05 December 2012
First Sunday of Advent
As I prepared this homily for the First Sunday in Advent, a question arose in my mind: why do we even have advent? Christmas songs began on some radio stations on All Saints Day, November 1. Christmas decorations went up in most stores at about the same time. So why take this time, this season of hope, this season of penance? Is it just an excuse for the clergy to swap vestments from green to violet, with rose stuck in on the third Sunday just for good measure? Why bring out a wreath with four candles to mark the passing of time? We have iPhones and Droids which have much more sexy apps to countdown to Christmas. Why Advent?
Advent is lost to the extent that it’s misunderstood. It loses its force and its power when we don’t know why we do what we do. And to understand in order that we might believe, perhaps we need to take a look at Advent again, to capture its beauty and its power.
Advent comes from the Latin word adveniens and means “a coming.” What we celebrate in Advent is not just any coming, any expectation for any person, but the expectation for the Person who reveals man to his very self, as Gaudium et spes, 22, from the Second Vatican Council says. We are awaiting Jesus. Because we are only 23 days away from the celebration of Jesus’ birth, that naturally leads us to feel like we are preparing for Christmas. But St. Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us that Advent is really a celebration, an expectation, of three comings of Christ: the first coming at Bethlehem which we celebrate at Christmas; the second coming of Christ at the end of time, which our readings focus on today; and the thid coming of Jesus: the desire of Christ to come into our hearts daily and make a home there, so that Christ might be born in us.
To help us prepare for the first coming, the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem, we use symbols: some in the home, some at Church. In the Church we use an advent wreath with four candles, traditionally 3 violet and 1 rose, to give us a visual reminder of how close we are. And candles are fitting because they remind us of Jesus who is the light of the world. The closer we get to celebrating the birth of Jesus, the more light there is, even as the days get shorter around us and darkness increases. Even the traditional colors of the candles are dark, and yet the third rose candle reminds us that our wait is almost over, that we are more than halfway to the joyful celebration of our knowledge that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” In your homes you might have an advent wreath as well. Others will use a calendar where you open little panels that reveal a fuller picture of the Nativity, sometimes with recommended passages from Scripture, other times with little chocolates. However as we draw closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus, we are meant to be more and more excited as the day of celebration draws near.
The second coming is the main focus of the first two weeks of advent, when we still hear readings of how Jesus will come in glory to establish the fullness of His kingdom, where Christ is King of the Universe and all others are subject to Him. That is why advent takes on a penitential tone, because all of us are in need of further conversion. Some of us may be more ready than others for Jesus’ second coming, but we take on penances to atone for our sins that have placed ourselves or another on a throne, rather than Jesus. Whether Jesus comes on December 21, or tomorrow, or whenever, Advent reminds us to stay awake and be ready for the bridegroom to return. For at the moment we least expect, He will come. We light our candles in imitation of the wise virgins who kept enough oil in their lamps to be ready to welcome the Bridegroom with their flames burning brightly.
The third coming of Jesus—His desire to enter into our hearts—is something that we can grow in every day of the year, not just at this time. But we take this special time to redouble our efforts to make straight the pathways of our God. We take this time to level the mountains and fill in the valleys that make an obstacle for Jesus to come to us. Just as we clean our house to welcome family and friends over for Christmas celebrations, so we should be daily striving to clean our hearts and souls to welcome the Trinity into us. Maybe we take time each day to slowly read over the meditation from the Little Blue Book, or Magnificat, and spend the time and energy it takes to develop a deep, strong relationship with the Lord; maybe we attend sung Evening Prayer on Friday evenings at 6:30 p.m. at St. Thomas to stretch our usual forms of prayer; maybe we join a Bible study, or a faith-sharing group; maybe we celebration the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the usual days or with the greater Lansing area on December 16 at 2 p.m. at St. Thomas; whatever we do, the key is that we are trying to make more time for Jesus so that He is comfortable in our hearts, rather than a stranger. And, we pray for those who have been away from the Lord, away from His Church, inviting them to join us again in this holy place, because Christ wants to enter their hearts as well, and He often uses His disciples to extend that invitation.
If we treat this time no differently than any other; if we figure that we’ve been preparing for the parties, the eggnog, the gift giving, and the hype of the secular celebration of Christmas since November 1, then I can assure you that you won’t be ready when Christ comes: for the celebration of the first coming at Christmas; for the celebration of the second coming at the end of time; and for the daily desire of Christ to come into your heart. But, if amidst the hustle and bustle of the secular season, you take time to spend with the Lord in prayer, getting to know Him better and letting the symbols touch your heart and soul, then I can also assure you that you will know the joy of the angels as they sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will,” as we celebrate the first coming; you will know the joy of the elect as Christ comes a second time as the eternal King of Glory, with everything subjected to His reign; and you will know the joy of the abiding presence of God as He comes into your heart and makes His home there, truly making you a temple of the Holy Spirit, and the dwelling place of God.