This past week (like lots of other Americans), I flew across the country to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. Of course, one could – and should - give thanks at any and all times of the year. And we do, in fact, do that every time we celebrate Mass. (The word itself, Eucharist, literally means giving thanks!) But autumn, the season of the harvest, naturally lends itself to such sentiments, at least wherever the natural seasons still exercise some influence on our technologized contemporary lives. Certainly since ancient times, throughout the northern hemisphere, thanksgiving festivals have been celebrated at this season. And our own uniquely American Thanksgiving holiday dates back to at least 1623.
Autumn – late autumn, autumn turning into winter – also gives this happy holiday season a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, a mood that the Church’s annual cycle captures so singularly in this season of Advent, which in 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, continues the 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 [Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with a mission, each with his or her own work, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.
Meanwhile, of course, there are many distractions that get in the way of our being attentive – or, as Jesus says, being on the watch. What are some of those distractions? “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism,” Pope Francis has written, “is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life gets caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” [Evangelii Gaudium 2]
So, Jesus said to his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Be on guard against whatever distractions dull our senses and lull us into sleeping!
In the darkness of the winter night, when sleeping seems so natural, Advent yanks us out of our ordinary, secular time into what we might call liturgical time. Like Thanksgiving in secular time, Advent introduces us to Christmas in liturgical time, remembering Christ’s 1st coming in the past. “The joy of evangelizing,” Pope Francis reminds us, “always arises from grateful remembrance” [Evangelii Gaudium 13]. And so Advent introduces us to Christmas in liturgical time, looking back to Christ’s 1st coming in the past so as to recognize Christ’s continuing presence in the present – in the here and now, between Christmas and the end - until Christ’s final coming, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living and the dead.
The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate how much sense Advent makes. The older one gets, the more aware you become that time is running out, and thus the more you appreciate the importance of the present, the time you actually have. Time – this time, our time – is precious, precisely because it is limited, but also (and here is the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) because it has a future. Advent annually expresses in ritual form for us what we actually presently experience, where we actually find ourselves 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, as we say at every Mass, in joyful hope.
So Advent is not some antiquated interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe, trying to compete (as if one could complete) with the joyful Christmas season in which we already find ourselves. As I say every year at this time, the liturgy isn’t a play. We’re not reenacting God’s entry into our world a long time ago, or pretending that Jesus hasn’t already been born, but will instead somehow surprise us on Christmas morning - as if Jesus were Santa Claus.
So the point of Advent is not – as some would have it – to delay our celebration of Christmas, but rather to refine our experience of Christmas.
The point of Advent is to make the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his presence and action in our world in the present. That present has plenty of problems, as we all know and all have experienced in different and challenging ways. 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. The challenge of Advent is to re-imagine Christmas as more than just shopping and presents and parties (however wonderful those things may be in themselves). The challenge of Advent is to recognize in the reality of the Christmas story something even more wonderful than shopping and presents and parties, to recognize something really new and wonderful, pointing us hopefully into the future, by the bright light of Christmas past. 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.
Homily, for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
November 30, 2014.