1st Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
This time of year, my family and friends call me The Grinch. The seminarians will call me Scrooge. I'm not grouchier or any more mean-spirited right before Christmas. . .I just happen to enjoy Advent, and I want us all to anticipate the Lord's birth at Christmas. I want us to truly wait for him, not rush head-long into the gift-grubbing and cheap marketing tricks. So, I'm not the Grinch nor am I Scrooge. I prefer the term “Advent Nazi.” No Christmas decorations before Dec. 24th. No tree, no bells, no gift-wrapping, no Santas! No hymns about Baby Jesus – “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “Away in the Manger.” None of that! I don't even want to see the colors red, green, and white in close proximity before the vigil Mass on the 24th. Advent colors are purple, purple, rose, and purple. In that order. Oh, and while I'm ranting, Christmas concludes with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th not December 26th. Why is all this important? Because I am convinced that we have lost the art of waiting, the fine art of anticipation. We no longer know how to “look forward to” anything, so we are constantly made anxious by what's coming.
Or, in the case of Advent, we are made anxious about who's coming. We can't avoid the fact that Luke's gospel description of the Lord's coming has a strong sense of foreboding about it, “. . .nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world. . .” We know that the Lord has been born. And we celebrate his birth every year at Christmas. But we also know that he will come again. We just don't know when. The idea here is to warn us, to get us ready for an event that we know is coming, but we don't know when it's coming. That tension btw knowing and not-knowing can make us anxious. Unless! Unless, we have properly waited; that is, unless we truly anticipate this coming event. How do we properly wait, truly anticipate? One way is to set aside a time every year during which we emphasize the expectation of his second arrival, during which we sing and pray and read about him coming among soon as a child. Advent prepares us for his second coming (date unknown) by teaching us to wait for his birth (Dec 25th). If we will not celebrate Advent properly, we will not be ready for his coming again.
So, why do we start celebrating Christmas the day after Halloween? Lots of reasons. Most of them have to do with worshiping the demon, Mammon. Money. Sales. Profit-margins. Staying in the black. Consumerism. But I think there's an even deeper, spiritual explanation for our rush: living with anticipation feels like deprivation. Waiting patiently feels like we are “put upon,” made to feel unimportant or small. I want what I want and I want now! If I don't get what I want right-this-second, then I am being deprived of something I need. I'm being denied, refused! What used to be eagerness becomes impatient entitlement. What used to be genuine joy, waiting for the coming of Christ, becomes bored cynicism. Jesus says of his coming again, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” “That day” – his coming again – can catch us by surprise and trap us only if we have forgotten how to wait, forgotten how to expect and anticipate. We can be prepared to welcome the Christ Child at Christmas AND Christ the Just Judge at his coming again by properly celebrating Advent, by paying careful attention to the traditions of this season.
If we do this, if we are “vigilant at all times and pray that [we] have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent,” Christ's second coming will be no surprise to us. If we allow the Advent season to teach us how to be patient, we will “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” and we will not be anxious or afraid. Every year I watch videos of Black Friday shoppers mauling each other for Christmas deals – cheap TV's and limited edition toys. And every year I imagine that I can hear the demon, Mammon, laughing at his own worshipers. How many of those people elbowing each other in the face for a on-sale blender will patiently wait for the birth of the Christ Child? Do they believe that Walmart sales and coupons will help them when the Just Judge returns? I don't know. But I do know God the Father fulfilled His promise to send us His Son in the flesh. And I know that He will fulfill His promise to send us His Son again in judgment. If you know the first, then believe the second, and wait. Wait ready. Wait patiently. Wait as if your eternal life depends on it.
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