In his advent sermon Ecce rex tuus venit tibi (“Behold your king comes to you”), Thomas Aquinas distinguishes four ways Christ “comes” to us: the first “advent” is the one in which He came in the flesh; the second, when He comes into our souls; the third, when He comes to us at death; and the fourth is His Second Coming at the final judgment. During Advent, we are preparing ourselves for all four.
A friend reports that his priest told the congregation that Advent isn’t a penitential season, but a time for joy. My friend’s immediate thought was: “If it’s not a penitential season, Father, then why are you wearing purple?” He might as well have been doing a funeral mass in black and said: “This isn’t a mournful time. It’s a time for joy.”
Actually, it could be both: a time to mourn the loss of a loved one and joy at the promise of the resurrection: mourning because of our very real human experience of loss, and joy because of a faith in the reality of a promise that exceeds the grasp of human reason. They can co-exist. We know by reason we have lost something dear to us, and yet, deep down, in a center of ourselves we barely know ourselves, we know by faith that our loved ones are alive with God in Christ and therefore still present with us, in us, and all around us in the communion of saints.
Similarly, Advent is both a penitential season and time for joy. Christ is coming; this is good news. We prepare ourselves by keeping “sober” and “awake.” A penitential season in expectation of Christ’s coming can be a very joyful thing. A season lost to drunkenness and dissipation usually is not.
The Christmas season often helps us to remember to “give alms.” We should remember how good that feels (and is) when Lent rolls around.
Advent isn’t just about preparing for the baby Jesus – although there’s nothing wrong with that; the Incarnation is not some second-class doctrine. The Creator of the universe, of every quasar, black hole, atom, and quark became an actual human person. If that doesn’t blow you back onto your metaphysical haunches, nothing will.
But along with preparing for the Feast of the Incarnation, we should also be preparing ourselves for Christ’s second coming (parousia). That is why we’ve been having all these readings about the “end times” recently, if you hadn’t noticed.
Look up “parousia and St. Paul” in any work of modern biblical scholarship, and you’ll likely find the assertion that, early on, Paul believed in an “imminent parousia” – that Christ would return before he, Paul, died. But that later on, he changed his mind. It’s not entirely clear that Paul suffered from this confusion, or from the “disappointment” people sometimes associate with his “realization.” But let’s put that question aside for the moment and ask: “Why would the Holy Spirit allow this confusion to remain in the epistles of Paul (whether or not it existed in Paul himself)?”
About the Second Coming, it might be good to recall what Christ says: that “no one knows the day or the hour.” “Stay awake, be sober”: it will come like a thief in the night. “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:8; Ps 90:4) If for God a day is like a thousand years, then it’s only been two days since the resurrection, and He wouldn’t be getting impatient. Yet for the God of the quantum universe, who deals in nanoseconds, the Second Coming could arrive before you finish reading this article – or this word.
There is something good, then, about both “being in it for the long haul” and being ready now. I tell my students, “God could come before the end of this class. . .or in 10,000 years. So, you’d better make yourself ready for Him now; and yet, it’s not a bad idea to study for the final on the off-chance that He doesn’t come and get you out of it.” When Christ comes, you will undoubtedly have more pressing concerns; you get tested on bigger things.
It’s not a bad idea to think of each day as though it were our last, because it might be. If you prefer not to think of death, you can think of the Second Coming. And if both are too macabre, ask yourself whether you have “made straight the path of the Lord” to enter your soul today? He’s knocking. Have we answered?
No matter which of these you focus upon, it’s good that the Church has this season for “recollection”: to “re-collect” the self we have scattered throughout the world during the year like the Jewish people scattered among the nations. In this season, we are “brought back” to Zion, to the place where history was re-set, where the salvific act of our Lord began, a place where we must ask: “If I had been alive then, when Jesus came, would I have been ready?
Would I have been like the shepherds and the Magi, Joachim and Anna, Peter and Paul? Would I have recognized and welcomed God in my midst? Or would I have been one of those who missed it, distracted by other cares and concerns? Or like those who saw it and whose only thought was: “Would you please just kill this so we can get on with our lives”?
It’s a season of joy and remembrance. And preparation too.