A friend of mine says that one of the surest signs of getting older is that the holidays seem to come quicker every year. But, since this has always been my favorite time of the year, that’s one part of aging I can’t complain about!
Inevitably, with our uniquely American Thanksgiving Day just barely behind us, it is Advent again. And, of course, the way we live today, when Advent arrives we are already immersed in our annual, year-end Christmas orgy of Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas shopping, Christmas cards, Christmas shopping! Advent, with its penitential purple vestments, seems much too restrained amid all this holiday exuberance. Our modern holiday season is an exciting, extravagant, celebration of ourselves. In comparison to that, Advent just doesn’t seem to fit.
So perhaps the first thing we have to say about Advent is that it is not in competition with Christmas. Actually, Advent is not in competition with anything – except complacency.
In the Church’s calendar, these final weeks of the year, beginning with All Saints Day on November 1 and continuing with Christ the King into Advent, invite us to focus on the coming of God’s kingdom. The proximity of Christmas meanwhile invites us to remember Christ’s first coming, which we will soon commemorate and which we are already anticipating in all our pre-Christmas celebrations. That first coming of Christ challenges us to recognize and respond to Christ’s presence and action among us here and now, which in turn prepares us for Christ’s promised return – Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Ostensibly the most future-oriented of seasons, Advent is thus really a sort of symbol for the entire Christian life, lived (as it inevitably must be) in the present - between the first coming of Christ and his hoped-for final advent. As Christians, we live our lives literally in this interval between Christmas and the end. And that is what Advent is all about.
So Advent is not in competition with Christmas. As I said earlier, Advent is not in competition with anything – except complacency.
Jesus’ warning words to his disciples in today’s Gospel and Paul’s parallel challenge to the Christians in Rome both reflect this fundamental fact about the Christian life here and now. The point is not when Jesus will come but recognizing his coming – not as something to be put off to some far off future, but as our present preoccupation. The future will indeed come – at its own time and on its own terms – but our task is the present, which is what, in fact, will determine who we will be in the future.
As Saint John Paul II once said, “the whole of our life must be an ‘advent,’ a vigilant awaiting of the final coming of Christ. To predispose our mind to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, one day will come to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize him as present in the events of daily life.”
Surely that would be a challenge at any time in history. Surely it must seem so today coming at the end of a truly turbulent year in our national life, characterized by a bitterly fought, angry, and divisive national election, that has revealed a country almost evenly divided along ethnic, racial, educational, and geographical lines, while anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of today’s world.
Advent acknowledges our anxiety as part and parcel of the human condition and challenges us to get over it. Symbolically, Advent addresses this through its use of the seasonal imagery of darkness and light that defines this time of year in our northern hemisphere. Folkloric customs like Advent wreaths with their evergreens and candles all attempt to exploit that. And, symbolically-oriented beings that we are, we readily respond to such imagery.
But we must be careful. Advent uses seasonal symbolism to make a point, but Advent is more than some sort of seasonal pageant, the sort of seasonal pageant our secular society has largely turned Christmas into.
The Christian life, on the other hand, is not a season, nor is it a play. The world really was in darkness before Christ – the darkness of alienation from God. But unlike natural darkness the world’s alienation from God is not some abstract natural force.
In fact, we are the ones who have contributed – and continue to contribute - to this world’s darkness. For this reason, Advent was long considered a penitential season. For this reason, Pope Innocent III prescribed black as the liturgical color for Advent - although purple eventually beat black to become the season’s official color. Conveniently, purple simultaneously symbolizes both royalty (Christ the King coming in glory) and repentance.
The penance appropriate to Advent is, of course, to follow Saint Paul’s call to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. That means I need to ask myself, exactly what is it that keeps me in darkness? Why isn’t the light of Christ shining forth from me and through me to light up the world around me? Living as we do in a culture of institutionalized irresponsibility, Advent’s message is a radical wake-up call to mean what we say - to be attentive to what is happening right now.
At Christ’s final coming, of course, darkness will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in this interim time – between Christmas and the end – darkness and light coexist, and are in constant conflict.
But, as our annual rush to start celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier each year suggests, most of us aren’t very good at waiting. We want to know as much as possible in advance, so that we can rush right away into the future. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that it is precisely the present that matters. The fact that the present time is limited just makes it all the more precious, makes it matter that much more. So, stay awake, Jesus warns, be prepared – now - because what I do now, the way I live now, the kind of person I am becoming here and now, that is the kind of person I will be when the Lord comes, and so the person I am going to remain for all eternity.
Whatever surprises any of us may be hoping to find under the Christmas Tree this year, the coming of Christ is not one of them. Christ has already come. (If he hadn’t, none of us would be here at Mass today!) The question is whether his presence in our world today matters enough to make a difference in the way we live and what we care about – whether and how we are making the most of our limited but precious present time to become now what we hope to be when he comes again.
Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 27, 2016.