Msgr. Ronald Knox, a famous early-twentieth century English convert to Catholicism and a brilliant homilist, characterized Advent as a traveler in the night who with bleary eyes squints at the faint light of his destination ahead. Because the darkness clouds his depth perception he plods forward hoping that the light is only a few hundred yards ahead rather than a few miles. The Hebrew prophets were very much like this traveler as they looked forward to the redemption of their people and the restoration of a true king in the line of David. They did not know how long it would take for this glimmer of light to break out into perfect day, they just knew that some day it would.
We’ve all had experiences like this in our journeys through life haven’t we? One example comes quickly to my mind: driving to Owensboro to visit my family. When I had parish assignments up in Louisville as a seminarian and as a deacon, and when the Sherman Minton bridge was open, I used to take I-64 W to 231 S to Owensboro. When I finally get on 231 S I can’t wait to see the glimmer of the new bridge in the distance that crosses into Daviess County. I always thank God when I arrive there.
Msgr. Knox’s point is that we should always have the attitude of “looking forward” to Christ. To help form this attitude in us, the Church gives us the four weeks of Advent. During this time we look forward to Christ’s advent, his coming, on Christmas Day. Actually the word “advent” can be broken up into the Latin phrase “ad venire” which means “to come towards.” His coming towards us at Christmas isn’t the only one we are preparing for though. Let us not forget his coming at our particular judgment at the moment of death or his Second Coming for the Last Judgment at the end of time. Both will come suddenly so we must be prepared.
But, there is another coming which could be easily forgotten because it happens so frequently: His coming in the Eucharist at this very Mass. Every Mass we attend, daily or on the weekend, is its own little Advent – just as real as Christmas morning – that we should also seriously prepare for. Praise God for the revised translations of the Missal that we begin to use today – hopefully what perhaps as become commonplace can become ever-new. All of these “advents”, at Mass, at Christmas, at death, and at the end of time require careful and determined preparation.
The prophet Isaiah exclaims in our first reading, “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him. Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!” The author of our Responsorial Psalm pleads with the Lord, “Rouse your power and come to save us… Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name.” St. Paul, in our second reading, instructs the Corinthians not be “lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Finally, St. Mark’s Gospel is the most forceful of all. Our Lord pleads with his people in return, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come… May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
How then should we prepare? I would like to propose four ways – maybe you could use the acronym PERM, “P”, “E”, “R”, “M.”, standing for “Purification”, “Examination”, “Reconciliation”, and “Motivation.” Spending some quiet time before or after Mass; during Mass after the Homily or after receiving Holy Communion; or even alone before the tabernacle, or in conversation with your family at home, could help you with this exercise.
First, Purification. What are the things that make us impure and unready to receive the Lord in our hearts at Christmas? Will he find our hearts divided among cares of this world and unavailable to him? If our hearts are not pure we must make use of little acts of penance, called mortifications, that can transform our hearts into our own personal Bethlehem’s. For example, spending 15 minutes to read the accounts of the Nativity in the Gospels rather than our favorite magazine or novel can infuse our hearts with the Word of God. Or praying one decade of the rosary instead of playing our favorite video game or surfing the Internet can let our Blessed Mother, the Queen of Hearts, prepare our hearts for her Son like she prepared the manger.
So that is the “P” in P.E.R.M., “Purification.” Now the “E,” “Examination.” For this we tend to limit it to the examination of conscience that we perform before we go to Confession. And Advent is certainly a good time to renew our efforts in this exercise, to take it more seriously, to give it more thought and time and prayer. But I would like to suggest examination as a normal part of the day as well. Regular examination of our spiritual lives is the beginning of conversion and this will prepare us for a happy death, a particular advent that we need not fear. Again, St. Mark reminds us, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.” We can practice this, for example, when we wake up in the morning. We can ask ourselves, “How prepared am I for the responsibilities of this day? What prayer should I say, which saint should I turn to for help in today’s particular challenges?” At night before we go to sleep we can ask ourselves, “How did I do today? Did I reveal or obscure Christ to those I met? Did I place myself in occasions of sin? For what sins can I ask forgiveness before I sleep?
So now we have the “P” and the “E” of our acronym P.E.R.M, “Purification” and “Examination.” The third letter, “R”, stands for “Reconciliation.” This time I would like to focus specifically on the sacrament. I cannot say enough how crucial the sacrament of Reconciliation is in the life of a Catholic. Our whole life is characterized by a preparation and a waiting for the Lord, but especially before major feast days like Christmas and Easter. It is a traditional practice that confession lines are always longer before these holy days and priests, me included, should be patient and generous with Our Lord’s forgiveness. Frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, monthly or weekly, for both mortal and venial sins, can increase our sorrow for our sins, mature our acts of penance, increase our resolve against occasions of sin, and strengthen our intention to change our lives. Freedom from sin in general, sacramental grace, and the counsel of the priest strengthen us for the journey to the Light of Christ ahead of us. And Freedom from mortal sin in particular allows us to worthily receive Communion at Mass.
Finally, after Purification, Examination, and Reconciliation, we have our last letter, “M,” which stands for “Motivation.” Motivation is an Advent challenge not only to those who are non-practicing Catholics, but also for those who are heavily involved in the Church. The inactive and the active alike must ask themselves, “Why do I do what I do?” Am I inactive because of fear or ignorance? Am I active so that others can see me? Am I inactive because I am too proud to ask for help? Am I active because of the feelings I get when I can behold the results? Remember, whether we are active or inactive, our Lord judges our actions not by their results but by their motivation, by the intention of our hearts. When he comes at Mass, at Christmas, at death, and at the end of time will we receive him with pure motives?
Now we are complete: PERM, “P”, “E”, “R”, “M”: Purification, Examination, Reconciliation, and Motivation. I think these could be good spiritual exercises as we prepare together for Christmas. Then, as Msgr. Ronald Knox would conclude, we can “take the shepherd[s] for our guides, and imagine ourselves travelling with them, at dead of night, straining our eyes towards that chink of light which streams out, we know, from the cave at Bethlehem.”
 In Conversation with God, vol. 1, p. 1, by Fr. Francis Fernandez.
 Ibid, p. 2