Although it is one of my favorite times of the year and one of my favorite liturgical seasons, Advent admittedly is also an ambiguous time and an ambiguous season. That is exacerbated, of course, by the way we now overshadow Advent, when we anticipate and over-celebrate Christmas as the high holiday of commercialized consumerist capitalism. To be clear, I personally love Christmas, and I don't consider Christmas and Advent as competitors. It is commercialized consumerist capitalism, not Christmas, which is at war with Advent. As Hannah Arendt warned, a consumerist society "spells ruin to everything it touches." But that is an issue for another day.
Today is Advent Sunday, the feel of which was most famously expressed in the English language by the traditional Advent Sunday Collect in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (which highlighted the collect's thematic significance by prescribing its daily recitation throughout the entire season):
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
In the traditional Roman Rite, the closest analogue that similarly summarized the theme of the Advent season used to occur at the end of Advent, on the morning of Christmas Eve:
O God, who gladden us by the annual expectation of our redemption, grant that we who now joyfully welcome your Only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, may also, without fear, behold him coming as our Judge, the same Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In these two traditional prayers are expressed the perennial preoccupations of Advent - the dynamics of darkness vs. light and fear vs. joy, all related to how the majestic Second Coming of Christ has been foreshadowed by his humble First Coming.
Again setting aside the competition from commercialized consumerist capitalism, there are two obvious obstacles that get in Advent's way nowadays. The first is our increasing alienation from nature (for which, of course, we are paying a catastrophic price in our contemporary climate crisis). Symbolically and psychologically, Advent situates us in darkness, the increasing darkness of the natural world in winter, which signifies the dreadful darkness of a sinful world without Christ. In our electrified world, the darkness of winter simply matters much less, is less threatening, and renders us less expectant for the new light that can penetrate the darkness of our dying world.
The second, of course, is that, thanks to the speeded-up pace of contemporary life, we have lost the capacity to slow down (which winter traditionally entailed) and so have lost the capacity for the very expectation that is at the heart of the journey of the Christian life, of which Advent is a ritual expression. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord (Lamentations 3:26). Commenting on this verse, Pope Francis has said "trust in God is not born of a momentary enthusiasm; it is not an emotion, nor is it a sentiment. On the contrary, it comes from experience and matures in patience." Such "patience is not resignation," but "is nurtured by the expectation of the Lord, whose coming is sure and does not disappoint." Such expectation does not come automatically, however. "In the face of life's difficulties and problems, it is difficult to have patience and remain calm. Irritation ensues and often despondency sets in." [Homily, Holy Mass for the Repose of the Souls of Cardinal and Bishops Who Died Over the Course of the Year, November 4, 2021.]
Advent is about cultivating expectation, about fostering the conditions for the possibility of expectation. Ostensibly the most future-oriented of seasons, Advent is in fact really a 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.
Hence this Sunday’s somber tone. What we see and observe in our human lives 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 we approach not just the end of another calendar year but the end of our individual human lives (and in this era of climate crisis perhaps also the apocalyptic prospect of the end of the world we have known for so much of human experience). 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.
Advent highlights the existential anxiety at the heart of human life doomed to die, while lifting up the fundamental question of Christian life, how to get from here to there. In this winter twilight of the year, of our individual lives, and of the world we have known, Advent invites us to experience this frightening situation in a new way, already illuminated by the light of Christ's coming. Again Pope Francis expresses this:
"Knowing how to wait in silence — without chattering, in silence — for the salvation of the Lord is an art, on the road to holiness. Let us cultivate it. It is valuable in the time in which we are living: now more than ever there is no need to shout, to stir up clamor, to become bitter; what is needed is for each of us to bear witness to our faith with our lives, which is a docile and hopeful expectation. Faith is this: docile and hopeful expectation."