Ah yes, Advent! As sure as leafless trees, pine wreaths, and snow shovels enter the home scene, the liturgical season of Advent arrives annually in late November and early December. The four weeks of Advent are ritually somewhat reserved; purple vestments and bare sanctuaries are not too festive. And Advent is often popularly over-shadowed as believers hastily turn their attention to Bethlehem (or to the North Pole). The season of Advent balances the Old Testament’s longing for a Messiah with the New Testament’s hope for a triumphant (but kindly) judge. Both covenants witness to some sort of arrival, some kind of entrance, some type of appearance, frankly, some form of coming – hence the name Advent.
But the spirit of Advent is much more than one Christian mood among many. The notion of Advent is not simply a single event within salvation history, like a Messiah coming to rescue the Jews, or Jesus entering history to redeem the world, or even Christ’s coming in the future “to judge the living and the dead.” Advent goes beyond history into the very nature of God Himself.
Christians truly believe in a God who comes always, a God who arrives constantly, a God who approaches continuously. This God does not draw near every once in a while, no matter how beneficial his entrance might be. Rather by his very nature, the Christian God is eternally coming, perennially arriving, always approaching humankind, to create, to guide, to redeem, to support and eventually to judge. His is not a series of appearances but rather a continuous nearness, a ready availability, an at-hand presence, intervening in history and mediating in the believer’s personal life.
God in his wisdom and beneficence took the first step toward creating the universe which humanity knows today. It was God who originated history in whatever mysterious fashion science might eventually discern over the centuries. God took the first step. God came to history. It was God who entered the ancient paradise and fashioned mankind from the dust of the earth. Note: it was God approached; he took the first step. Again, it was God who came to Abraham and Sara and revealed to them his plan for a select people who would reveal him to the nations. It was God who came to Moses, to David, and to the prophets, to guide and encourage His chosen people. It was God who through his Son Jesus Christ powerfully entered history to redeem sinful mankind and again who through his Holy Spirit gathered a new people of God who would transform the face of the earth. It is God who continues to come into history and into the believer’s personal life through revelation, through grace, through tradition, through Scripture, through the sacraments, through prayer, and through the good example of other believers. Advent celebrates and recalls this continuous intervention of God into world history and into each believer’s personal history.
While God is eternally active interceding and sometimes even intruding into world history, mankind and even believers themselves are not quite so watchful. Jesus warns in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Luke: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy…” And again, “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength…” That Scripture and tradition plainly illustrate the activity of God into human history and into each human life is a given. God is indeed one who comes. But mankind is not always so alert to the presence of God in history or to the presence of God in daily life. Accordingly Jesus again warns in this Sunday’s Gospel about “the anxieties of daily life,” and even more ominously about “carousing and drunkenness” which can easily overshadow and obscure the active presence of God in midst of human and personal history. An active faith in the omni-presence of God, a deep conviction that God is present in every eventuality, a sense for God, even a feel for God, is at the heart of authentic Christianity.
This past year marked the 60th anniversary of my class’ graduation from LaSalle Academy in Providence. LaSalle graduates well remember a frequent prayer that traces back to St. John Baptist de LaSalle himself: “Let us remember that we are in the Holy Presence of God! Live Jesus in Our Hearts! Forever!” These words express the true spirit of Advent: an awareness that God is present, that Jesus is near, that the Spirit is at hand. Daily living in the presence of God in this world ensures eternal living in the presence of God in the next world.