The Season of Advent and the celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus on Christmas and during the Christmas Octave is my favorite season of the Church year. I have always even as a child been mesmerized by the aspect of hope that is intrinsic to the celebration, the twofold emphasis on the time leading to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary in the manger of Bethlehem and the personalities involved to the promise of the Second Coming which was considered the “Blessed Hope” by the early Church which believed that the event would occur during their time as has the Church in times ever since.
I think the most meaningful season of Advent and Christmas that I have known was my time in Iraq in 2007. At the time I was travelling about the remote western regions of Al Anbar province with my trusty assistant RP2 Nelson Lebron. We had been doing this kind of work at a steady pace travelling thousands of miles by air and ground to be with the Military Training Teams that were assigned to the 1st and 7th Iraqi Divisions and those of the Border Training Teams assigned to the 2nd Border Brigade as well as Army advisors assigned to the Iraqi Police and Marines working with the Iraqi Highway Patrol. By the time we made our far west Christmas expedition which lasted almost two weeks. The immediate days around Christmas were spent on the Syrian Border with the teams assigned to the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 3rd Brigade 7th Division and Border forces at COP South and COP North.
As we traveled the area with our teams, especially Captain Josh Chartier’s Military Training Team and Major Stan Horton’s Border team out of COP South I was taken in by the Bedouin camps that dotted the desert because in so many ways they lived a life so similar to the shepherds that received the angelic visitation recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The Bedouin are nomads and travel where they can tend flocks or fields according to the season. On December 23rd we traveled with Major Horton’s team visiting both the Bedouin in the area and the Iraqi Border Forces in a number of border forts along the Syrian border which at the time was a major conduit for money and arms being smuggled to Al Qaeda Iraq and indigenous Iraqi insurgents. The Iraqi troops were most hospitable as were the Bedouin who hosted us in their tents or homes. We delivered toys, candy and school supplies to the Bedouin kids and were treated to food and Ch’ai tea. Had it not been late and we had not had more sites to visit we would have taken the invitation of the head of one Bedouin family to have dinner with him.
That night we celebrated a Christmas Eve Eucharist a day early for the teams at COP South. Since we were the only Religious Ministry team that spent any real time with the isolated teams like these it was a special occasion for all, one man in particular, one of the Iraqi interpreters, a Christian who had not been able to attend a Mass of any kind for over two years. The next day we would travel 50 miles of often very rough roads and trails to the even more isolated COP North where we did the same for the members of those teams and had a wonderful Christmas day and eve with these Marines.
That was the most meaningful Advent and Christmas season I had ever seen. It was a season without all the bells and whistles, without all the commercialism and distractions to take away from the simplicity of the message that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5) the simple message of redemption and the grace and mercy of God that has been shown to all people and is the heart of the season.
After my return from Iraq I experienced a major spiritual and emotional collapse related to PTSD which changed me in fairly significant ways. For nearly two years I struggled desperately to recover faith that was lost after I returned home. I was overwhelmed with the turbulence of the country, a disastrous series of splits in my old church, feeling abandoned by the Navy and dealing with the long, slow and painful demise of my father due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. I am told that I am not alone in what I went through. I begin this Advent having made the transition from my old church to the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church which is a North American expression of the Old Catholic faith and I am quite at peace with that move.
After nearly two years faith returned during Advent due to an event in the Medical Center that I worked in where I provided the last rights to an Anglican patient as he drew his last breathe in our ER. I call it my “Christmas miracle.” https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/12/24/padre-steve%E2%80%99s-christmas-miracle/
It was ironic and fitting that my spiritual rebirth came in the midst administering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the sick. Faith has returned and unlike last year when in the midst of my personal gloom and despair I rediscovered faith and the wonder of the season I look forward to the fullness of the season.
I don’t know how much I will write about the season this year, certainly some articles but I do look forward to the continued rediscovery of faith in the Incarnate God.