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The True Season of Advent

Recent events in the Church, and a lack of countervailing action, have produced intense confusion and anger among the People of God. Many are feeling frustrated and helpless. Ordinary believers are raising extraordinary questions: Is anything going to happen to the pervert Cardinal? Will his friends in America and Rome still be protected? Why is no one doing anything?

These questions lead to others even more troubling: What’s happening to the Catholic Church? Are we nearing the end times? How can such horrifying abuse and cover-up go unchecked? Do the shepherds not care about the sheep? We don’t have answers. Instead, we feel exasperation and struggle with the sense of defeat.

While Church leaders need to appreciate the mounting disappointment and vexation among the most loyal Church members, believers have additional options. The ordained will answer for their sins (and the sins of those they protect). Believers, meanwhile, can turn this period of waiting and suffering into a greater good. It’s providential, in ways that we cannot entirely imagine, that today the Church enters into Advent.

Liturgically, Advent is the four-Sunday season before Christmas that carries out three essential tasks: It refreshes our memory of the Nativity of Jesus Christ two millennia ago, honors his continuing presence among us today in the sacraments, and raises a joyful expectation of his Second Coming.

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This commemorative aspect of the season together with the modern focus on holiday cheer, however, have led most Catholics to forget that Advent is a penitential season, a kind of a mini-Lent. Truth be told, Advent itself is now all but ignored by many believers. Catholics, who should know better, have fallen prey to a very aggressive pre-observance of a secular Christmas, which is a far cry from anything relating to Jesus Christ.

In light of the troubled state of the Church, and the urgent need for grace throughout the Body of Christ – this year more than ever – is a good time for us to reclaim the true season of Advent. And to reclaim it in its full form, penance and all.

If we truly want change in the Church, then we know from divine teaching and the science of the saints that there is no greater or more authentic source for reform than holiness. It will be the holiness of the baptized, in spite of the weakness and neglect of some shepherds, which will usher the Church into a new period of widespread and deep reform.

If the faithful hear this call and pick up the mantle of Advent, then Advent will provide us with lessons and graces that will allow our long-suffering to be redemptive for ourselves and for all God’s holy Church. What are these lessons? What grace can be given to us through Advent?

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Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Saved by Hope [3] (Spe salvi), reminded the whole Church of the Gospel teaching, elaborated by Saint Paul, that we are saved by our reception and exercise of the theological virtue of hope. We have “little hopes” in everyday life that involve our circumstances, abilities, and resources. These are good and normal in their proper place, but Benedict also drew our attention to a greater hope.

This is the hope infused in us at baptism, a hope that exceeds our earthly circumstances and natural abilities. It is a hope in the promises of God himself: “Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God – God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end,’ until all ‘is accomplished.’” [27]

In hoping beyond ourselves, beyond even time and space, we place all the events of our lives – joyful and sorrowful, uplifting and depressing – in the hands of divine providence. By hope, we can see God’s presence among us and can rejoice, even in the midst of disappointments and scandals. Hope reminds us that God is still at work in our world and that all things will end well for those who love him.

The theological virtue of hope then is not just “optimism” or taking a positive view of things, but a purifying fire and a demanding teacher. The fullness of hope becomes a means of salvation. God the Father, in his Son Jesus Christ, will bless those who wait on him, who stake all things on him, and who rely on his justice and mercy. As Christ lived in hope while on the earth, so we, his disciples, are called to live in hope.

Hope, therefore, when lived out in our lives is penitential because – in its theological form – it is the sure means of redemption in Jesus Christ. All of the little hopes of this life – financial security, good health, a happy family, a reformed Church – are “offered up” and placed within this one greater hope of eternal life and happiness with God.

Again, Pope Emeritus Benedict: “Yet our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world’s future either tire us or turn into fanaticism, unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance.” [Emphasis added.]

Advent is here, the perennial season of hope – and it comes at a good time because we desperately need hope. Not merely a hope of changing structures and policies, but a greater hope in the changing of hearts. And it’s precisely this greater hope, and the conversion it brings about, that is the only reliable and consistent means we have for true Church reform and eternal redemption in Jesus Christ.

No matter how bad things may appear in the Church and the world,  Advent reminds us that God has already overcome the world and is at work in a very different kind of reform and the prospect of  greater hope – a hope that calls us to embrace it, to foster it, to carry it everywhere more faithfully to everyone.

 

*Image: Advent and Triumph of Christ by Hans Memling, 1480 [Alte Pinakothek, Munich]. Memling was 50 when he painted this 32 x 75-inches depiction of the life of the Lord, with the Nativity front and center.

Fr. Jeffrey Kirby, STD, a new contributor, is the Parish Priest of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, SC. He is the author of Kingdom of Happiness: Living the Beatitudes in Everyday Life and God's Search for Us: Five Truths from a Missing Coin.