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Some writer asserted, fifty years, ago, that there were only three cities in the U.S. with enough atmosphere and color to furnish the background for a story; namely New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. "Could anyone", he sarcastically asked, "imagine a good story laid in Buffalo or Memphis?" Well, the short-story writer, O. Henry, could, and in rebuttal he came out in the next issue of the same magazine with a gripping tale, one of his best, set right in the heart of Memphis and complete with magnolias, mint juleps, and murder. And as a parting barb, he made the hero take on a far away look in the last sentence and muse: "Pretty exciting here these days in Memphis. I wonder what's doing in Buffalo?"

All this comes to mind because every year in December it is possible to stumble on a similar twist in the religious press. It may be a story or it may be a poem; the characters may be bored shepherds on a Bethlehem hill, or restless night clubbers at the Bethlehem Inn; but the line always runs something like this: "What a dull spot this Bethlehem! The sticks! The middle of nowhere! Now, Rome - there's a town for you. Something always doing. But this place! Can you possibly imagine anything ever happening in Bethlehem?"

That very night something did happen in Bethlehem. Rome lived to see the day when it would go back and date the very founding of Rome as so many years before what happened in Bethlehem that night. History now matter-of-factly records that Rome was founded in 753 B.C., before the birth of Christ!

The most dramatic and spectacular episodes in the diary of the world have had a habit of happening at the most unlikely places, spots far off the beaten tourist trail; like Lourdes, or Fatima, or Naim, or a knoll called Calvary or a cave at Bethlehem. And they happen not only where they are least expected, but also when. Perhaps that is why Christmas itself comes to us during the darkest week of the whole year, when the sun is lowest, the days shortest, the nights longest, so that in the midst of the murky winter's gloom Christmas glows as the perennial Feast of Light! (First, on a midnight hill, the Star; later, in the shadowy catacombs, the twinkling candles of the Christ-Mass; then in dim medieval castles, the blazing Yule log; and in the modern home, the colored bulbs of the Christmas tree.)

Yet every year we must warn ourselves lest, amid all the gorgeous illumination of "Christmas in the city," we lose sight of the "Light of the World", of Him who should be the only reason for and the very center of all the silver bells and the red and green festoons. From presents wrapped in gay crinkly paper we must frequently steal a thought toward a Gift of God that was wrapped in swaddling clothes. From glittering store windows hung with handsome lounging robes, or sparkling with "Rare Old Whiskeys," or banked with rows of new model TV sets, we should in spirit peek in at a cold cave lit by a lonely lantern and stocked with only grim poverty. This does not mean that all the holiday trimmings must be rudely ripped away. It means that they must be seen only as trimmings.

It isn't easy to find a needle in a haystack, but it shouldn't be too hard to find an Infant in a bundle of straw. But we shall never find Him if we do not seek Him, or if we seldom think of Him, or if all our thoughts are channeled down the aisles of department stores with scarcely a trickle running down to the crib.

Let's face it. We have to make ourselves think of the Babe of Bethlehem, and unless faith and love are strong enough we just won't bother. The people to whom Bethlehem is business and Christmas is mostly commercial, are a prodding rebuke to our spiritual laziness. Do you know that six months ago the editor of the magazines that are published in December with all the holiday's recipes or suggestions was preparing for the Christmas editions? Or ask the manager of any big downtown department store. He'll tell you that the windows that glow and sparkle like a fairyland at Christmas time were born on an artist's drawing board sometime around St. Patrick's Day.

Sure, they do it for dollars. Certainly, their Star of Bethlehem is a neon sign, and their crib a cash register. But the fact remains that moved by love of money they do prepare for Christmas, and we, moved by love of God, do not. At least most of us don't. Stop the average Catholic on the street. Ask him what he is doing for Advent. Will he give you the blank blinking look of the ox in the Christmas stable? How often does the impending birth of Christ come into his own personal thoughts?

This is what the Church means by keeping Advent. To prepare your heart for Christ, even as you prepare your home for Christmas. Do it, and Advent is not a dead term embalmed in a Sunday's announcement. No! Rather it puts thoughts into my head, love into my heart, and prayers on my lips. With Christ so soon to be born, I re-live the waiting, the watching, the longing and the yearning for the coming of the Savior.

A daily little visit to a church, a tiny empty manger or an Advent wreath in my home - these are the practical ways of turning so many shopping days till Christmas into a spiritual preparation for Christ. But above all, tell your mind and heart and soul: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!"

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Copyright © 1995-2019, Father Scannell. All rights reserved.