Advent is most properly a looking-forward, not a looking-back.
Be aware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life and that day catch you by surprise like a trap … Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man. —Luke 21:34, 36
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” or so says the cheery holiday song by Meredith Willson. And yet, when we enter our parish churches on Sunday, we won’t be greeted by Christmas trees and poinsettias or lift our voices in joyful hymns singing “glory to the Newborn King.” Instead, we will hear a “crisis mode” Gospel that calls us to vigilance, watchfulness, and prayer. It is certainly a jarring disconnect.
Sadly, in the minds of too many Christians, Advent is a sort of pre-Christmas season that only thinly veils the all-out joy of Christmas. But with this Sunday’s readings and prayers, the Church is reminding us that there is much more to Advent than just anticipating the birthday of Jesus. And so, for the next three weeks, we will focus on the Lord’s return at the end of time and also reflect on how we find him coming among us today.
This makes Advent a season of hope and joyful expectation. We see these themes at work in this Sunday’s Gospel: while Jesus declares that those who resist him will experience “dismay” and be “perplexed,” he also invites those who believe in him to “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
All of this makes Advent a season of tension. A time of “already, but not yet.” While we look forward to celebrating the Incarnation at Christmas (the truth that in Jesus of Nazareth, God became man), we also spend these days looking toward the future, to the second Advent of Christ, when he will return in glory and the promises made to the prophets will be fulfilled (cf. the First Reading).
Truly, we live in a time between the comings—the advents—of Christ. As the Protestant writer William Stringfellow reflected, “In the first Advent, Christ came into the world, bringing the good news of salvation; in the next Advent, Christ the Lord comes as Judge of the world, to establish the reign of the Word of God. This is the truth, which the world hates, which we bear in our minds and hearts and by which we live in the world in the time between the two Advents.”
Living in the tension of the “time between” is about learning to wait, about not knowing exactly what will come tomorrow and recognizing that, whatever it is, it is part of the mystery of our salvation. Advent is ultimately a season that is oriented toward the future, not the past.
These are days to remember and celebrate the gift of the Child of Bethlehem, but this is also a time to take a step back from the frolicking and busy-ness of the holidays to reflect on the future and the fundamental question of Advent: What are you waiting for?
What does “vigilance” mean for you? How can you take time in the coming weeks for prayer, watching, and waiting? What can you do in your home and with your family to emphasize the hope and expectation of Advent? How can you keep your heart from becoming “drowsy” in these Advent days?
Words of Wisdom: “In this season of Advent, we are called to expand the horizons of our hearts, to be amazed by the life which presents itself each day with newness. In order to do this, we must learn to not depend on our own certainties, on our own established strategies, because the Lord comes at a time that we do not imagine. He comes to bring us into a more beautiful and grand dimension.”—Pope Francis