Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Second Coming: Advent

"From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord" -Psalm 129:6. The photo is from this morning's Rorate Mass at St. Paul's in Cambridge, hosted by Juventutem Boston.

Why Advent? What is the point of Advent? Most of the world, in its headlong rush towards Christmas, has no concept of this season. Perhaps this is because, in much of the English-speaking world at least, the culture has been shaped by Protestantism, which often has a vague sense of Christmas and Easter, but generally forgets about the rest of the liturgical calendar. We spend all of December over-buying, over-eating, over-drinking, and generally over-indulging, so come Christmas evening we are exhausted, bloated, and broke. And in all the merriment, the real meaning of Christmas is lost – a beautiful child, the hope of mankind, destined one day to die upon a cross for our sins. A day which should be so full of meaning is empty, the gap filled with kitsch and egg nog. 

But – thank God! – the Catholic Church has a built-in defense against this modern attack on Christmas. It is Advent! What is Advent? It is a time of preparation, in which we ready ourselves for the coming of God. How does God come to us?
According to St Bernard of Clairvaux, in three ways. In the first, he came to us in “flesh and weakness” (i.e., as a defenseless baby, born of a woman). In the third, he will come in “glory and majesty” (in other words, on the final day). And so we have the first and third comings. Where is the second? In the Second Coming Christ comes to us “in spirit and in power.” That is to say, He comes to us in our present lives: through the sacraments, and chiefly in the annual, weekly, and daily offering of the Most Holy Sacrifice.

Advent is the season which represents for us this Second Coming, and which will prepare us for God’s Third and Final Coming. So how do we live Advent in such a way that it reflects this Second Coming? With a joyful expectation to be sure – and this is generally the current emphasis placed on the season – but also in humility and penance, in the hope that God will have mercy on us on the final day. This is because our salvation is not assured, but must be worked out “with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12) It is unfortunately now the case that most Catholics, surrendering to the spirit of the world, are happy to pretend that it is already Christmas, and feast accordingly. But we must resist this urge. Advent is a penitential season, and the Church has always seen it as such. How else can we prepare for the Day of the Lord, except in a spirit of humility?

What are appropriate ways to respect the penitential nature of Advent? St. Charles Borromeo encouraged his faithful to fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Other, traditionally obligatory, fast days during the season include the vigil of Christmas (i.e. Christmas Eve), the Advent Ember Days, and the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We can abstain from sweets, and alcohol, and avoid Christmas parties (if possible). We can put off Christmas music and decorations as late as possible. And in all this we can offer our minor sufferings and discomforts to God, in the spirit of John, who fasted and watched for the Lamb of God in the wilderness, or of Our Blessed Mother, who had to take refuge in a stable on a long journey. The Church has always held that these two people were sinless, and yet they lived lives of penance. How much more ought we, who are sinners, offer up penance to God?

There is still time left in this Advent season. What are we telling the world when even Catholics seem to forget that Christmas is a holy day which requires our careful preparation? “Never forget that there are only two philosophies to rule your life: the one of the cross, which starts with the fast and ends with the feast. The other of Satan, which starts with the feast and ends with the headache.” – Fulton Sheen