For most of us December is chaotic and filled with busy preparations for Christmas. We run breathlessly through crowded shopping malls trying to find the perfect present to please every member of the family. We bake dozens of Christmas cookies and goodies. We dust off the boxes of decorations stored away in the attic or basement and festively deck the house and string the lights on the tree. We struggle to write last- minute cards and holiday greetings to cherished friends. Each year it only seems to get worse.
As the shopping days decrease and our frantic pace increases, it is all too easy to lose sight of what these special preparations are meant for and to forget who it is we are getting ready to greet. Excitement fills the air and brightens our spirits as we hum snatches of Christmas carols, but our worries and the still-lengthy "To Do" list weigh heavily on us as Christmas approaches.
During these hectic days the church offers us the season of Advent as a reminder of whose coming it is that we are preparing for. Advent is designed to give us a spiritual orientation to the coming celebration and a time for reflection and interior preparation for it. Advent is a sort of spiritual "waiting room". The word "advent" comes from the Latin adventus, which means "coming" or "arrival". Throughout the Advent season we anticipate the coming or the arrival of Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, our savior. Our daily Scripture readings and meditations this month will focus on God's promise of salvation and the fulfillment of this promise in Jesus Christ. In them we will see a summary of salvation history.
Both the Advent season and the selection of Scripture readings are characterized by an attentive attitude, a posture of waiting. But a time of waiting is not just a period of mounting expectation, to be impatiently endured until the long-for person or event arrives. It is an opportunity to set our sights on the promise, to hold fast to it, to consider its significance, to explore and fathom who and what it is that we are waiting for. The centuries that God's people spent watching and waiting in the Old Testament, longing and hoping for the day of redemption, are mirrored and even relived in our own interior waiting in the season of Advent. This waiting is not a passive whiling away of the days and hours, but a time when our appetites are whet, when our eagerness is honed to fine-edged anticipation, when we stand on tiptoe to catch the first glimpse of his coming.
John Henry Newman marvelously and vividly expressed the spirit of this waiting in one of his sermons: "We are not simply to believe, but to watch; not simply to love, but to watch; not simply to obey, but to watch; to watch for what? For the great event, Christ's coming...
"I conceive it may be explained as follows - Do you know the feeling, in matters of this life, of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays?... Do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something should happen which may happen or may not, or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when you are reminded of it, and of which you think the first thing in the morning. Do you know what it is to have a friend in a distant country, to expect news of him, and to wonder from day to day what he is now doing, and whether he is well? Do you know what it is so to live upon a person who is present to you, that your eyes follow his, that you read his soul, that you see all its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wishes, that you smile in his smile, and are sad in his sadness, and are downcast when he is vexed, and rejoice in his successes? To watch for Christ is a feeling such as all these; as far as feelings of this world are fit to shadow out those of another".Yes, Advent is the season when we stand like sentries at the post, watching for the coming dawn. Our readings are peopled by the prophets who foretold the coming of Christ, and by the men and women of Israel who looked generation after generation for his appearance. The patriarchs, Ruth, David, Isaiah, Malachi, Simeon, and Anna bring us to the gates of Bethlehem and to the threshold of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Our watching and waiting is not in vain, for we know Christ has come, and will come again.
But besides the ever present danger of being overwhelmed with merry-making and rolls of gift wrap, we can also be in danger of allowing a spiritual sentimentality to color our thoughts about the coming of Christ. We have become accustomed to imagining scenes of a snowy, starry night with a rustic stable holding an innocently smiling child on sweet-smelling hay. Christmas is, indeed, a celebration of a birth, but one that is startling, amazing, and almost incomprehensible in its reality! As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, "God's majesty inclined to humility" in the incarnation. God's promise to send a savior for the redemption of fallen humankind is fulfilled in the Word made flesh, in the divine nature of God taking on the human nature of his creatures in the incarnate person of the Son. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, as Bernard explained: "Once a year the universal Church makes a solemn commemoration of the advent of such majesty, os such condescension, of such charity, yes, of such a glorification of the human race".
Scripture and the Advent liturgy also direct our thoughts and attention to two other comings of Christ. The emphasis on waiting during this season is intentional, because we are still expecting Christ in his second and final coming - the "parousia", as the Church terms it from the Greek. Interestingly, in Greek culture this word was used to describe the visitation of a God, or the coming or arrival of a king as he traveled about his realm and was greeted in town after town by his subjects. The parousia of a ruler was often an occasion when petitions were presented, favors were granted, and wrongs were righted. As the Scottish Scripture scholar William Barclay explains, "The word describes a healing and correcting visitation".
We are still awaiting this final coming of our judge and savior Jesus Christ, and Advent is a yearly reminder and opportunity to do spiritual "housecleaning". It is an invitation to take stock of our relationships with the Lord and with one another, to confess our sins, to reform our lives, and to prepare ourselves for Christ's coming, which might break in on us at any moment. Thus, one of the dominant voices we hear in the Advent readings is John the Baptist's as he cries his message of repentance: "Reform your lives! The Reign of God is at hand... 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path'" (Matt. 3:2-3). Many of our daily texts and meditations are oriented to help us to respond to this call. Another article of this month's issue reflects on John and his role as the forerunner of the Messiah.
St Bernard often highlighted these dual aspects of the Advent season, and even wrote of what he described as the "three advents" of Christ. He named as first that advent which has already happened in historical time and space and which we now commemorate each Christmas, the one in which Christ entered the world through the womb of Mary to "seek and to save that which was lost". The third is the parousia, the advent in which Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, and to take us to himself. Then Bernard explained the second, or middle, advent as the "time of visitation" by which Christ is now present and active in each of our lives. Daily he is at work in us through grace to transform us into his image and likeness and to bring us salvation and healing from the sin, difficulties, sicknesses, and human frailties of our everyday lives.
As we progress through this season, let us invite the Holy Spirit
to deepen our appreciation and understanding of all these multiple dimensions
of Advent and to stir in us an eager longing and desire to wholeheartedly
greet our savior in all of his comings to us. May we be found living
"lives of holiness and Godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming
of the day of God" (2 Peter 3:11-12)