After an autumn of lots of traveling for New Ways Ministry, I was preparing for a rare—nay, unprecedented—month-long vacation, visiting India and Bangladesh with a Franciscan friend of mine. He used to minister there educating Franciscan novices and leaders, and we were going to visit his friends. Christmas would be spent in a contemplative Poor Clare convent in the hills of Bangladesh. Just what I needed at the end of an extremely hectic year. Pure bliss.
So, my Advent was filled with travel preparations and expectations: visa applications, immunizations, finding the right electrical adapters, worrying about wi-fi connections and cell phone service.
And then it ended. A serious, unexpected health problem in the family of my traveling companion arose just two weeks before our scheduled departure. We would have to postpone, perhaps until the spring, perhaps indefinitely. Sadness and disappointment were mixed, I must admit, with a bit of selfish relief that I could stop the worried and frenzied travel preparations, and that I now had some unexpected “found time.”
Well, the “found time” evaporated very quickly. I soon realized I now had to “shift gears” and start Christmas preparations. Gifts that I had planned on buying in Asia, now had to be bought at the local mall. Christmas cards needed to be filled out and mailed. Decorations had to come down from the attic. And what about baking the Christmas cookies? What I usually rush to do in four weeks now was going to have to be done in two.
Needless to say, not everything got done.
But enough about my tale of woe. The point is that I learned an Advent lesson from this experience which I think might be pertinent for those Catholics who work for LGBT equality and justice.
Advent is a time of expectation, preparation, and hope. But what we expect, prepare, and hope for may not arrive as we have planned it. And it may not arrive on our schedule. God works in mysterious ways, and, often, in more mysterious time frames. I’ve learned that it is important to expect, prepare, and hope, but that we also need to be open to surprise.
That was my greatest lesson from all of 2014. Many of us had great hopes for the October synod on marriage and family. We spent months in anticipation, buoyed by Pope Francis’ positive messages signaling openness to change, by the Vatican’s call for greater discussion by the entire church, and by greater openness from bishops around the world to recognizing the positive gifts of lesbian and gay couples.
We prayed and prepared and hoped. And as the synod opened, we started hearing positive messages from participants and observers. And then came the mid-term report, with its strongly worded affirmations of lesbian and gay people. Our hopes, it seemed, were being realized. I even toyed with the idea that the work of Catholic LGBT advocacy would soon be waning, that our hopes and dreams were now being realized at last.
One of my favorite spiritual writers, José Antonio Pagola, in a homily on the fourth Sunday of Advent in his book, Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospel, Year B, notes that the coming of Jesus was also seen as a disappointment for many. Born in the backwater of Bethlehem, in a stable, in the midst of Roman occupation, to unknown, powerless parents, Jesus certainly did not have any of the earmarks of a Messiah that Israel expected.
But God works in mysterious ways. And on a mysterious time schedule. Our expectations, preparations, and hopes are never in vain. They just may not receive their fruition in the way we expect them and in the time that we expect them. We have another synod, a more definitive one coming up in November 2015. And we need to work and pray with the hope that that one will be better than this past year’s.
More importantly, we must learn to be surprised by God. Isn’t surprise what our secular tradition of Christmas gift-giving and even decorations are all about? Advent is about expectation, preparation, and hope, but Christmas is about surprise, about finding God, love, and joy in the most unexpected of places. Who knows what surprises God has in store for the 2015 synod? I know that no one I know was prepared for the surprises that came at this past year’s meeting.
I won’t be in India and Bangladesh this Christmas season, and I don’t have all my decorations up, presents bought, or cookies baked. But, nevertheless, I plan on being surprised, once again, as I always am, by the love of my family and friends, in ways that I never expect. I can’t wait to see what God has in store!
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry