The following are five Advent reflections that I prepared for catechumens and candidates in our RCIA program. (They are also available in PDF form here: The Season of Advent.)
Advent is witnessed by creation
Late autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors, then fade and fall. Shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. Vacations and the warmth of summer are distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and then pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has its delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the childlike excitement a winter storm can arouse. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, longing, and expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreaths and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our ongoing commitment to come out of the darkness into God’s own marvelous light (cf 1 Peter 2:9). There is a gospel song that says, “Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.”
Longing for salvation
Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a yearning for this Messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so a cry from Israel went up:
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil … We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people (Is 64:1-7).
During Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come, yet we know that sin and injustice still have terrible effects on our lives and our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to set us free every day. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us; now we long for Him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of His glory.
Waiting for His sudden and second coming
Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. In the Nicene Creed, we say, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This truth flows directly from Scripture, which clearly teaches two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second, we cannot know the day or the hour that He will return. In fact, though some signs will precede His coming, the emphasis of Scripture is on the suddenness of the event.
He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27).
… with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth … (1 Th. 5:3)
… in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet … (1 Cor 15:52)
It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44)
Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security” … (1 Th. 5:3)
Because this is the case, we must live in constant readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect on the necessity of our readiness. An old gospel song says, “Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Lord?” Similarly, there is another gospel song that counsels, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!”
The fire next time
Some of the images of the last day, ones of judgment and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider, for example, this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).
Some of the imagery used here is reminiscent of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation. Notice the complete message of this passage and others like it: The heavens and the earth as we know them will pass away, but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heaven and a new earth,” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness.
An African-American spiritual summarizes the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter with these classic lines: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” Here, too, our first reaction might be fear, but in the tradition of the spirituals, the fire referenced was a fire of justice and truth, which destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses it this way: “God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days, Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Alleluia!” For the slaves, the day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, vindication, and deliverance. So it will be for us, too, if we are ready. W
What does it mean to be ready? It means to be living faithfully, holding on to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. It means to be living a holy life, a life of repentance. If we do this, not only do we have nothing to fear about the last day, we can eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)
Remember, repent, rehearse
All of these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent, and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come. He has called us to the obedience of faith and promised that He will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. We rehearse for His second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom He finds watchful and ready. In a sense, every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every Mass the following prayer is said: 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.
This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for His glorious return. Only He can deliver us, free us from our sin, and remove our anxiety about that day. Only He can give us joy and make us holy. We need only yield to His saving work.
This brings us back to where we started: yearning for our savior. To yearn for Him is to know how much we need Him, to seek His face and call upon His name constantly. Cry out with the Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)
*Image: King Nebuchadnezzar as a Wild Animal by an unknown artist, c. 1400-1410 [J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA]. The image refers to Daniel 4: 25-35: the prophet tells the king that he will lose his mind and live like a beast for seven years. The illustration is from Rudolf von Ems’ Weltchronik or “world chronicle” written in the mid-1200s.