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.

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.

  • Nancy Lynne

    Thank you, Father, for this wonderful essay on Advent. I will refer to it often to keep me focused during this holy season.

  • ThirstforTruth

    For me, Advent ( as well as for thousands of others, I am sure) is the most exciting part of our liturgical year. It represents for me, the youth of our faith…the beginning, the freshest part of being alive. If we have fallen on the path or journey, ( and we all have) during Advent we can begin again. We can rejuvenate the life of grace within by all the means Father Murray suggests here. Along with the Church, we prepare for the supreme moment, the birth of Christ, by lifting our lives out of the everyday mundane -ness into that time and place, Bethlehem, where all the moments of our lives converge into the one that mattered most in history. It is where all lives transcend time. It is when we are all most alive. The word means beginning… go forward, to Bethlehem, in our minds and hearts.

    • PCB

      St. Josemaria was always fond of encouraging everyone he spoke to, to put themselves into the scenes of our Lord’s life, by imagining, as we pray, that we are actually there, 2000 years ago, part of the action – as an active participant or maybe only as a causal observer. Advent is a perfect time to take up this practice. Perhaps there is no other scene from Jesus’ time on earth that everyone knows as well from the earliest age than that of the Nativity of our Lord. Come Let Us Adore Him!

  • Elijah fan

    I was just thinking the other day of the powerful message Sunday blue laws used to send many years ago. You could feel it in the air on Sunday…this is the Lord’s day. Culture helped Christianity. Now it’s Lord and Taylor’s day in my county. The culture years ago helped Sunday be for God. Advent though probably was not helped back then though. Gift giving for multiple people and card writing blots out penance probably for 98% of Christians in terms of mental attention.

    • PCB

      “Lord and Taylor’s day” – Good one, I may have to borrow that one with your permission. I totally get what you are saying; somehow we managed to get everything in on Saturday – fuel, groceries, etc. – (children seemed to have more control of their bladders back then, too) – the only place open on Sunday was a little convenience store that would charge double or treble for an item – I presumed then, as a boy, the high cost was to further deter Sunday shopping (I understand supply and demand now) – Ha! – I would think card writing IS penance for most people; at least me.

  • Fr Kloster

    Thank you, Mr. Royal, for getting an Advent article in so quickly. I just wonder if Advent can be saved. It seems like more and more each year even the vast majority of Catholic parishes give in to the elimination of the Hallowed Season of Advent.

    This culture lives from “holiday” to “holiday” and thus the true holy days become vacuous. If we are constantly distracted with so many holidays, then no day is truly a holy day. I’m told that Belgium has 35 mandatory holidays away from work on its secular calendar. That’s approaching one a week!

    My hope is that the Bishops Conference will make more than just a passing reference to the way we as Catholics in the West have nearly given up on Advent. Just two generations ago, no one put up Christmas lights nor decorations where I grew up in South Texas. Even the Protestants observed the true Christmas Season. I still fondly remember the living room on Christmas Eve with the undecorated tree. We would go to midnight Mass and then the adults would begin to decorate as we went off to bed. When we woke up, everything was transformed. I can’t imagine the Blessed Mother celebrating Christ’s birthday before His birth! The stable/cave too was transformed on Christmas Eve! Why would any serious Catholic want to celebrate Christmas before the appropriate Christmas Season (Christmas Eve – January 13)?

  • Dave Fladlien

    I think you’ve written an overall excellent article on a subject that could take up a book. But I would like to mention a few additional thoughts.

    While I agree that totally materialistic consumerism isn’t a good thing, there are a couple of other aspects to gift giving. First, as you say, there is a legitimate roll for gifts. In fact, gifts joyfully sought out and wonderful to the person receiving them are a true act of love. Hunting for them is a key part of my advent, and it can take a lot of hunting to come up with really good choices. Plus, it is a fact that the stores and manufacturers themselves, and their employees, do count on the income of the season for their livelihood.

    To me, as a person who spends a lot of hours hunting in shopping centers each Advent, the main problem isn’t all the people out there hunting for gifts. That could actually be a Christmas preparation, as it is for me. The problem comes not from including gifts, but excluding Christ. To me the biggest problem isn’t the presence of ads, it’s the absence of manger scenes. And the key expression of the problem isn’t crowded stores, it’s crowded stores that wish me “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

    I think those are the areas we need to work on, and not — as I hear periodically in Advent sermons — on eliminating or even condemning gift-giving.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Enjoyed reading your article early this morning. It came across as a welcome sermon. I borrowed the theme for my Mass. Thanks.

  • Rickage

    Fr Murray. Thank you for an excellent essay to kick-off the season of Advent. From the start of Black Friday, aptly named for the darkness of our consumerism, we avert our attention to the glitzy tinsel of marketing campaigns. As you remind us, our gaze should be towards our Savior on his Second Coming, “see the Lord face to face,” said Pope Benedict XVI. And a good confession during Advent is the best gift we could give. That’s the message we need this season. Again, thanks for the reminder.