This Advent, I invented a small spiritual exercise to help focus my mind on higher things. I’m trying to start each day by reflecting for a few moments on the question: What if today is the day the world ends?
Advent is meant as a time for reflecting on the current liturgical year, but also for reflecting on the Parousia, the Second Coming, which brings with it the end of days.
That might seem like an odd juxtaposition. On further reflection, it’s really quite fitting. For one thing, Advent is a season of preparation. We recall how Christ was sent to his people in Israel, unlooked for and at an unexpected hour. In some ways, we have the advantage here: The liturgical calendar gives us a few weeks to prepare ourselves to welcome the Christ Child. At the same time, we also know that we ourselves are in the same position as the Jews of yesteryear. We know that the Messiah will return; we don’t know exactly when. The prudent thing is to stay prepared at all times.
Like the five wise virgins, we must keep our lamps perpetually filled in preparation for the Bridegroom. Maybe today will be the day. Maybe it’s tomorrow.
This year I’ve been reflecting with satisfaction on how our chaotic world actually opens some opportunities for appreciating the significance of Advent. Christ was born into a politically tumultuous world, marked by rapid change and significant social instability. When we sing of “the hopes and fears of all the years” (met in the Little Town of Bethlehem with Christ’s birth), we should not underestimate the intensity of those hopes and fears. Israel had lived for centuries with the incredible honor and fearsome burden of being God’s chosen people. Again and again, more ordinary human hopes and ambitions wrecked against the rocks of that unfathomable destiny.
The Jerusalem of Jesus’ time seems to have been a teeming hotbed of conspiracy theories, self-styled prophets and seers, avaricious kings and hierarchs, pharisaical scholars, populist demagogues and fractious controversies that pitted friends and neighbors against one another. Does anything here sound familiar?
God’s ways are not our ways. Human beings will never stop trying to discern God’s plan, in their own lives and in the cultural and political currents of their time. Nor should we. We must try as best we can to respond to the circumstances at hand with courage and grace. At the same time, we should expect that our expectations will frequently be dashed, that our temporal hopes will often prove vain, and that our vanity will regularly be humbled and our trust betrayed in this world. Like ancient Israel, we are manifestly unworthy of the destiny that God has in mind for us, so we suffer from ineffable hopes and fears.
At Christmas, we can luxuriate for a little in the reminder that God has sent us a gracious Redeemer. Through Advent, we may find that our troubled nation and the universal Church provide a perfect backdrop for spiritual preparation, as we meditate on that restless anxiety that holds our fallen world in its grip. It often feels that we are teetering perpetually on the brink of disaster, and one day we realize that this is not an illusion. Even the most deranged conspiracy theories reflect something that is true, both in the world and in our own spiritual lives. Reminders of our mortality, of the transitory character of our worldly comforts and achievements, and of the possibility of our own spiritual destruction, are forever passing before our eyes. Eventually, we know, Christ will return to bring the world the justice it so desperately desires and fears. This thought may not be altogether comforting, however. Will we ourselves be taken, or left? How many of the things we love can withstand the fire of Christ’s judgment?
Since Holy Mother Church has decreed that we should begin the liturgical year on this note of holy anxiety, we should embrace it. If you’ve been considering a spiritual step that looks a little daunting, there’s no time like the present. End a sinful relationship, or patch up a broken one. Get help for an addiction or depression. Talk to your spouse about having another child. Return to confession and to Mass. Or add more prayer time to your daily routine, or even daily Mass. Do any of us not have a shortcoming we’ve been pointedly neglecting to address?
We tell ourselves we have a lifetime to get our act together, but who can say how long that actually will be possible? That’s why, for starters, I’m spending a few minutes each morning pondering the end of days. I’ll report back if this approach yields any good insights. That’s assuming, of course, that the world endures through Christmas. You never really know.
Prayerful pondering is a fitting way to prepare for the birth of Christ — and his second coming at the end of time.
Rachel Lu, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the
University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.