When I was a kid, my mom used to set up an empty cradle for Baby Jesus on our dining room table at the beginning of Advent every year, and each time someone in the house did a good deed, they added a piece of straw to the cradle. The idea was to build a soft bed for the Baby Jesus with our offerings. My mom started this tradition the first year I was old enough to understand and participate, and I still remember her explaining the importance of it to me: “If we’re going to do this, we have to do enough good deeds to give Baby Jesus a comfy bed for when He’s born on Christmas. If we don’t do enough good deeds, His bed will be hard and uncomfortable. Are you ready to do it?”
As an adult, I continue to use the season of Advent to prepare my heart for the birth of Baby Jesus every year, even if I have not built a physical cradle since my childhood, and the season continues to be one of my favorites, both for its intentionality and for the sense of anticipation of our Lord’s coming. This past Advent, however, the Lord surprised me. I was having a hard time entering the season, and then out of the blue, what I perceived very strongly was not His coming to me as Baby Jesus, but His coming to me as the Bridegroom – as my Bridegroom. The only possible response was to offer Him everything I had, and to spend extra time in prayer, receiving Him and thanking Him for His presence. I couldn’t build Him a cradle, but I tried to offer Him a home in my heart. Although not a typical Advent, it ended up being an immensely grace-filled season for me; it was incredibly beautiful to receive the Lord in such a special way – as the Bridegroom.
And yet…isn’t that what we experience at every Mass? Don’t we receive the Bridegroom every Sunday, or as often as we attend Mass? In the Eucharist? My reception of the Bridegroom during Advent felt special because it was out of the ordinary, but truly, our “ordinary” reception of the Bridegroom, in the Eucharist, is anything but ordinary. It’s extraordinary, and my experience during this year’s Advent helped me to reflect more on my reception of the Lord in the Eucharist, when He comes to us as the Church’s Bridegroom.
We often reflect as a Church on Jesus’ second coming at the end of time, and whenever we read the Gospels we reflect on His first coming, arriving as a newborn baby on Christmas Day. Today, we find ourselves between these two comings; none of us was alive to experience the Lord’s first coming here on earth, and who knows whether we will experience His second coming – maybe it’ll be in our lifetime, and maybe not. Living between these two comings of our Lord, we live His first coming as a memory, and His second coming in anticipation. Yet in the Eucharist, we are able to receive His third coming – His coming to us today, as the Church’s Bridegroom, in the here and now. At the consecration of the Eucharist during Mass, we participate in the decisive and culminating moment in which Jesus gave His life for us during His first coming. Then the priest invites us to look toward the Heavenly Wedding Feast that will follow Jesus’ second coming, as he says, “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” The Eucharist is the bridge between Jesus’ first and second comings, and as we both remember His first coming and anticipate His second, we process up toward the altar to receive Him in His third coming – in the Eucharist, as our Bridegroom.
Recognizing the immense gift of this third coming of our Lord, how can we best receive Him? What comes to mind for me is a lesson from His first coming: the Mary and Martha story. Jesus visits the sisters Mary and Martha, and Martha spends her time fixing food and waiting on the Lord, while Mary sits as His feet and enjoys His presence. As you may know, we Apostles typically spend around 15 minutes enjoying the presence of the Lord after receiving Him in the Eucharist, resting in Him and thanking Him for His presence. That being said, the lesson to take from Mary and Martha isn’t to be Mary; it’s to be both Mary and Martha. We can’t sit with our Guest unless we’ve prepared for our Guest; we need to do both. We need to be both Mary and Martha. For me, the Martha part happens during the offertory. When the gifts are brought up to the altar – the bread, the wine, the collection basket – I offer Jesus everything I have, just like I did this past Advent. I offer Him gratitude for His many graces, I offer Him my sufferings and challenges, I offer Him my work of that day. I lay it all on the altar so that when He lays down His life for us during the consecration, He isn’t laying it down on a cold, hard, and uncomfortable altar. Instead, He’s laying it down on a soft bed, made by my offerings, much like the bed of straw I used to make as a kid for Baby Jesus. Having made these offerings to the Lord, I then have more space in my heart to receive Him and the laying down of His life. I am open, centered, and focused on Him, so that I can give Him all of my attention after receiving Him in the Eucharist, just as Martha’s sister Mary did, in their house in Bethany. Then I rest with my Bridegroom, in love and gratitude, and allow Him to transform me, slowly making me one flesh with Him – making me Christ-like.
For me what it comes down to is one word: Receive. It’s about receiving our Bridegroom, and receiving Him well.
He is coming. How will you receive Him?
I will spend a few minutes before each Mass reflecting on what I can lay on the altar during the offertory, and I will remain for a few minutes after Mass, receiving the Lord in my heart, thanking Him for His presence, and allowing Him to transform me.