The Coming of Advent

Reading Christopher Dawson’s writings in college left a lasting impression upon me. The great historian, a convert to Catholicism, helped me understand the Christian sense of history. The pagan notion of time, and thus history, is an endless, circular repetition of events – similar to the annual cycle of the seasons. Yet this repetitive way of interpreting reality imprisons man in a pointless round. Where are we heading if there is no end point to time, just a constant replay involving a changing cast of characters who come and go?

Christian revelation, of course, solves this dilemma. Creation has a beginning and an end. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. Our world and our lives come from Him, and our journey through life is a quest both to walk with Him at all times (“I am with you always, to the close of the age,” Mt 28:20), and to find Him as our merciful judge when our days on earth come to their end (“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” Mt 25:34).

Given this linear understanding of history, stretching from the creation to the redemption and reaching fulfillment on the Last Day, our place in time and space is relatively easier to figure out. We want to be in that great procession of pilgrims which is the Church. God has put us on this earth at the time of his choosing to accomplish His purposes. Our duty is to seek his will as we look forward to seeing him face to face either at the moment of our death, or at his Second Coming on the Last Day, if we live to see that day.

Seeking to do God’s will involves repetition of many good acts: prayers, sacrifices, reception of the sacraments, good works and kind deeds, especially towards the poor. That holy cycle of repetition is carried out in the perspective of our journey in time towards our goal, Christ. The Church has given us the Christian year as the organizing principle of our daily efforts to be with Christ, now and forever. We contemplate and celebrate Christ’s life in the liturgical calendar. The Church repeats this cycle, year after year, to instruct and guide us on how to journey towards the eternal Jerusalem. This cycle of days and years is not endless and self-contained. It is directed towards the Last Day, when the Lord will return.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reminds us: “The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas. The final days of Advent, from December 17 to December 24, focus particularly on our preparation for the celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas).”

Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca, c. 1455 [Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Italy]
Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca, c. 1455 [Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Italy]

The first part of Advent directs our thoughts to the second coming of Christ on the Last Day. Thus we begin our Christian year mediating upon the end of time. We walk now with the hidden Christ in order to be with Him when He will come to judge the living and the dead. That hidden Christ, in whom we believe though we have not seen him, was born in Bethlehem a little over 2,000 years ago. He was once seen by humble, pious men who were sent to the manger by the angels. Those same angels will herald his return when all “will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Mt 24:30)

The second part of Advent directs our thoughts to the birth of Him who fulfills all the prophecies given to the people of Israel. The awesome reality of the Incarnation calls for our full attention. Which brings me back to Dawson, particularly his observation that every day is a dress rehearsal for the Second Coming. That really captures the Christian sense of time and history. We are always to be ready to greet the Lord at his return. No one knows the day or the hour (Mt 24:36), but we do know that He will come.

Advent is a strong reminder that we are supposed to be ready to meet Christ. The penitential nature of the season (witness the violet vestments and no Gloria at Mass) teaches us that sin, and the habit of sin, need to be addressed by each of us. We best honor the birth of the Savior by making ourselves ready to meet him on the Last Day, which means seeking his pardon of our sins and his grace to live better as his true followers. A good confession of our sins during Advent is a most pleasing gift to the Christ Child; the absolution of our sins is Christ’s gift to those who long to see his face.

But is any of this is reflected in the way most Catholics nowadays observe Advent? Our vestigially Christian, media-dominated culture has banished most references to Christmas from the public square in America, leaving us with the consumerist creed of buy, buy, and buy. The popular celebration of the feast of the Incarnation has degenerated into spending lots of money to celebrate “the holidays.”

Advent is meant too remind us that the fitting celebration of God’s coming among us demands that we do penance and pray more. This is the necessary path to follow if we want to be truly ready for Christ’s Second Coming, and if we are to honor his birth in Bethlehem with the spirit of adoration shown by the shepherds and the Magi. Sharing gifts on Christmas is a way to imitate God’s supreme gift of His Son on Christmas. As we look forward to that celebration of God’s love at Christmas, let us re-consider the importance of Advent. The dress rehearsal is now.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.