Reflections on the Season of Advent
In the season of Advent, the whole Church participates in waiting. We wait for the coming of the Christmas season, for the singing of carols and the gathering of (maximum three!) families, and, most importantly, for Jesus’ Second Coming to conclude history and initiate the Kingdom of God in its fullness. Hence, the Sunday readings for the Season is filled with the theme of waiting. The reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent, for example, contains a scene from the Old Testament where God refuses David’s offer to build an improved tabernacle or temple for God and instructs him to wait:
Once David had settled into his house and the Lord had given him rest from all the enemies surrounding him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘Look, I am living in a house of cedar while the ark of God dwells in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go and do all that is in your mind, for the Lord is with you.’ But that very night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: ‘Go and tell my servant David, “Thus the Lord speaks: Are you the man to build me a house to dwell in? … I will provide a place for my people Israel; I will plant them there and they shall dwell in that place and never be disturbed again.… The Lord will make you great; the Lord will make you a House. And when your days are ended and you are laid to rest with your ancestors, I will preserve the offspring of your body after you and make his sovereignty secure. I will be a father to him and he a son to me….”’ (2 Samuel 7:1- 5, 10-14)
Around three centuries later, with the survival of the Davidic dynasty hanging by a thread, God again instructs His people to wait. God will ensure that His people not only survive the coming calamity of defeat and exile to Babylon, but also fulfil their original vocation to become the means by which “all the nations of the earth bless themselves,” (Genesis 22:18) i.e., to become a universal assembly of the People of God. In the words of Isaiah:
Let not the foreigner [i.e., Gentile] who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants… these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:3-7)
Another seven centuries later – after the Babylonian exile, after the bittersweet return to Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Temple – God would fulfil these promises. Yet who could have predicted the manner in which God fulfilled them? They were expecting a powerful king like David, or a high priest who magnificently upgrades the Temple, or even a new prophet like Moses. Yet, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally, ‘tabernacled’] among us” (John 1:14). God Himself came among us and became Himself the cornerstone of the definitive Temple. “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). With this quotation of Isaiah’s prophecy, the Word Incarnate drives out the moneychangers from the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles (an external court where non-Jewish worshippers of God were allowed in but no further). In their place emerges the universal (“Catholic”) Church of Christ served by celibate (“eunuch”) men of both renewed Israel and all Gentile nations. In other words, nobody expected us, the Church, who are “like living stones… being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The Jerusalem Temple itself would be destroyed in 70 A.D. and would not rise again.
From these historical events, we learn that God always fulfils His promises, however long the seeming delay and however difficult the wait. We ourselves are the proof of that. And He has made more promises to us. That Christ shall come again “in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31). That those who faithfully served Christ here on earth shall “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). That death shall be conquered and us raised in imperishable bodies (1 Corinthians 15:53). That all the things we struggle to understand – the full dignity of life and the mysteries of sin, evil and suffering – shall be made clear when we behold God and become like God: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
Yet, along with His promises, God has again instructed us to wait. The Gospels are filled with Jesus’ parables of a master going away from home and entrusting his servants to wait for his return:
Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them. (Luke 12:35-37)
It is also clear that waiting is not to be a seasonal activity but a permanent attitude, the essence of being Christ’s disciples, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40). But why does God make us wait? Could He not just come now and fulfil all things? And what does the waiting involve: i.e., what kinds of “lamps” should we be burning?
Why does God make us wait?
Perhaps we can think about this by asking the opposite question: what would life really be like if there was no waiting at all, if God automatically granted our every desire? Will we ask for the right things? Probably not. In our fallen state, with our intellect and desires darkened, we would likely request for things which – while being genuinely good in themselves – do not help us grow to become what God intended us to be. The ultimate iPhone rather than conversation with God in prayer, efficient food production rather than the Eucharistic bread of immortality, democratically chosen politicians and steady GDP growth rather than the kingdom of God and hearts enlarged by love.
In fact, left to our own whims, we would be impatient to do away with God and call that freedom and salvation! We would construct our own visions of utopia and silence (or even annihilate) those who disagree. Even though such utopian visions always appear small, tacky, and, well, too human only after a generation, the thrill of becoming the masters of our own destinies is almost irresistible. But methods of human salvation without God at the centre are – however convincing and practical – no more than idols. And we are idol-making machines. The fruit that makes us, not God, the arbiter of good and evil, the Tower of Babel, the golden calf, the gods that supposedly grant rain, fertility and prosperity in return for sacrifice of human infants – these are all Biblical examples of idols or instruments we have devised to skip waiting on God and become our own masters. And it is not hard to find the idol-making machines operating strongly today. Only if I make millions before thirty… Only if our right to choose are sanctified… Only if new laws can stop bigots being bigots…. The danger is not that personal and socioeconomic-political-technological gains are bad in themselves – in fact, they are very good – but that they become ends in themselves, our idols – the roots of a false sense of security which tells us that we have arrived when the adventure has barely begun.
Then one day, the machines suddenly come to a stop. Perhaps you become too ill to enjoy them; perhaps you – or the environment – can no longer afford them; perhaps people no longer find them ‘cool’; or perhaps you have, for some unfathomable reason, lost interest in them. Whichever way, the quick pleasures generated by the idol machines are no longer there. Like the prodigal son in the Gospel who could not wait for his father to die to obtain his inheritance, and when he did, wasted it on all the idol machines of the world, and then fell into a miserable state when the famine struck and the parties came to an end (Luke 15:11-17), you too are forced to wait and to re-evaluate your priorities. Only then does the long homeward journey begin, not just in the physical sense, but also in the internal disposition: pride becomes humility and uncontrolled passion becomes prudence.
