Happy New Year! Not the pagan-secular-driving-out-the-spirits-of-the-old year, but the beginning of the Church’s Liturgical Year, something much more important. During the Liturgical Year, the Church celebrates the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ in liturgical form, beginning with his birth and ending with his return in glory to judge.
The liturgy is the only sure way that we have of entering into these mysteries as we celebrate with Christ in his Church. When people do, then “it marvelously strengthens their power to preach Christ, and thus shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations.” (Vatican II)
To prepare for the magnificence of Christ’s birth we start the Season of Advent today. The title above comes from the Collect prayer of today’s Mass. The priest prays that we “run forth to meet Christ.” His words put forth an excited driving forward to meet Christ in his coming into the world, first, as a tiny infant and, then, as the judge of the world at the end of time.
Like it or not, these two events in the life of Jesus bookend the lives of all humanity. This is true history – not simply an idea.
We come from a past that has been illuminated by the events of Bethlehem and that imposes a direction on history. These events forever stamp the majesty of the Incarnation upon our world and they do it in the face of universal evil. They mark the coming into being of a tiny community embodying the Anointed One of God in a world that is viciously hostile to the Good.
Yet the events of Bethlehem mean that there is also a shining future in the distance: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.” (First Reading)
The direction of our lives until we reach God’s house is clear. People say: “let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” Life is not just about the future, but about the present. This is how we will live right now.
The Virgin at Prayer by Giovanni Sassoferrato, c. 1645
People “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” In a permanently wrangling world, this is an amazing message. Moreover life has a joyful dimension: “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.” We rejoice because Christ has been born and Christ and died and Christ has risen from the dead. This is sufficient reason for the most profound daily joy.
The quality of life too is clear: “it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”(Second Reading) It is a life of wakefulness, awake to the God-given possibilities of the moment. Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us of the watchfulness of the shepherds at the time of Jesus. He links this to the watchfulness of monks who pray frequently.
Life ought not to involve sin: “let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.” This means things like not being involved “in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy.” Because “sin” is not a significant word in modern culture, we have to consciously make judgments about what is sinful – by omission or by commission – and how easily we personally can slide into it. As Saint Paul has it: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
Not only does the life of Jesus help us with facing the desires of the flesh but it helps us face the end too. The life of following Christ has a final feature that we can mention today at the beginning of Advent. To lay it out for us, Jesus recalls the times of the biblical Noah: “They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.”
A bewildering feature of life is that the whole of history is simply going to stop at some point. The halt will come without warning. Only God could tell us about this because it is something outside of science. So Jesus explains: “you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”
With this concept we come to the second part of the season of Advent: Are you ready for the Second Coming? Or do you say: Don’t bother me now I have to worry about getting a turkey and trimming the tree.
We don’t learn about the Second Coming because God is trying to scare us. We learn about it because it is a fact and so is very useful to know. It tells in our daily lives – have I put off Confession for too long? Should I forgive my husband? I had better repay what I have taken from my employer.
Happy New Year! Let’s start afresh!