Saturday, November 29, 2014

The First Sunday of Advent - What are We Waiting For?

Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: “Watch!”
—Mark 13:35-37

If there is one thing that can be said about the season of Advent, it is this: Advent is not Christmas. The blue-purples of vestments, hangings, and candles, the emphasis on preparation and expectation in Advent Scripture readings and carols, and the pervasive themes of judgment, restoration, and re-creation have little to do with the sights and sounds that fill shopping malls, homes, too many churches, and most hearts these days. We love Christmas and our secular culture, which really only gives a polite nod to the seasons and feast of the Christian Year, has enabled us to forget that we can really only celebrate the new-born light of Christmas after we have dwelt in the darkness of Advent.

Sadly, we church types aren’t all that better at keeping Advent than our secular neighbors.

The distinctive nature of Advent is really driven home if we pay attention to the Readings chosen for this First Sunday of Advent. This is a season of encounter and Incarnation. As I stress when I’m giving Advent retreats and times of reflection, this season isn’t really about little baby Jesus lying in the manger. That’s because, during Advent, our attention should be focused on preparing to meet Christ not only as the infant of Bethlehem, but also as the Lord of Time who will bring to completion the transformation that was begun in the Incarnation. In his Preparing for Christmas, Richard Rohr, O.F.M., explains this Advent waiting in this way:
“Come, Lord Jesus,” the Advent mantra, means that all of Christian history has to live out a kind of deliberate emptiness, a kind of chosen non-fulfillment. Perfect fullness is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and to a future created by God rather than ourselves. This is exactly what it means to be “awake,” as the Gospel urges us! We can also use other a words for Advent: aware, alive, attentive, alert, awake are all appropriate! Advent is above all else, a call to full consciousness and a forewarning about the high price of consciousness.

Like every season of the Christian Year, Advent is really a celebration of the Paschal Mystery—the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Each season allows us to approach these mysteries with a slightly different view, like the facets of a jewel. As the light and perspective of each season plays off the stone, we are able to recognize colors and even textures or shapes that are always part of the jewel, but which we can miss if we only ever look from one angle or point of view.

Advent is the season that reminds us that we are still waiting for the fulfillment of what was begun in the Incarnation and continued in Jesus' Death and Resurrection (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 671-672). Unfortunately, this sense of incompleteness - "until he comes again" - is crowded out by our pre-Christmas decorations and festivities. And so, when Christmas finally comes, the great Christmas Season lacks the real sense of fulfillment and joy that it might otherwise have. Living in the tension of Advent isn’t easy and few of us want to spend time waiting in darkness.

Chapel of Thanks designed by Philip Johnson
with windows by Gabriel Loire
in Thanks-Giving Square, Dallas, Texas

And so, we’re left with a question: What are we waiting for this Advent? Are we—are you—waiting for anything?

Advent is concerned with the future, not the past. Christ has already been born and all of creation was changed when Jesus was born of Mary so many centuries ago. And so, if our Advent waiting is only about looking forward to a celebration of Jesus’ “birthday” on December 25, then both Advent and even Christmas itself have little purpose, beyond being just another anniversary on the calendar. But, because Advent is about looking within and recognizing those places within us and in our world where the darkness of sin, fear, hopelessness, and grief still flourish, we need these blessed days to pray and watch for the coming of the dawn of that day when the Sun of Justice will drive the darkness away. And so, we watch and wait. We light candles to remind us that the darkness is being conquered by the One who is the Light of the World. Above all, we hope.

In a wonderful booklet called “Waiting for God: The Grace of Advent,” spiritual writer Alice Camille observes,
If we wait for nothing, then it’s not Advent waiting. If we’ve grown past the nostalgia and commercial-driven aspects of the season, that’s not a bad thing. The ghost of the past is not our only visit this season, as Charles Dickens reminded us in A Christmas Carol. We’re not simply looking backward at another year gone, along with its opportunities, companions, and choices. Even the babe in his cradle of straw—Christ in the rear-view mirror—isn’t the only Savior on the horizon. When we Advent together, our focus is primarily forward.

God promises a new creation of justice and peace. And the fulfillment of this promise is the focus of our Advent waiting and prayer. This is precisely what we’re praying for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.” How have so many of us missed this?

So, don’t be passive this Advent and let this season be more than a pre-Christmas. Advent is a season of discipleship and change. Watch! Pay attention! These aren’t empty ideas—these are the instructions we have received from Jesus himself. Watch for the ultimate coming of the One who has promised to restore all things, but also pay attention to the ways in which he is being born for and in you each and every day. Make time this season to sit in the quiet and the darkness and, with Mary and the prophets of old, watch for the coming of the Light so that at Christmas you can truly sing Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent +
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

*A special note: Each day of Advent I will be posting a special reflection drawn from the Mass readings for the day and the life of saint or beati whose life embodies the virtues and teachings of the season.

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