A few years ago, I was asked to write the “Daybreaks” Advent devotional for Liguori Publishing. I was thrilled at the prospect of putting together the daily devotions to inspire and bring healing to those moving through the days of Advent and Christmas. The publisher gave me a set of parameters for the booklet and asked me to have a theme to run through the entire devotion. I chose to use passages from the Advent daily Mass readings and to share personal stories from Christmases past.
Gathering the Scriptures, meditating on the messages, and connecting it all to my own salvation story was truly a light and easy load. Like celebrating the days of Advent, I had a delightful sense of anticipation and hope as I began, an openness to God’s grace that filled me with joy. The most glorious aspect of writing the devotional was a supreme sense of satisfaction in each day’s labor, knowing that my efforts would give birth to a work of art in the end.
The season of Advent is also about God doing a work in us, writing the story of salvation onto our hearts moment by moment. As we move through the days of contemplation and prayer, we are transformed into a work of art, reflecting the heart of the One who spoke the Word into the world so that all would be fulfilled. As we reflect on the incarnation, there is a deep satisfaction that springs forth in our soul, an expectancy that brings the hope of Christmas alive in our hearts.
The Bits and Pieces of a Journey Well-lived
As I worked on the devotional, it slowly became filled with stories from my life: the time my wife ended up in the hospital for 30 days and I searched for the courage to cope; the delightful memories of my children’s homemade Christmas gifts, their struggles from infancy to adulthood, the very painful Christmas trip I took to the emergency room to have my gall bladder removed, the wild and wonderful family Christmas dinners, and the many evenings sitting by the fire with a cup of tea and a heart full of contentment. Each story was itself a journey of tears and transformation.
I say these stories were well-lived not because I handled them particularly well; in fact, much of the time I did not. But it is the grace of God that was given to me in the midst of these trials and triumphs that allowed me to discover gratitude and contentment in their passing; and in the end, I was able to see my life story as a sweet blessing of love from the Savior who taught me what it means to embody the Gospel in all I say and do. I made so many mistakes, struggled with sin and selfishness, and often raised a cry of anger and despair toward the heavens when I felt I could take no more of the turmoil. But because of Christ’s perfect incarnational love, I was forgiven and set free to understand the totality of my journey in light of the sacrament of our salvation experienced through the birth of Christ.
The Satisfaction of Christ’s Love
Some Christians speak of redemption as “penal substitution” – of Jesus bearing the wrath of God on the cross for the sins of humanity. In fact, some of my Protestant friends think I am quite misguided as a believer – if I am even a believer at all – because I side with Aquinas on the side of vicarious satisfaction when it comes to saving our souls. I confess that I did not always fully understand this belief. It was like writing a devotional. As I grew in experience, I came to see that, all along the way, I had been blessed in unfathomable ways by the Savior who had chosen to pitch his tent among us because of love. This is the love that carried our Lord from the cradle to the cross, giving himself to the Father in the most wonderful, perfect, and powerful act of love. Whereas others would see the Father turning away from the sin or separating himself from the Son, I saw the fullness of Trinitarian love manifesting itself before the eyes of man.
Jesus once said to his disciples “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” (John 4:34). His purpose on earth was to “learn obedience” through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), to experience the fullness of that self-offering love in being made flesh, living a sinless life, and pouring out that life in total submission to the Father’s will. This is what satisfaction is – that the Son should love us so perfectly, so tenderly, and so immeasurably, imaging his love for the Father for all to see from the agony of the cruel cross.
The more I have entered into the reality of Advent, exploring my life story in light of the incarnation, the more I have seen the precious, immutable, and overwhelming love of Christ, the sacrament of our salvation. I am overjoyed that the Lord of the universe should write this devotional story upon my life. Who am I that the King of kings should do this? I can find no other answer than to gaze at the manger and the cross and see the perfect offering of the Son in satisfaction for my sins.
What an Advent that Was
It is hard to describe the satisfaction in my soul I experienced when each individual devotion came together, and especially when the entire Advent devotional was completed. I felt an indescribable sense of wonder in knowing that God was guiding my mind and heart and drawing me along this journey of new birth, not only of this written piece, but of the story written upon my heart as well. I admit I felt a sense of accomplishment when those complementary copies arrived in the mail. I gave them out freely to those people who had been a part of the story that I had highlighted in the devotional.
Every Advent for me is a special time of contemplation, a period of surrender to the One who took on flesh for me, a time of letting go of the hurts of the past, redefining the beauty of my present, and committing to the future that God holds for me in his Book of Life. But because of this particular labor of love, I was brought to a special place in the heavenlies, a realm of contentment and satisfaction in my soul. God had given me a greater gift than I could ever have given to others in this simple collection of words; for he had taken the whole of my faith journey and offered me a heaven’s-eye view of how it had been transformed by the incarnation of Christ. It was a precious gift, one I certainly did not deserve; but I drank in its grace freely with tears of joy.
The Stories We Write…and God Writes in Us
I continue to write about Advent every year, pouring out onto my keyboard the grace God has given me in my understanding and experience. God has kindled in me such an intense love for the incarnation, that I sometimes find it hard not to shout to the whole world how marvelous the birth of Jesus really was and is. There will always be those who fail to understand how powerful a gift this is in my life – especially those who would rather emphasize Easter and the cross over the “sentimentality” of Christmas. But the truth is, Christmas is about the cross, the humble journey of suffering and sorrow that Jesus walked for his people, as well as the infinite joy that is ours when we finally see how our story has been caught up in this great story of salvation from Genesis to Revelation.
In every moment of my life – when I come to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, in my sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, through the trials of marriage and fatherhood, and in endless hours of joy I experience – I will hold fast to this gift of the incarnation, this love that spilled out from heaven to earth to redeem us from the Fall. Like a daily devotional, I will continue to allow my Savior to write his story in my soul, to refine me with that sacrificial love, and to bring to birth that glorious power of the resurrection that was made possible by the coming of the King into the realms of men.
May God continue to write the beautiful story of the incarnation onto your hearts as well.