How many people say that they are just waiting for 2020 to end? In the Church calendar, it just did! Sunday, November 29th, is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Church year. In contrast to the commercial world which pushes the Christmas decorations earlier each year, our Catholic tradition celebrates the distinct but related seasons of Advent and Christmas. And the spirituality and practice of Advent might offer us particular insight and strength in this year of pandemic and division.
Our observance of Advent, with its quiet, reflective waiting and watching, is very different from the hectic activity of the usual secular season. Advertisements would lead us to believe that what we do makes or breaks Christmas; we have to make it happen. Our frenetic preparation seems all important. As people of faith, we are challenged to focus not so much on what we do but on what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for us. Through our celebration of Advent, we open ourselves to God preparing us for Christ’s coming:
• in the past — Jesus was born into the world, a moment in time with great significance for history.
At this moment in time it is good to remember that his birth is proof that God keeps promises.
• in the present — as Jesus appeared to the first frightened disciples after his death on the cross, so
he continues to live in the lives and hearts of believers today. Even in (and perhaps especially in)
fraught circumstances, we are invited to recognize his living presence in our lives.
• in the future— the coming of the Lord at the end of time. In fact, the liturgy of Advent tells the
story of Christ’s coming backward, beginning with this final coming.
This year the scriptures for Sundays of the Advent season (in the Catholic or Common Lectionary) invite us to three actions or attitudes which are quite pertinent to our time:
Throughout Advent we wait in joyful expectation of the coming of the Lord. In our world, so much is instantaneous (Google info, Amazon Prime) – on the other hand, in these past few months it seems that our pandemic nightmare will drag on forever. Yet this season calls us to practice patience. We know that Christ came into our world that long-ago night in Bethlehem. But the kingdom he came to inaugurate is a long way from fulfillment, leaving us to experience it in the state some theologians call “already and not yet”. The prophets and John the Baptist remind us what God’s kingdom looks like: straight paths, mountains made low and valleys raised, mercy and justice, when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Our Advent waiting is active, as we prepare the way for the presence of Jesus now and in the fullness of time.
In the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake, to be constantly on watch. Our Advent call is also to watch. Our lives are filled with demands for our attention, from daily responsibilities to the lure of advertising or cultural norms which promise happiness, wealth, or power. As events of the past year have caused us to turn to virtual sources of news, connections and experiences, many of us have felt overwhelmed by information, mis-information, the noise of political conflict and the barrage of frightening health and safety updates and protocols. Without judgment, in the midst of all of this, Jesus asks us to be constantly on watch – for his presence in our lives and in our world, for the truth, for those who need us to be their voice or the hand of God.
It is no accident that children are the face of Christmas, because they are filled with wonder. But as adults, we have heard the story so many times; we have seen dreams of peace die; we doubt that we can make a difference. Advent invites us to open ourselves to wonder: at God’s unconditional love for each of us, expressed in presence in every moment of our lives; at the mystery of the Incarnation: that God became one of us, and, in the words of our liturgy, “gives our mortal nature immortal value”; at the promise of hope for peace and justice for all the earth.
Mary is a perfect model for Advent. For the first coming of Jesus, she waited for his birth – a mystery she could not comprehend but accepted because of her deep faith and her knowledge of all the ways that God had been with her people through generations. In his growing up and in his ministry, she watched – and followed as his first disciple, learning from him as he learned from her. And she wondered, which allowed God to work through her to advance the plan of salvation: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. (Luke 1:46)
Let us take the time to enjoy this special season. Not only will we be enriched by its gifts as we go along, we will probably experience its fruits even more in the Christmas season to come. May our keeping of Christmas, however adapted and diminished, overflow into our daily lives and help to prepare a way for Christ in our world.