Earlier this year, I asked writer, educator and retreat leader Alice Camille to write a piece for us at Abbey Press on the topic of Advent as part of our Catholic Perspectives CareNotes series. She did a wonderful job, and I was particularly struck by her focus on the season of Advent as a state of spiritual emergency--a truth that tends to be dimmed by the distracting glitter, glow, and greed of our culture's celebration of this season. It's a message that needs to be broadcast far and wide. While much of the world makes a mad dash toward December 25--decorating, buying, celebrating, buying, fretting, buying, baking, buying--in search of some nostalgic, yet vague sense of hope that, all too often, fails to satisfy and is kicked to the curb on Dec. 26, Christians (in theory) profess this period as Advent (from the Latin term adventus, or coming).
Whose coming do we await? In faith, hope, and love, we await the coming of Christ--God among us--who comes to save humanity from the condition it has itself rendered. In the person of Jesus, he has come once to take on our humanity and redeem it. He will come again to fulfill God's promise and take all things to himself. And he is coming now, at this very moment. Eternity will emerge from how we respond daily to God's eternal presence in the mystical Body of Christ. Eternity will be what each of us makes of today.
While's it's fine to engage in a little of the season's cheer, we do well to remember that Advent calls for a joyful anticipation of the Kingdom of God--yesterday, today, and forever--and that Christmas (which actually begins Dec. 25 and runs for many days thereafter) recalls that mystical event when God became man in the person of Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means "God saves." That should indeed bring us great joy--but not the fleeting, superficial, artificial joy so often peddled today. It is a joy tempered by the reality of the crucifixion, a wonderful paradox that gives rise to rejoicing with the psalmist: "Lord, with you is found forgiveness; for this we revere you!"
Advent and Christmas, then, are solemn occasions steeped in true, everlasting joy as we await the full coming of the Kingdom of God. As Camille points out, there is more to it than a cute baby in a manger. It's serious business. Urgency is involved, as we are reminded at Mass after the Lord's Prayer, when the priest says, "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."
And, as Camille writes, this "God emergency" involves active hope:
Too often our religious expectations for this season are for the cute-and-cuddly (and totally manageable) infant Lord who slips easily into the manger pre-molded to fit him. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr invited us to consider that the arrival of God into history is better understood as "an emergency." An emergency literally concerns something which emerges--unexpected and not always entirely welcome.
When God--who created all--becomes manifest in time, place, and person, such an emergence constitutes a real state of emergency for each of us. What will we do with the Holy Presence in such proximity to ourselves? If God is this close, is that bad news to us or good?
The "God Emergency" in our world is another way of talking about the gospel announcement of the Kingdom. When we pray "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done" in the Lord's Prayer, the phrases on both sides of the comma describe the same event. God's will and its fulfillment happen together as in the Creation story: God speaks, and the words become the world. "Kingdom come" and fulfillment of God's purposes are the same event.
Our Advent waiting is precisely directed toward this wonderful fulfillment. God promises a new creation of justice and peace. Is this what we're hoping for, too? If so, our waiting can't be a matter of sitting on our hands till Christ walks through the front door on the Last Day.
Heaven can't wait. Hope is not a passive pastime. The grace of Advent is available when we embrace the coming Kingdom now.