Sunday, November 28, 2010

Between Christmas and the End

Lo! He comes with clouds descending.
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
God appears on earth to reign.

So begins Charles Wesley’s well known and popular Advent hymn. As Wesley’s words make clear, this season we call “Advent” is about the Lord’s coming. Wesley’s 2nd verse (based on Revelation 1:7) highlights people’s reactions to his coming:

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robes in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to a tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Every Advent, we remember Christ’s 1st coming, which we commemorate at Christmas. That 1st coming 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 has come; Christ is coming; Christ will come. Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ostensibly the most future-oriented of seasons, Advent us actually a sort of symbol for the entire Christian life, lived (as it inevitably must be) in the present – between the 1st 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.

Jesus’ warning words to his disciples in the Gospel (Matthew 24:37-44) and Paul’s parallel challenge to the Christians in Rome (Romans 13:11-14) reflect this fundamental fact. Their point was not when Jesus will come but being prepared for his coming – not as something to be put off to some far away future, but as our proper preoccupation, here and now, in the present. 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.

Now this liturgical Advent, as we actually experience it in the present, relies heavily in the seasonal experience of darkness what so defines this time of year in our northern hemisphere. Advent wreaths and candlelight all attempt to tap into that natural imagery, at the risk almost of making Advent some sort of folkloric, seasonal pageant. The Christian life, however, is not a play. The world was really in darkness before the coming of Christ. At his final coming, darkness will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in the interim in which we live – between Christmas and the end – darkness and light coexist in constant conflict.

We are all familiar with Jesus’ famous image of his disciples as the light of the world, a city set on a mountain. Modern electricity has made darkness a mere inconvenience for us. Today, one can illuminate an entire city with a single switch. (It takes a lot more than that, of course, but that’s the part we see and so is how we think about it). To light a fire, however, and then to illuminate a city by spreading that fire’s light from street to street and house to house, that takes work. That work is the mission of the Church in every generation – to let the light of Christ shine forth from and through his Church and so truly to illuminate our world.

Unlike natural darkness, however, the world’s alienation from God is not some abstract natural force. Aren’t we – the men and women of the world, the ones whose actions have contributed (and continue to contribute) so much to the world’s darkness? For this reason, Advent has traditionally been a penitential season. Pope Innocent III even prescribed black as the liturgical color for Advent – although purple successfully beat black to become the season’s official color. Conveniently, purple simultaneously suggests both royalty (Christ the king coming in glory) and repentance.

But what is the penance appropriate to Advent? St. Paul tells us to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. So, I need to be asking 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 entire world around me? Paul’s words challenge us to pay attention to what is happening right now. Living as we all do in a culture of institutionalized irresponsibility, Advent’s message is a radical wake-up call to face up to our responsibility to mean what we say – really to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Most of us aren’t very good at waiting. We want to know as much as possible in advance, so we can rush into the future. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that is precisely the present that matters. Jesus’ warning about the days of Noah reminds us how common, how universal, our present experience really is. We are still eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – just as it was up to the day that Noah entered the ark. 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 fund under the Christmas Tree this year, the coming of Christ is not one of them. Christ has already come. If he hadn’t, the world would not be celebrating Christmas and none of us would be here at Mass today! The issue 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 time to become now what we hope to be when he comes again.

Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN., November 28, 2010

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