settler’s celebration of their first harvest in the New World, and the mercy of the Native tribes by whose help their labours bore fruit, they do well to remember also the true Bread from Heaven, the true food and true drink in which Christ’s mercy is manifest.
This year, owing to the constraints of time and space, I did not celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday as did my stateside relations. We had no feast until Sunday, on which day we also entered the season of Advent. As I was cooking a fifteen pound turkey to feed a family of five (which is not gluttony if you intend it to feed everyone for a full week…), I was telling my children the story of the Pilgrim settlers, and of Squanto and Samoset, the tribesmen who helped them to survive in the strange wilderness. The lessons we are meant to learn from this story (as I remember from my youth) are to be generous with those in need, like Squanto and Samoset, and to be thankful for all we are given, like the Pilgrims. We could just say that the lessons of Thanksgiving are about mercy.
Mercy is a great and powerful thing. It has been mangled in meaning to the point that many think it means giving licence to do whatever, that it gives a vindication of sin, or even the abolishment of sinfulness. But, if this were the case, how could mercy be of God? It is not about entitlement, either, for if we are entitled to something, then those who give it to us act with justice, not mercy. It is most true to say that mercy responds to needs which not even justice can fill, indeed, that justice may recoil from. As striking illustration of this consider that all of humanity stands in unambiguous need of a saviour, but that this does not mean we are entitled to Christ. The Incarnation is a profound act of mercy, meeting a need that has no remedy in justice. In another way, we can say that the Pilgrims, who made the decision to cross the ocean into the unknown, who plopped themselves on a coastline to which they had no specific claim, had no particular entitlement to local guides to help them find their footing, yet they got them nonetheless, and felt gratitude, which they expressed in a way that, however ostentatious, could never repay what they had been given.
On the 8th December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Jubilee of Mercy called by Pope Francis will begin. I am planning to make mercy the focus of my advent contemplation and preparation, and I invite you to join me. (This invitation is issued irrespective of your personal opinion of the Holy Father. Be you the most strident of his critics, you cannot cast aside mercy simply because he mentions it.) I shall take as my model the seven corporal acts of mercy, which care for the fleshy side of our being, and the seven spiritual acts of mercy, which care for the soul:
Corporal Acts of Mercy
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit the imprisoned
Bury the dead
Spiritual Acts of Mercy
Instruct the ignorant
Counsel the doubtful
Admonish the sinner
Bear wrongs patiently
Forgive willingly those who sin against you
Comfort the afflicted
Pray for the living and the dead
Each morning I shall pray for the wisdom to know how to be merciful, and the courage and fortitude to show mercy where it is most needed. I shall speak to my children about these fourteen works of mercy. When I fast I shall contemplate the mercy I have received in having enough to give up, that I give out of plenty, not out of want.
I do not believe that in these short few weeks of Advent I will become a saint, but in this season of contemplation it would be foolish not to try. I shall seek at all times to remember the tiny babe of Bethlehem, for the person of Christ more than any other teaches us about mercy: He alone can be truly merciful, for he alone can fulfil our deepest need, but to do this he took on flesh. He was born a tiny infant. As an infant he holds the promise and power of mercy as surely as he does as a conquering king, but in the guise of overwhelming need. Taking forward into this new liturgical year the lesson of Thanksgiving — gratitude for what we have been given — we are confronted our own underlying neediness. We have what we have out of mercy. Likewise, what is in our power to give should be given out of mercy, as surely as if we gave to the Christ child himself. One of the deep mysteries of the Incarnation is why, when he could win any battle of might against sin and death, Christ chose needy vulnerable flesh as his weapon to win us salvation. Perhaps it was to remove the shame from neediness and want. How can we despise the needy when they appear to us in the guise of the Christ Child?
Advent is a peculiar mix joyful anticipation and meditation on need and want, weakness and vulnerability. I am reminded of a selection from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which I encourage you to listen to (for which purposes google and youtube will be adequate), called “This Little Babe.” Meditate upon these words as we prepare to welcome Our Lord this Christmas.
This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this week unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stads for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound
My soul with Christ
join thou in fight;
stick to the tents
that he hath pight.
Within his crib
is surest ward;
this little Babe
will by thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy
foes with joy, then
flit not from this