Introduction: Advent Retreat 2020
Welcome to this year’s Advent Retreat. This has been a challenging and often difficult year. We’ve spent some of 2020 physically apart, or at least more distanced than ever before, both from those we love and from all the familiar landmarks of our working lives, our wider relationships and the normal rhythms that give a pattern of familiarity to our daily living. A retreat in Advent helps us to look forward to Christmas and a new year, but it’s also an opportunity to look back reflectively on how the past year has been for us, what we’ve endured but also what we’ve learned, how we’ve coped and, hopefully, how we’ve grown and adapted.
In Luke’s gospel Simeon prophecies to Mary and Joseph in the Temple that their child ‘is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’. He will be a sign of contradiction, ‘so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ (Luke 2:34-35). Later in the same Gospel Jesus tells the crowd, ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ (Luke 12:2). The pandemic has revealed the vulnerability and, at times, the hypocrisy of many of the systems on which our societies depend. In personal terms it has also revealed to us hidden weaknesses and hidden strengths, opening us up to the fragility of life but also to the kindness of strangers.
This retreat is the perfect opportunity to spend some time in the presence of a loving God who is waiting to welcome us, nurture us, and draw us into deeper relationship. The Incarnation shows how it was vital to God’s plan for him to draw near to us in the flesh as God-with-us. Perhaps there’s never been a more important year to meditate on the ways in which God chooses this way to make his love known and to give us strength in the Word made flesh.
We start with some practical hints that might help you if you haven’t made a retreat like this before, or act as reminders if you have. You might like to consider these headings: how, where, when, and what.
One question to consider as a “how”, is how long you feel that you are able to devote to each session of the retreat. It’s good to decide this in advance, and try to stick to it. Don’t give up too soon if the prayer seems a little dull, or continue too long if it seems to be going well. The material presented in each of these sessions lasts about 20-25 minutes. Just choose a time that you can comfortably fit into your routine, having spent a few minutes preparing yourself and perhaps afterwards some more time noting in writing, in pictures or in whatever way you choose what they key points of invitation or resistance were for you. Whatever your responses and reactions, keep a brief note, as a pattern may emerge that proves a helpful guide when you look back.
Under the headings “where” and “when”, you might like to give some thought to what time of day is best for you to pray – morning, evening, or taking a break in the middle of the day? This might also suggest another question – where will you find it easiest to pray and reflect in this way?
Finally, under the heading of “what”, ask yourself what you are making this retreat for. What are the gifts and graces you would hope to receive from God during these times of prayer. Make sure that you start the prayer by asking God for these, and try to be open to whatever else God wants to give you. Many times we do not know what we really need!
When you have taken a while to consider these questions, you’ll be ready to begin this prayerful time of reflecting on the nearness of God. Before you start, take a moment to become aware of God’s welcoming gaze of love on you as you meet him in this way. Also become aware of all those others around the world who are praying this retreat alongside you and know that you are part of this worldwide community of prayer.