Advent: Be vigilant, be prepared, live in expectation!

Listen to mp3 file
1st Sunday of Advent, Year C: Dec. 2, 2012
Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25; 1 Thess 3:12–4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

When we read in the books of the prophets in the Old Testament, before the coming of Christ, we find many references to the “Day of the Lord.” Indeed, from the very first reference, in the book of the prophet Amos, we can tell that there was already a popular expectation among the people that, when this day came, it would be a positive day of blessing for them, a day of light, a day when the Lord would make everything good for his People. And Amos responded: “Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord! What will this day of the Lord mean for you? Darkness and not light!” (Amos 5:18ff)

And what we then see unfolded more clearly by the prophets is the understanding that the Day of Lord will have two sides to it: punishment for sinners, and salvation for the righteous. And this is what we also hear in the words of our Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, about his Second Coming. For he speaks of how, on the one hand, there will be dismay and perplexity and people will die of fright and that day will assault everyone. But to his own disciples he says: “Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” But what’s the difference between the two? What does he counsel? Be vigilant at all times… Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. In other words, be prepared, and live in expectation of his coming; and then it will be a matter of joy and vindication for you, and not fear and punishment. Be vigilant, be prepared, live in expectation: these are the watchwords of Advent.

Of course, right now we are immersed in a season of preparation and expectation that our culture urges and calls, “the holidays.” Ever since the day after Thanksgiving—or even before—we have been urged to prepare, how? By shopping and decorating; sending cards and giving gifts; making foods and eating them; attending parties and perhaps throwing them; attending concerts and pageants, and perhaps organizing or performing in them; traveling to visit family and friends, or hosting them yourselves; and above all creating a magical Christmas experience for children. It’s exhausting, isn’t it?—so that you will collapse a little after New Year’s and take it easy for a while. And it’s also expensive—so that, in a recent poll, 45% of Americans said that they are not financially prepared for the cost of the holiday season, and experience high or extremely high stress, and wish they could just skip the season altogether.

This is the preparation that the culture demands. But is it the kind of preparation that our Lord Jesus urges? Is it the kind of preparation that the Church, in her maternal care, guides us into?

Today we begin the holy season of Advent, which is the season that the Church gives to us each year in order to focus on preparing for our Lord’s advent—that is, his coming or arrival. And Advent has a two-fold character:

  • First, we prepare ourselves to be ready to celebrate the Solemnities of Christmas—that is, to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, true God from true God, born of the Father before all ages, who for us men and for our salvation took on our human nature and was born of the Virgin Mary into our world, our lives. Immanuel, “God with us.”
  • But how will we prepare to celebrate that? That is, how will we ourselves, in our hearts and souls, be prepared to celebrate this pivotal event worthily and well? By preparing ourselves to welcome Christ in his Second Coming at the end of time—which is the other side of Advent, and indeed the one that we start with.

So how do we prepare to welcome Christ at his Second Coming? How do we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas well?

A few days ago, I spent my day off with a group of priests in a house that is already decorated for Christmas. And there was plenty of energetic conversation for many hours. And then it happened that the others left the house, and I was there by myself for a few minutes in—silence; and peace; and low lighting, including a Christmas tree lit with little lights: in a moment that was sweet and full and ripe with the possibility of prayer. And I thought: yes, this is Advent; this time, this waiting, this preparation of the heart.

And so I urge you to make such a period of time for yourself, each day if possible, during this holy season—in the evening, by yourself, in quietness; with perhaps candles, such as the candles of an Advent wreath, or little Christmas lights to glow softly for you—to make that time and space to prepare with the Lord. You might use the Little Blue Books available in the vestibule to guide you in prayer; or you might spend time reading and reflecting on the first few chapters of each of the four Gospels. Either way, you will encounter the two great figures of the Advent season: St. John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let them guide your heart.

John the Baptist was, in his very being and his whole life, the Precursor of the Lord, dedicated to preparing the way before him. As you spend time again with John, allow his zeal to help you to carefully examine your conscience and your manner of living. Be ready to repent, to turn away from sinful or foolish practices, of whatever kind. Bring these sins to sacramental confession to receive forgiveness and strength for the journey ahead. And turn toward morally good practices—as so many did in John’s own time, in response to his example and preaching.

And the Blessed Virgin Mary was one who waited most intimately for the birth of our Lord Jesus—throughout the nine months of her pregnancy, as he grew inside her body. With her, recall the great things that the Lord has done for you and reflect upon these blessings. Ask her to help you to desire God’s will for you, whatever it may be—so that you can say with her, “Let it be done to me according to your will.” And treasure all these things, pondering them in your heart.

This then is the precious gift of Advent: not the daze of heightened anxieties and carousing, but the sweet vigilance in expectation of the coming of him who we know loves us. Be vigilant, be prepared, live in expectation: your redemption is at hand!

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