Fr Billy Swan
This Sunday is the first day of Advent and marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. Its arrival also means that another Christmas is upon us with all that comes with it. Given the commercial power of advertising and the momentum towards Christmas that begins just after Halloween, it is important for us to retrieve the real meaning of Christmas and to prepare for it spiritually. In order to do so, we need to see Advent as a crucial time of preparation. Here I would like to offer a few thoughts on the spirituality of Advent and how we can enter into the season more fully.
The word ‘Advent’ is derived from the Latin word meaning “the coming,” the coming of Our Lord. Like Lent that prepares us for Easter, Advent is a time of preparation and expectation. Just as there can be no real celebration of the Resurrection without experiencing the sorrow of Good Friday, there can be no real celebration of Christmas without the expectation of Advent.
Without a proper observance of Advent, the meaning of Christmas can be reduced is to a sentimentalization of Jesus’ birthday. Don’t get me wrong. It certainly is a celebration of Jesus’ historic birth in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago but it is an event whose implications go beyond its historical roots. St Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), the great Counter-Reformation saint and archbishop of Milan, wrote this about the season of Advent:
“Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all...The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace”.
And so, while Christmas is certainly about calling to mind how Jesus was born, it isn’t just about the past. And that is why we have Advent. The second half of Advent (from 16th December on) does recall the historical event of the incarnation of the Son of God in human form, but the first half focuses our minds and hearts on his promise to come again. And yet there is another sense in which Christ comes to us today, through grace as St Charles teaches at the end of the text above. He comes to us through others; he comes to us in unexpected ways and events. He comes to us at prayer and through the sacraments with his grace. He comes to us through the poor, the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Cf. Matt. 25).
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in an Advent homily, described these three Advents this way.
The first Advent is the mystery of the incarnation in time when Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary of Nazareth and was born nine months later in Bethlehem. The second Advent is the unseen spiritual presence of Christ dwelling in our hearts today. The third Advent is in the future when Christ will come again in glory.
Keeping all three of these dimensions of Advent in mind can enrich our appreciation of the season as a time of renewal and a time to deepen our relationship with God. And so, for example, contemplating the historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth reminds us of his embrace of the poor as someone born without privilege or earthly power. God the Father could have sent his Son into any part of the world, including many that were less volatile politically and religiously. Yet the prince of peace was born in the place where that peace was most needed. God could have sent his Son to be the firstborn of a powerful ruling class that would take on and defeat the oppressive power of the Roman Empire. He could have been born in a palace and a warm bed. Yet, Jesus was born to poor parents with no religious or political power at all. He was born in a stable and laid in a manger. This is how the Son of God was born and retelling the story of his birth challenges us to discern God’s ways that are often in contrast to our own expectations.
Then there is our faith that God comes to us with his love and presence every day of our lives. In Advent we pray each day with expectant faith that God is going to encounter us in the people and circumstances of our lives. This is because God is not just present with us as he promised but is also active. He is the Good Shepherd seeking to reach us and transform us into people of greater love and holiness.
Then there is the third coming of Christ at the end of time. In the words of the Catechism: “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year…by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (CCC, 524). But how real is this ‘ardent desire’ among us for his second coming? The truth is that few of us give the second coming much thought. Yet, faith in Christ’s return was a very influential belief in the early Church - so much so that St Paul felt the need to dampen expectations that it was immanent when writing to Christians in Thessalonica. In the light of today, we seem to have gone from one extreme to another – from being overly excited about it to forgetting it. Yet every time we confess the Apostles’ Creed we say: “I believe he will come to judge the living and the dead” and during the Mass, at the acclamation of faith, we say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.
If we are at rights with God and are focused on his coming, then his return should not frighten us or concern us. We are called to be faithful witnesses, ready for the Master’s return. This period of waiting is not meant to be one where we remain passive but one that urges us forward to facilitate the coming of God’s kingdom. That said, all we do is but an anticipation of the fulfillment that God will accomplish when Christ returns in glory. In the words of St Oscar Romero:
“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest” (Prophets of a Future not Our Own).
Here is Advent faith that reminds us that everything we do in the present is open to future fulfillment and that we are indeed prophets of a future not our own. Most importantly, it requires us to have faith but also to be faithful to the Lord until he comes again. That is why Jesus’ question in the Gospel of Luke is so haunting: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). Will he find any faith in me? Will he find any faith in us? Being faithful is to wait in joyful expectation that Christ will come as he promised and that when he does come, he will find us ready and waiting for him.
I conclude this article with a reference to the woman who is intimately associated with all three comings of Christ that we keep before us at Advent and as we prepare for Christmas. Our Blessed Mother was chosen by God to be the mother of the Saviour and because of her ‘YES’ to God’s will, that is who she became. Therefore, no one knows the historical circumstances of Christ’s first coming better than her. May she teach us the wisdom of God and humility of God in sending his Son to be born in solidarity with the poor and the powerless.
Mary is also our teacher and guide of how God comes and acts in the present. She reminds us that God “scatters the proud of heart and raises up the lowly”. He is the one who “fills the starving with good things and sends the rich away empty” (Mary’s Magnificat). So, when we see this type of reversal taking place, she reminds us that God is at work in the world today.
Finally, Mary prayerfully stands with the Church in joyful expectation for what God has promised. Her presence with the Apostles at Pentecost is a sign of her great faith that refused to believe that her Son’s death was the final word. And with her Assumption into heaven, she is a radiant sign of where the Church is called to be at the end of time when Christ will be “All in All” (1 Cor. 15:28).
As Advent begins, may we enter into the season will expectant faith of Christ’s threefold coming – in Bethlehem, today and in the future as he promised. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!