In other words, when the waiting begins, one can be sure that God – out of His infinite wisdom and love for us – has intervened in our lives. The real adventure has begun – not to this or that pleasure, this or that security, but to the joy of God’s Kingdom “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
Could God not just come now and fulfil all things?
This is of course possible. In fact, the moment of Christ’s Second Coming – in the Biblical Greek, Parousia, also translated as arrival or advent – is unknown to all and could hence include today or tomorrow. It appears nevertheless that God is allowing time for all generations (how many, we do not know) to have been given a chance at fulfilling their earthly vocations before history is concluded. The world will end only when all saints – “predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29) – have exercised their earthly roles and fought their own good fights. The prodigal son – however much his father misses him – must learn his own lessons and make his own decision to return home. God the Father similarly waits for our growth in maturity until we freely choose to enter and live in the covenantal community of His people.
But perhaps God has already arrived – not only at the Incarnation 2,000 years ago, but yesterday and today – and will continue to arrive tomorrow and the day after. Dr Scott Hahn points out in his book Letter and Spirit that the Greek word Parousia can be translated as presence as well as arrival and advent, as when St Paul writes: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence [parousia] but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). After all, Christ Himself said: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Hence, as well as the final coming of Christ (the “plenary Parousia”) there is also His continuing real presence among us today. And the location of that real Parousia is unmistakably the Eucharist:
The Church knows that the Lord comes even now in his Eucharist and that he is there in our midst. However, his presence is veiled. Therefore, we celebrate the Eucharist “awaiting the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ,” asking “to share in your glory when every tear will be wiped away. On that day we shall see you, our God, as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1404)
The Parousia is the highest intensification and fulfilment of the liturgy… And the liturgy is Parousia…. Every Eucharist is Parousia, the Lord’s coming, and yet the Eucharist is even more truly the tensed yearning that He would reveal His hidden Glory. (Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, Eschatology, 1988, cited by Scott Hahn, Letter and Spirit, 2013, p. 116)
With Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist also comes the beginning of judgement that will culminate to the Final Judgement on His Second Coming:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
Hence, God is not in some distant place but waits with us in the Eucharist and in every Tabernacle of the Church. The judgement He brings is not vindictive or arbitrary but the instrument by which we ourselves learn to judge between good and evil and between virtue and sin. Through the Church, God Himself teaches us so that we may grow in maturity until we are prepared to receive His Kingdom of justice and love.
Therefore, Advent is not a single season of the year when we try to anticipate an unknown event at an unknown time. Advent in fact describes what happens at each and every Eucharistic celebration. Advent is the glory we experience every time we fulfil the oath [in Latin, sacramentum] to become bit more like Christ whom we meet in the liturgy.
What does the waiting involve?
This question has in a sense already been answered above. We wait by meeting God frequently in the liturgy, foremost the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Word. In the Eucharist, Christ is not only present, but He re-presents His sacrificial death on the cross for all of humanity. The Eucharist hence shows us who the Trinitarian God is: He is Love. Hence, waiting with God means waiting like God by transforming the faith and hope required for waiting into love and good works. The Liturgy of the Word is also essential because there we hear the words of the Word of God, securely preserved in Scripture, and because “all scripture is inspired by God… [so] that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Sacraments are the channels through which the love of the Holy Spirit is infused into our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5) so that we may grow in faith, hope and charity. Christian waiting is hence characterized by growth. We are called to be the servants who invest the master’s talents rather than bury them (see Matthew 25:14-30), to be the good soil that receives the seed of faith and “with a noble and good heart… by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15). In fact, Jesus describes the coming of the Kingdom of God as a similar process of organic growth – slow and often imperceptible, yet almost inevitable – rather than as some violent imposition from outside:
The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. (Matthew 13:31-32)
Christian waiting – i.e., the essence of the season of Advent – is thus the awareness of the ever-presence of God: His presence in the Incarnation; His presence in the Sacraments; His presence in our growth and in any growth pains; and His presence in any maturity that results from growth by which we can say with St Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). Such maturity surely is the “lamp” kept burning by the watchful servants, the lamp that is not put “under a bushel, but on a stand” (Matthew 5:15) so that its light shines for the world, “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Finally, Christian waiting always looks forward to Christ’s Second Coming – the plenary Parousia – which will be as unexpected in timing and manner as the First Coming had been. Yet, the Scripture also tells us that the scenes at the Second Coming would not be too unfamiliar to us. We will see a Lamb “standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6) on the throne-altar, surrounded by 24 “elders” [i.e., priests] holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8). There then will emerge the Bride of the Lamb, the Church, clothed in “fine linen” which “is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Revelation 19:8). And we shall all shout “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:9)
1. What am I waiting for in my life? Is it a particular event like the gaining of an academic degree, a change in circumstance like the gaining of a job, or a relationship? Will this event, circumstance or relationship make myself and the world better prepared for the Second Coming of Christ?
2. Who am I waiting to become? Will I become what God intended me to be or will I remain simply a product of my own fancies?
3. Am I aware that when I attend Mass, Christ has already arrived, and history is being concluded? How would such awareness change my attitude before, during and after Mass?