December 4, 2014
Like me, you probably learned about the seasons of the Church year in CCD class. Remember the circle with the four colors that show how the year flows from one season into another? Advent is that “violet” season that comes before Christmas. We know a few of the key things about Advent. The priest wears violet. We light candles in an Advent wreath. We await Christmas. Sometimes, the hustle of the “holiday season” can mask the sense of the season, and we loose sight of the rich spiritual graces available to us. I want to take us a bit deeper into the sense of the season to receive what God so much wants to give.
We are probably familiar from our priests’ homilies that the word Advent itself means “coming” or “arrival.” Why do we mark this season as a time of arrival? The immediate reason is that Jesus came to us at Christmas. In the Scriptures that we read at Mass throughout Advent, we hear the prophecies of the Old Testament that anticipated the birth of Jesus. For example, on the second Sunday of Advent this year, we will hear the beautiful reading from Chapter 40 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated...Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!... Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD.”
We certainly experience comfort and tenderness when we think of God’s coming as an infant in Jesus. Many of our Advent traditions – warm drinks, spiced cakes and breads, the cre?che awaiting the Christ-child – express the warmth and comfort of the season. It is, nevertheless, warmth charged with longing. Christ has not yet arrived in Advent. It is not yet Christmas.
Two Comings of Christ
The longing of the Old Testament was fulfilled when Jesus was born. Yet, we know that Jesus will come again. The first coming of Jesus reminds us that there will be a second coming. Nearly the last words of the Bible are “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Do we really long for Jesus to come as the first Christians did? Do we love Him so much that we would rather that He come now, take away the veil, and allow us to see Him and be with Him?
A great homily from St. Cyril of Jerusalem captures the interplay of these two comings. “At the first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels. We look then beyond the first coming and await the second.” Advent should be filled with thoughts, feelings and desires around the comings of Jesus: gratitude and wonder at His first coming; longing and expectation for His second coming.
A Third Coming?
We reflect on the beauty and mystery of Jesus’s birth in the manger of Bethlehem. We also lovingly await His coming in light and glory. Yet, we are aware that we live in a between time. Yes, He has come. He has saved us from our sins. He has revealed the love of our Father in heaven. He has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell with us, within us, and guide us to all truth. Yet, He has not yet come again. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly. We walk by faith, not by sight.
We reflect on two comings of Jesus – past and future. As wonder and expectation arise in our hearts, we also begin to notice that Jesus comes in a third way. He comes even now in the present moment. Recall that He promised: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Jesus has great creativity and variety in this third way of coming in the present moment. He comes in the sacramental life when we receive the Eucharist or are forgiven in confession. He comes when two or three are gathered in His name. He comes when we encounter Him in the living word of Scripture. He comes when Christians make Him present in acts of love of neighbor, inspired by love of Him. An awakened wonder and longing around the two comings of Christ will enable us to experience these various “third comings” with greater zeal.
Let’s Get Practical
This is a beautiful spirituality, and built on a rich theology. Yet, how can we make it actual in our lives? After all, for most of us, Advent is one of the busiest times of the entire year. How can we enter into the deep graces of renewed desire and renewed receptivity that Jesus has for us at this time? I want to offer three ways to keep our gaze focused on Christ this Advent season.
1.Listen to moms . . . The Church is a great mother who is always teaching and forming us. During the strongest times of the year, She is even more particular to teach us well. One great way to reap the fruits of the Advent season is to simply follow what the Church gives us. Take 10-15 minutes each day to read and meditate on the daily Mass readings. Many parishes make available Advent supplements like the one from Magnificat, Give us this Day, or The Word Among Us to help with the readings. Also, look at the prayers from Mass for each day. Those short prayers are packed with spiritual riches.
2.Wait for it... Advent is a time of expectation. If we start celebrating Christmas already at the beginning of December, the goal of being filled with longing and expectation is lost. If the world wants to have Christmas already at the end of October, that’s fine. We can hold off, though. Here are a few ways to wait for it. Not all of them would fit for every family, but these may spark your creativity to think of other ways to wait for Christmas.
Wait for Christmas music. We all love Christmas Carols. They are some of the best and most memorable music we have. It may even be the largest remaining shared cultural heritage we have. But, we also have great Advent carols. As much as we can, waiting for Christmas music will make us want it even more.
Set up a cre?che in the home, and wait to add Baby Jesus until Christmas. The cre?che is a great way to prepare, and allows your family to develop your own style and add your own characters in the scene.
Wait to decorate the tree. If we wait to put the decorations on, we can cut down on a bit of Advent stress. Even more importantly, we see that something is changed on Christmas. There could be a number of ways to do it without completely changing the rhythm of holiday preparations you have had. One way would be to begin lighting it on Christmas Day, in honor of Christ, the light of the world. Another way might be to use your Christmas tree for the Jesse tree tradition
Wait for gifts. An ancient tradition has the gift exchange take place on the Epiphany, Jan. 6. This is the date when the Church celebrates the Magi from the East visiting Jesus. They brought Him gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh. Exchanging gifts this day allows an opportunity to reflect first on Jesus before the excitement of presents.
3.If it ain’t broke... There are a number of excellent traditions around Advent. Some are well- known. Others a bit less so. Here are a few:
The Advent wreath recalls the four weeks of preparation. It takes into account the one Sunday when the Church wears rose-colored vestments. It can be accompanied by a brief nightly ritual of prayer.
A Jesse tree, named for the father of David, is a tree that is decorated gradually throughout Advent with symbols or pictures of biblical persons associated with the gradual coming of Jesus. This includes, among others, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph and Mary. You can find resources for celebrating this online.
Advent calendars are calendars with tabs that pull off for each day of Advent, or each day of December leading up to Christmas. Each day offers another point for reflection to lead the heart to Christmas.
Fr. Schneider serves as the pastor of the Church of Christ the King in Mandan and is the Director of the Office of Divine Worship for the diocese.