Sunday, Dec. 2, is the First Sunday of Advent. Mass Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36.
“Advent is a time of being deeply shaken, so that man will wake up to himself.” — Alfred Delp, Jesuit priest and martyr
This week we enter into Advent, the season anticipating the birth of Christ. As the world bursts into a flurry of celebratory activity, however, the Church gives us a Gospel not of a joyful Annunciation of a virgin birth, but a warning of the earth-shattering Second Coming.
Jesus has just foretold the destruction of the Temple, the crushing of Jerusalem as God’s judgment upon Israel, and the definitive end of the Old Covenant. Everything the Jews have known, even the glory of the Temple, will crumble and collapse.
And now in the Gospel Jesus prophesies further, telling of his second coming, when the “powers of the heavens will be shaken.” This time — the end of time — is something to watch for with close attention. “Be vigilant at all times,” Jesus warns his disciples, and “pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”
It’s a sobering thought. And it begs the question: What is Advent for, really? Is it a kind of pre-Christmas? Party after party tells us Yes. No, we are told by our faith, even as the culture breaks into Christmas carols. It is a time of keeping our heads up and our eyes on the East, even while allowing our inner temples to tremble. It’s actually a penitential time to reset and rewind our interior clocks to the holy reality of wait, even as the world has fast-forwarded to the feast. We do this “so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones,” Paul prays in the second reading.
It’s a time for quiet attention, and if we “become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life,” we might miss Jesus altogether. While not begrudging the giddy excitement of the season, there simply must be attentiveness to the work of God in the soul as he plants his seeds of promise. “Guide me in your truth, and teach me,” we might say under our breaths with the psalmist, even while wrapping and baking, “for you are God my savior, and for you I wait all the day.”
After centuries of expectation, even after Scripture after Scripture foretold him, even after Gentile scholars knew to look for this King from the East, still, Jesus slipped into the world with such gentleness that most missed him. He won’t crash our parties. He waits for us as much as we wait for him. And in that expectant hush of Advent, we will find him, even if the quiet is only in our hearts.
Even more, the leaning towers of the cities of our souls must sometimes be leveled in order to see him in the sky, just as in Jerusalem the old makes way for the new.
Every temple we’ve built around sin must be torn down for the coming of Christ. We allow ourselves to be conquered by love and submit to the sufferings such surrender brings. It’s beautiful, this season of waiting, but it’s meant to sting a little, too. Waiting and longing is meant to be a type of purifying. The entire feast of Christmas itself will be that much sweeter after a bit of sacrifice — when our senses aren’t dulled and drowsy by months of merry-making.
Christ came to us, emptying himself. We must come to Christmas the same way.
Lord, help us live Advent with hearts alert, quiet and expectant.
Claire Dwyer blogs about saints, spirituality and the sacred every day
and coordinates adult faith formation at her parish in Phoenix,
where she lives with her husband and
their six children.