My friends, today is the First Sunday of Advent. Today God inaugurates among us a new year of grace! As Bishop Wester reminded us in his pastoral letter, issued just this past week: "The season of Advent has a twofold character: It is a time of preparation for Christmas when the first coming of God's Son ... is recalled. It is also a season when [our] minds are directed… to Christ's second coming at the end of time. It is thus a season of joyful and spiritual expectation." Today’s readings direct our minds "to Christ’s second coming at the end of time," a coming we wait for in joyful hope.
Through our observance of the various liturgical seasons we are called, not just to engage in a lot of nice religious thoughts, but to enact, that is, incarnate the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and glorious ascension, so that we are ready to meet Him when He returns in glory, a return for which our lives are but a preparation. As we were reminded at Mass a few Sundays ago, when we read Jesus’ teaching about His own glorious return, our belief in His so-called second coming is a dogma of our Christian faith, something we not only believe, but for which we yearn. However, if it does not happen before, our own end time occurs when we die.
Of all the liturgical seasons, I think Advent is the most difficult one to clarify, a clarification that is necessary if we are going to fully live it. We fully live this season of grace by striking a balance by means of a certain tension. The kind of tension I am talking about is not the stressful kind that exhausts us and gives us headaches, but the kind we require to stay in balance physically, mentally, and spiritually. As the late liturgical scholar, Mark Searle wrote, this mystery we seek to embody corporately, as Christ's Body, as well as in our homes, the domestic Church, and in our individual lives, is "something which can never be completely understood or adequately defined, for it is always open to fresh insight and deeper understanding." In describing the tension required to celebrate good liturgy, Searle also clearly defines the kind of tension necessary to live Advent: "Tension creates energy," he wrote, "a tension between the present and the future." I would add to this by throwing in the past, too.
It seems to me that this tension is inherent to the Advent season, the result of it being both our preparation for Christmas, when we call to mind in order make present, the first coming of the Son of God, and our thinking about His return. This is the tension we live everyday between the already and the not yet, which is precisely where, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger observed, we always find ourselves at any given moment. It is precisely this that creates the energizing and balancing tension of the Advent season.
Practically speaking, the balance we seek to achieve in our observance of Advent is between giving in to secular culture and beginning to celebrate Christmas even before Thanksgiving, or turning Advent into another Lent. While, as Bishop Wester points out in his letter, Advent is not, strictly speaking, a penitential season, we can’t deny our need to repent when thinking about Christ's return in glory to judge the living and the dead. So, Advent undeniably has a penitential dimension, but this should not overshadow the season.
Pope Benedict has asked the Church throughout the world this Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, to focus time, attention, and effort on protecting nascent human life, giving witness to the dignity of every human life from its earliest embryonic beginnings. This means that in addition to continuing our work to end the evil of abortion, working to bring an end to the destruction of human embryos in research facilities and in-vitro fertilization clinics, as well as advocating for the overturning of unjust laws that permit the destruction of innocent and nascent human life. We also need to pray for a change of heart among those who continue to sin by advocating for, or actually taking innocent human life, and for God to have mercy on all who have sinned against life.
Advent means "coming" or "arrival," and so is characterized by our waiting in joyful hope for the Lord. It is no exaggeration to say that joyful waiting accurately summarizes the Christian life, which is why we mention it every time we celebrate Eucharist, when, in the middle of the Our Father, we pray: "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ." Giving us the season of Advent is one way God protects from anxiety because for too many of us this season is full of anxiety.
The vast majority of human history is an advent, which is not, as too many today seem to think, like that of Samuel Beckett’s tramps, who wait in vain for Godot. Since the Incarnation, human waiting has taken on an added tension, which imparts joy to us and makes our waiting hopeful. We live in joyful expectation because the Lord did not leave us orphans. After His ascension He sent His Holy Spirit to be His resurrection presence among us, a presence made most palpable in and through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. At the end of the day, Advent is about conversion, about being more conformed to Christ. So, the question for each one of us is what needs to change in me? Reflection on this question is the very best way to arrive at how to observe Advent.
It is important to note that it is the Holy Spirit who changes us. Hence, the best way to describe what you do through your efforts to pray more, spend more time reading and reflecting on Scripture, working towards a more just society, especially with regards to nascent human life, and perhaps participating more regularly in the liturgy, is to open yourself to and cooperate more intentionally with God's grace given us in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit. So, heed Bishop Wester's call to enter fully into this season by heeding the Holy Father’s call to work and pray for respect for the dignity of human life from its earliest beginning. Allow yourself to be drawn in by the Holy Spirit, whose primary tools for working on/in us consist of confession and Eucharist. This, I believe, can have no other effect than making your Christmas merrier, but don’t take my word for it, see for yourself starting today.