• Jer 33:14-16
• Ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
• 1 Thes 3:12-4:2
• Lk 21:25-28, 34-36
“We preach not one advent only of Christ,” wrote St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century, “but a second also, far more glorious than the former. For the former gave a view of His patience; but the latter brings with it the crown of a divine kingdom.”
The term “advent,” as we’ll see, is drawn from the New Testament, but when St. Cyril (named a Doctor of the Church in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII) was writing his famous catechetical lectures, the season of Advent was just starting to emerge in fledgling form in Spain and Gaul. During the fifth century, Christians in parts of western Europe began observing a period of ascetical practices leading up to the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany. Advent was observed in Rome beginning in the sixth century, and it was sometimes called the “pre-Christmas Lent,” a time of fasting, more frequent prayer, and additional liturgies.
One of the prayers of the Roman missal from those early centuries says, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the ways of Thy only-begotten Son: that by His coming we may be able to serve him with purified minds.” This echoes today’s reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, in which he exhorts them “to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.”
The Greek word used by St. Paul for “coming” is parousia, which means “presence” or “coming to a place.” The Vulgate translation of the phrase “the coming of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thess 3:13) is rendered “in adventu Domini.” The word parousia appears twenty-four times in the New Testament, almost always in reference to the coming or presence of the Lord. It appears in Matthew 24 four times, the only place the term appears in the Gospels; that chapter records the Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ prophetic warnings about a coming time of trial, destruction, and “the coming of the Son of man” (Matt 24:27). Today’s Gospel reading, from Luke 21, is a parallel passage warning of distress, startling heavenly signs, and “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
What connection is there between the foment of earthly tribulation and cosmic upheaval, and preparations to celebrate Christ’s birth? If we consider the Christmas story cleared of sentimental wrappings, we see events as dramatic, raw, bloody, and joyous as can be imagined: the birth of Christ, the slaughter of the innocents, the praise of angels, the murderous rage of Herod. Christmas is about birth, but also death; about rejoicing, but also rejection. It is the story of God desired and God denied. It is the story every man has to encounter because it is the story of God’s radical plan of salvation, the entrance of divinity into the dusty ruts and twisting corridors of human history.
Advent orients us to the heart of the Nativity—not in a merely metaphorical way, but through the reality of the liturgy, the Eucharist, the sacramental life of the Church. It is a wake-up call, perhaps even an alarm rousing us from “carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” The birth of Christ caught many by surprise. Likewise, we can find ourselves trapped in the darkness of dull living and missing Christ’s call to raise our heads as salvation approaches.
“Advent calls believers to become aware of this truth and to act accordingly,” said Pope Benedict XVI in a homily marking the beginning of Advent in 2006. “It rings out as a salutary appeal in the days, weeks and months that repeat: Awaken! Remember that God comes! Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today, now!” Jesus told his disciples to be vigilant, prepared, and prayerful.
The same is true for his disciples today, so they might escape the tribulations of spiritual darkness and stand purified and prepared before the Son of Man, the son of Mary.
(This “Opening the Word” column appeared originally in the November 29, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)