Happy New Year! For this last Sunday, December 2nd, brought the first day of the Christian year.
Four Sundays mark the opening liturgical “season” of the Christian year, which culminates on Christmas Eve. Advent means the coming or arrival or appearing of an extremely important event. For Christians, this is a time of expectant waiting, of prayer, and of preparing oneself spiritually for the sacred moment which is to come.
What a contrast from what people think of as the Christmas season! Actually, the Christmas season is just the 12 days from December 25th to the holiday of Epiphany (January 6th), which celebrates the visit of the three wise men to the Christ Child. In an irony of history, the time of spiritual preparation and silent waiting has become the busiest, most frenetic season of the year.
In all religions, liturgies and sacred holidays reenact sacred events of the past. The holy days lift believers out of mundane reality and into sacred time; they call us into the divine life itself. For Christians, the Creator of all things silently draws near to the Creation on the Holy Night that dawns with Christmas morning, bridging the gap that has arisen between God and God’s creation. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” St. John writes, “full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). Hence Jesus, the Christ Child, is called Emmanuel, God with us.
As the Christian year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, we are waiting. The darkness surrounds us. In many ways it is a darkness that we have created—we as individuals and we as a species. We hope and pray that God will again kindle the divine light in us and around us, that God will draw us back to Godself. Each Sunday we light a new candle, representing the promise and the hope that God’s love will overcome all darkness within us and around us. As the Holy Night draws closer, more and more candles are burning. It’s almost as if our anticipation and self-purification is itself helping to dim the darkness a bit.
This spirit of waiting we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. During this season we read the Hebrew text of Isaiah (chapters 2, 7, 11, 35, 40, 61, 64). Together with the prophet Isaiah, we long and pray for the advent of God’s Messiah and the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth—a kingdom of justice, love, and peace. We pull back from ordinary life, preparing ourselves for the great work that God will do. It’s a time for self-inventory and repentance, a time for reorienting ourselves toward God. Many of us listen to Gregorian chants, which have the power to pull us out of the headlong rush of the world around us and call us back to a deeper meditative space.
Gradually the readings from scripture change. Now is the time of growing anticipation. It’s as though, in our hearts and in our very bones, we can feel God drawing nearer. We begin to read the passages about John the Baptist, who calls to repentance. John proclaims the immanent arrival of God’s chosen messenger, “the thongs of whose sandals” he is not worthy to untie. We read of the events that immediately preceded Jesus’ birth, as if they were happening around us for the first time. Like Mary, Jesus’ mother, we “treasure all these things” in our hearts.
The moment at which divine and human intersect and are fully consummated in each other is a moment of absolute Mystery—a Moment before which we can only stand in reverent silence. Like a rock that has fallen at dusk into a pond, obscured from our view, we can only see the ripples on the water expanding outward from the point of impact. Advent offers a waiting and a hoping that deepens the sense of that ultimate Mystery: that the gap between God and world could be overcome, that it somehow has always already been overcome.
One person has expressed the beauty of the Advent promise more fully than any other. Not surprisingly, given Jesus’ message, this prophet came from the lowest imaginable stratum of society: a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine, a girl, pregnant out of wedlock. Mary heard the words of the angel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” A short time later she spoke some of the best-known words in the New Testament, words that tradition has come to call the Magnificat:
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-47, 51-53)
The Birth on which Christians wait this Advent season is not of a warrior Savior who will smash his opponents, crushing and negating all other religious traditions, handing truth to Christians alone. It is the birth of a simple rabbi who would be “last of all and a servant to all”—a rabbi who would preach “the way of radical compassion.” Hence the preparation in which we are engaged during these weeks is the preparation of kenosis, of self-emptying. How else could one prepare oneself for a God whose Advent message is, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9)?