It is said that one of the surest signs of getting older is that the holidays seem to come quicker every year. But, since November and December have always been my favorite months of the year, that’s one part of aging I won't complain about!
With our uniquely American holiday, Thanksgiving Day, just barely behind us, it is Advent again. And, of course, in the way we live today, when Advent arrives we are already immersed in our annual, year-end Christmas extravaganza! Advent, with its penitential purple vestments, seems much too restrained amid all this holiday exuberance. Our modern holiday season is an exciting, extravagant, consumerist celebration of ourselves.
In comparison, Advent just doesn’t seem to fit.
In comparison, Advent just doesn’t seem to fit.
So I think the first thing we have to say about Advent is that it is not in fact 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 into Advent, invite us to focus on the coming of God’s kingdom. If November’s emphasis is on a sober consideration of our natural human limits and the eventual end of all things, Advent continues that theme with increasing emphasis on the hope-filled joyful expectation of the renewal of all things in Christ.
The proximity of Christmas meanwhile invites us to remember Christ’s 1st coming, which we will soon commemorate and which we are already anticipating in all our extravagant pre-Christmas celebrations. That 1st 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 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.
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 – in 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 Pope Francis said at the beginning of Advent last year, Advent invites “us to lift our gaze and open our hearts to welcome Jesus … preparing ourselves, with consistent and courageous choices, for the final encounter with him. We remember Christmas, we await the glorious return of Christ, and also our personal encounter: the day in which the Lord will call. During these four weeks we are called to leave behind a resigned and routine way of life and to go forth, nourishing hope, nourishing dreams for a new future.” [Angelus, December 2, 2018]
Surely that would be a challenge at any time in history. Surely it must seem so today in this truly turbulent time in our national life, in a country bitterly and angrily divided along ethnic, racial, educational, and geographical lines, at a time when anxiety rather than hope seems to be the dominant feeling for so much of today’s world.
Now Advent, as we celebrate it in the Church today, relies a lot on the seasonal imagery of darkness and light that defines this time of year in our northern hemisphere. Folkloric customs like Advent wreaths and evergreen trees all attempt to tap into that. Symbolic beings that we are, we readily respond to such imagery. And so we have our Advent Wreath and next week will light our parish Christmas Tree. (Hopefully, no local equivalents of the anti-"pagan" conspirators who threw the indigenous images into the Tiber during October's Synod in Rome will show up to protest!)
Even so, we must be careful. Advent uses seasonal symbolism to make a point, but Advent is more than some sort of seasonal pageant.
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.
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? Paul’s words challenge us to be attentive to what is happening right now. Living as we do in a culture of institutionalized irresponsibility, Advent’s message is a radical wake-up call to mean what we say - really to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, 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 into the future. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that it is precisely the present that matters. Jesus’ warning about the days of Noah, reminds us how common, how universal, the experience of the present 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.
As Pope Francis has written in his great programmatic Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” [Evangelii Gaudium, 8]
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 1st Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 1, 2019.