As the song goes, "It's the most wonderful time of year." I don't know about you, but I find that it's often also the busiest. It's easy, I think, amidst all of our various activities -- wrapping up school or work before the holidays, completing our holiday shopping, arranging our travel plans to visit family and friends, emotionally gearing up for seeing family and friends, etc. -- it's no wonder that we can become distracted and even burned out even before the big day arrives. It's all too easy to lose sight of the season we're currently in. No, I don't mean Christmas ... not yet anyway. Rather, until the 25th we're in the season of Advent, a season of preparation and anticipation that, if entered into properly, increases the joy and meaning of Christmas when it does arrive. The last week of Advent ramps all this up with a more urgent call to prepare ourselves for the imminent coming of the Lord. As we begin the week before Christmas Day, I thought I'd take a little time and offer an Advent reflection that may help us to re-orient ourselves before it arrives and remember the reason for this season.
The word "Advent" comes from the Latin word advenire, "to come toward," "to arrive." It's the opening season of the liturgical year and calls us to at once remember and also prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Having ended the year with reflections on the ultimate kingship of Christ, culminating with the Feast of Christ the King, and looking forward to his Second Coming, we begin our "New Year" meditating on similar themes but with a slightly shifted focus. Whereas the liturgical year ended on a triumphant note, celebrating Christ as the king of all the universe, the one who has already won the fight against evil and put an end to death, and we begin Advent recognizing that our present reality is not always reflective of this truth. The kingdom of heaven has truly come, and yet, is still coming to fullness. This is the principle -- commonly found in theology but not always easy to live with -- of living in that tension of "already, and not yet," where we know and experience in a limited way the once-and-for-all-time victory over the forces of darkness that has been won by Christ in his paschal mystery ... and yet we wait for the full flowering of victory.
Advent thus is a time to re-enter into the mystery of our existence in the here and now, i.e. after the Lord's first coming to Earth, and before his second coming in glory. In our lead-up to Christmas, we focus not only on that first coming when God forever changed human history by becoming Man, but also that second coming in which we will be drawn up into the mystery and living presence of God in a very real way. Advent is a season of preparation and introspection, examining what in our own lives is limiting us from experiencing the love of Christ and his full coming into our own lives. This is the third coming of Christ that you may sometimes here about -- the coming, the welcoming of the Lord into our own hearts.
Because of this, because we know the whole salvation story even as we wait for its final fulfillment, Advent is also a season of hope and expectant joy. This past Sunday we celebrated the third Sunday of Advent, popularly called Gaudete Sunday, that is, "Rejoice!" The Church invites us on this day to pause from our preparatory, even penitential, self-examination and emphasize the ultimate purpose of the season for which we're preparing -- namely, the imminent coming of our Lord, the reason for our joy. This joy is symbolized even in the lighter tone of the liturgy -- the color of the vestments and the wreath candle for the week are the lighter rose color while the readings, from Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul to the Philippians, tell us remember our joy and confidence in God.
However, this joy, while real, is not yet full. We've not yet reached Christmas, symbolic of that first coming of our Lord in his Incarnation. And we're still pilgrims in a world full of sickness and suffering, where the forces of darkness and evil remain clearly at work before us and can seem at times to be very much still in control. We await the second coming of the Lord, when we will be "gathered together to him" (2 Thes 2:1) and when all evil shall be wiped away. Until that time, we are invited to welcome the Lord into our hearts in a very real if mysterious way. If amidst the hustle and bustle, we can quiet ourselves and reflect a bit, we can gain an understanding into what this is all about. I very much believe in the power of God's Providence, that despite the evil and pain of this present world, God is still at work in transforming us and our world. I read an Advent reflection by Fr. Thomas Rosica recently that I liked:
That "way of the Lord" that we must prepare is the highway to our own hearts -- just as God entered the world as a Man so too does he wish to enter into our hearts, engaging each of us in a deeply personal way. It is this joy that fills the season -- that it is God who yearns for us, that the creator and ruler of all the universe wishes to enter into a loving and personal relationship. Every part of our life is changed by this knowledge -- we come to understand ourselves not as powerless but with the potential to do good as children of God; we view others not as enemies or nuisances but as our brothers and sisters who deserve our concern and charity; we approach the problems of today not with bitterness and cynicism but with a hope and confidence that Providence is at work still; and we confront the realities of suffering and death not with despair or disillusionment but with faith in the salvation that awaits us in the next life.The message of Advent is not that everything is falling to pieces. Nor is it that God is in heaven and all is therefore well with the world. Rather the message of Advent is that when every fixed star on the moral compass is wavering, when all hell is breaking loose on earth, we hear once again the Baptist's consoling message: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
Recently, Pope Benedict gave a reflection on the importance of Advent to the sick and their caregivers at the Hospice Foundation of Rome. Though his comments were directed toward those who are experiencing pain in a very real way, I couldn't help but feel that his comments held a measure of relevance for all of us, in whatever way we find ourselves weighed down by suffering and doubt in our lives. He says:
In the light of faith we can read in sickness and suffering a special experience of Advent, a visit from God, who, in a mysterious way comes to bring liberation from solitude and meaninglessness and transform suffering in time into a meeting with him, into hope and salvation. Your illness is a very painful and unique trial, but before the mystery of God, who took on our mortal flesh, it receives its meaning and becomes a gift and an occasion for sanctification. When the suffering and discomfort are the worst, know that Christ is associating you with his cross because through you he wants to speak a word of love to those who have strayed from the road of life and, closed within their empty egoism, live in sin and separation from God. In fact, your health conditions testify that the true life is not here, but with God, where every one of us will find joy if we humbly walk in the footsteps of the true man: Jesus of Nazareth, Master and Lord.This, I think, is the true meaning of Advent for all of us. Our lives here on earth are, it seems, a kind of extended Advent. Jesus is coming -- at Christmas, at the end of the world, and into our hearts -- and it is in him that we take comfort, in him that we have hope. We live in a fallen and unjust world, one which we must not abandon but must continue to help understand the salvation of God which comes through Jesus. Yet, the season of Advent and its progress toward Christmas help us also to remember that we are merely passing through, that we are pilgrims on the way to our true spiritual home. As Fr. Rosica points out above, our task now is much like that of John the Baptist, always pointing the way to Christ for others and welcoming him as our Lord and Savior.
May these last few days of Advent be a time of blessing and fruitful anticipation for all of us. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.