This past week (Not unlike lots of other Americans), I flew back and forth across the country to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my 2 college-age nieces. One could, of course, give thanks at any time of year. But autumn, the season of the harvest, naturally lends itself to such sentiments. Autumn, however – especially late
autumn, autumn turning into winter – also gives this holiday time a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, that the Church’s annual cycle captures so singularly in this season of Advent, which (in most churches of the Latin Rite) begins today (unless you happen to live in Milan, Italy, where the ancient Ambrosian Rite is followed, and where Advent already began 2 weeks ago).
Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day, and this Sunday, rather than starting something completely new, continuesthe end-of-time, Judgment Day themes of the last several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Like the servants in today’s Gospel 9Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with work to do, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.
We will do that waiting - in what we might call “liturgical time” - by looking back, to get to the future. Like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Advent introduces us to Christmas, our annual remembrance of Christ’s 1st coming in the past. Thus, the 4th Sunday of Advent will recall Jesus’ conception in his Virgin Mother’s body. The 2nd Sunday, however, will recall the adult Christ’s public appearance on the historical stage as announced by John the Baptist. Then, on
the 3rd Sunday, we will hear John’s challenge to recognize Jesus, here and now, in the present, between Christmas and the end. Finally, this 1st Sunday puts past and present in perspective, focusing on Christ’s final coming, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living
and the dead.
Hence this Sunday’s somber tone. What we see and observe are autumn’s withered leaves, winter’s barren branches, and the imminent end of another year. What we feel and fear is the end of ourselves. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
Yet, while Advent starts out being about fear, it is also about faith and hope – both the passing of an old year and our hopes for the new, both the enveloping winter darkness of a dying world and the dawning brightness of Christ’s coming to save us. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]: God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the true spirit of winter – winter as it used to be experienced when people actually lived according to the rhythm of the seasons – Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, to pay attention. Of course, everything about the way we live nowadays conspires against slowing
down – let alone taking stock of ourselves and paying attention to anything. After all, in our work-obsessed society we all, understandably perhaps, brag about being busy – even if that means ignoring Bertrand Russell’s warning that “one of the signs of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
The older I get, the more I think I begin to appreciate how much sense Advent makes. The older one gets, the more aware one becomes that time is running out, and thus the more one appreciates the importance of the present. Time – this time, our time – is so precious, precisely because it is limited, but also (and that’s the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) because it has a future. Advent annually ritualizes for us our ongoing present reality, where we actually are right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at
Christmas and his final coming for which we claim as Christians to be waiting.
Advent is not, therefore, some irrelevant interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe, created by ecclesiastical kill-joys to compete (as if one could complete) with the joyful Christmas season in which we find ourselves. In any case, the liturgy isn’t a play. We’re not reenacting God’s entry into our world a long time ago, or pretending
Jesus hasn’t already been born, so that we will be somehow surprised on Christmas morning - as if Jesus were Santa Claus.
The point of Advent is to let the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his coming again, while we, meanwhile, recognize his action on our behalf in the present. The challenge of Advent is to let our anxious and increasingly fear–filled present be transformed into that hopeful future promised us already by Christ’s coming in the past.
At no other time of year does the world seem so receptive to the story that is told and retold throughout this season. So we need to let this Christmas season speak to us – and through us to the world.
Advent is a wake-up call to respond to Christ’s coming and so live as people for whom the Christmas story really matters – matters enough to make everything different from what would otherwise be in a world without the presence of its one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.
Homily for the Frist Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 27, 2011.