The liturgical year is one of the greatest gems of the Church. Over the course of the year, we ritually live out the events of salvation history, calling to mind what God has done for us and what God will continue to do. For those who fully enter into it, each season offers a chance to experience God in a different way, focusing on a particular experience of our lives with God and how we are to respond to it.
In Advent, of course, our focus is on what is to come: we wait in joyful anticipation for the coming of our Lord Jesus.
But what does that actually mean?
For many, the focus is what immediately follows Advent: Christmas. What we await is the birth of our Lord, the Incarnation of God as a human being. And who can blame us? It’s no doubt the greatest mystery of all of human history. The Creator became the created. Think about that. God, the all-knowing, all-powerful being that holds together all of existence… came to be a meek, poor, vulnerable creature in a volatile time and place in human history. God took on our humanity (or did we take on His? Look for a video the day after Christmas…) No doubt, this is something to celebrate.
At the same time, though, that event took place in history, meaning that it is long past. Nothing, in effect, will be different come December 25. At Christmas, we celebrate a remembrance of that amazing encounter—and rightfully so—but in many ways, it is just that: a remembrance. Christmas is not the day of the year in which Jesus actually comes in a way that He is not already present to us now, and it is not somehow special because it is the exact date that it happened, like a birthday (no one knows when Jesus was actually born. The date was set in the third or fourth century.)
For many, then, Advent is kind of a strange season if they think about it. If what we celebrate on Christmas has already happened, what are we waiting for in Advent?
- Some pretend to be surprised, holding back the information they already know so that they can be like the people of Israel who heard the Good News and rejoiced. But how could we forget what we already know?
- Instead, others try to make Christmas out to be something more than it already is, a day in which Jesus is actually born is some way, that his presence to us on that day is somehow unlike it was was on the previous day. But how can (or why would) Jesus be born anew every year and then leave again?
- Finally, and probably most common of all, some don’t think much about it at all, simply seeing the season of Advent as a cute ritual of lighting candles and holding back our excitement so that Christmas will be that much more joyful. But why would the Church devote four weeks of the liturgical year to something that’s simply cute or enjoyable?
In my latest YouTube reflection, I want to offer a slightly different approach. Advent, although immediately preceding Christmas, is not primarily a waiting or preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but in fact quite the opposite: because we already possess the Good News of the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, what we await now is not His first coming, but rather His second. Unlike the people of Israel who longed for a Messiah, we already have one. We cannot forget this fact, it cannot be taken away from us, and it cannot happen again. Thus, we wait and hope in the Advent season, not because we do not know what will happen, but precisely because we do.
For this reason, Advent is indeed a time of waiting and hope as we have always celebrated, but the knowledge of Christmas gives meaning to our hope and forces us to look beyond what we celebrate: to a world when Jesus will sit on His thrown, the Kingdom of Heaven will be established, peace and justice will reign, and the weak will be lifted up. For three weeks now that has been the message of our Old Testament readings at mass. Really, that has been the focus of our waiting. We do not await a child born on December 25, we await a King to bring justice to our world.
That is what this liturgical season is all about. We are called in this time to remember what God has done throughout history, but also to focus our attention on what God will do one day. We are called to prepare ourselves to receive Jesus into our lives, but also to realize that we already have a foretaste of the encounter we await. We are called to hope for a better world, but also to focus our attention on how we already possess the answer to that hope and are capable of laying its foundation with our own works of peace and justice.
Advent is a wonderful season of the liturgical year. In fact, it might be my favorite. It is a time when we most realize that the world we seek is not the world we have. And yet, it is a time when we are reminded that things will change, and that we can do something about it. We cannot bring about the second coming of our Lord, but because we already possess him in our memory and in our breaking of the bread, we can in fact bring Him into our world, even if it is just a foretaste of what’s to come.
So I guess my question is this: What are we waiting for?
For email subscribers, click here for the video.