If you view Advent as a time of purification, of evacuating the self to make room for Christ in you at Christmas, it will appear as "a little Lent."
It would be likening Advent to the state of a desert, which is precisely the meaning of Lent as a desert experience. But Advent has a different and bigger meaning.
Advent is salvation history itself writ small. Its proper understanding demands refocusing on the meaning of Emmanuel — "God with us."
Indeed, God has become man in Jesus Christ and is with us and continues to be with us. He has not gone "off to heaven," leaving us alone in what can seem to be a desert.
Recall that the apostles returned from Olivet — the mount of the Ascension — rejoicing. Jesus continued to be with them invisibly in much the same way that he was with the two disciples — unrecognized — on the road to Emmaus.
In an Advent sermon delivered in 1964 by Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI explained that because of the discrepancy between Christ’s announcement that "the time is accomplished: The Kingdom of God has arrived" and the apparent failure of said arrival, "Christian theology … turned the Kingdom of God into a kingdom of heaven that is beyond this mortal life." The expectation of the Kingdom of God taking place on this earth was put aside and vaulted out of reach into the beyond of space and time. Heaven is "up there" and beyond the "now."
The presence of Christ on earth is put on hold and stored, and his temporal presence is not recognized.
Even when physically present, he also seemed not to be recognized by John the Baptist.
From jail, John sent out messengers asking Christ if he were really the Messiah — or "Shall we look for another?" Christ responds: "Go and tell John what it is that you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up; the poor have good news preached to them" (Luke 7:19).
Of course, John identified Christ at the Savior’s baptism, when he heard the voice of the Father and saw the dove; yet he himself testified twice: "And I did not know him" (John 1:31-33). Puzzling!
He sees, hears and gives testimony with a burning triumphalism that the Messiah "will clean out his threshing floor," and "the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:17). And so, John knows, but doesn’t know.
And so it is with Advent.
In his 1985 work Dogma and Preaching, Benedict describes it with a seemingly contradictory shorthand: "already," "not yet." That is, Christ is present already but not fully so — yet. What does this mean?
It means that Christ is present in the world here and now insofar as you and I become "other Christs." It does not refer to an objectified institution such as "Christendom." It refers to the transformation of individual subjects into the Subject, Jesus Christ.
St. Paul speaks about a growth of Christ in the world by a "transformation of persons into Christ." It is not simply a following of Christ or an imitation of Christ. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Blessed Pope John Paul II quotes St. Augustine saying to the baptized: "Let us rejoice and give thanks, for we have become not only Christians, but Christ. … Marvel and rejoice: We have become Christ!"
Christ becomes progressively present in the world by the transformation of Christians — and others — into Christ.
Emphasis should be put on the words "in the world," since this most personal and intimate encounter with Christ can take place in the exercise of ordinary work and family life. And is not the whole point of the Year of Faith the recovery of the enthusiasm for having the Lord with us? Doesn’t Benedict XVI see the present state of affairs in many modern societies — without and within the Church — as a practical atheism that is like the chosen people in the desert?
At one point in his 1988 book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, then-Cardinal Ratzinger quipped, "However did we arrive at that tedious and tedium-laden Christianity which we moderns observe and, indeed, know from our own experience?"
The task before us is similar to the people of God who had traversed the desert with Moses and were on the point of taking the Promised Land. At the negative report of the scouts who had been sent to reconnoiter it, the people, turned back on themselves and counting only on their own strength, grumbled against the Lord and against Moses.
Caleb and Joshua alone trusted in the Lord with faith: "The country which we went through and explored is a fine, rich land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us in and give us that land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But do not rebel against the Lord! You need not be afraid of the people of that land. … Their defense has left them, but the Lord is with us. Therefore, do not be afraid of them" (Numbers 14:8-9).
And so must we refocus our minds and hearts and all our efforts on Christ’s constant presence, on the Emmanuel, who is "God with us."
Father Ratzinger concluded his 1964 sermon this way: "It is Advent. … The first thing we have to accept is, ever and again, this reality of an enduring Advent. If we do that, we shall begin to realize that the borderline between ‘before Christ’ and ‘after Christ’ does not run through historical time in an outward sense and cannot be drawn on any map; it runs through our own hearts. Insofar as we are living on a basis of selfishness, of egoism, then even today we are ‘before Christ.’ But in this time of Advent, let us ask the Lord to grant that we may live less and less ‘before Christ,’ and certainly not ‘after Christ,’ but truly with Christ and in Christ — with him who is indeed Christ yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Amen."
Opus Dei Father Robert Connor serves as chaplain at Southmont,
a center of Opus Dei in South Orange, New Jersey.
He blogs at The Truth
Will Make You Free