What if we got Advent right, this time?
What if we got Advent right this time?
If we miss the point of Advent, we’ll miss the point of Christmas.
In Advent, do we prepare for a birth, a death, or something else? The short answer is: “Yes.” And I fear that in all three categories, we tend to get it wrong.
We may tell ourselves that “Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for the Season of Christmas.” That’s true—if only it were true of us! Just as many Catholics treat the Saturday 4 p.m. Vigil Mass as the “Let’s-Just-Get-This-Out-Of-The-Way!” Mass; just as many Catholics treat Sunday as the vigil for Monday (“When real life begins!”); so too, there are many Catholics who use Advent as a time of preparation for the secular Christmas frenzy—shopping, cooking, decorating, partying, drinking, overeating…
Christ has already been born; the Son of God has been already the Son of Mary—we are not prepared for his birth! Advent is a preparation for Christmas only insofar as we need reminding that Christ was born in Bethlehem to begin his mission to save us from our sins. Christmas is mere sentimentality if we aren’t convinced that we’re sinners who need saving!
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the truly awesome truths that God-Who-Saves are also God-Who-Is-With-Us, we need to take out our moral trash, throw down our idols, and ask for the desire to welcome the salvation that is offered to us. If we’re not planning to go to confession during Advent, then we’re not serious about Christmas.
Advent is likewise a time to prepare for death—for Christ’s and ours. At his birth, he receives the gift of myrrh (Matthew 2:11), which is a foreshadowing of his body being anointed at his burial (John 19:38-40). From his birth, he is marked for death.
Advent is also a time to prepare for our own death.
We’re pilgrims on this earth, and at the end of our days, we will have to give an account of our stewardship of our lives, our gifts, and all entrusted to us. The shepherds and wise men trembled with awe and joy, seeing Christ face to face. Are we so sure right now that when it is our turn, we will do the same? At any moment, death may come to any of us, or Christ will return for all of us, and none of us knows when. (Matthew 24:36) Advent is a reminder of the need for preparation, vigilance, and the humility of those who know that they, even at their best, are unprofitable servants in need of the Master’s mercy. (Luke 17:10) Advent is a time to shed what is unworthy of us, mend what is broken, reclaim our disciplines and virtues, and go to confession.
Advent is also a time of preparation for “something else”—something we’re probably inclined to overlook, forget about, or discount, namely, the compassion of God.
“Compassion” must not be confused with “pity”; compassion doesn’t mean, “I acknowledge that it’s terrible that you’re you.” The Latin etymology of compassion is a cum-passio, “to suffer with.” The Christ of God was born into the world to suffer for us, yes, of course; he also was born into the world to suffer with us. At Christmas, we recall that Christ came into the world, entered into the fullness of the human condition (all except sin), and entered into our limitations, our darkness, and our weakness. He boldly and humbly enters all of our hiding places—since we constantly try to hide from God and ourselves all of our sins, illusions, regrets, and shames.
The Christ of God, the Light of the World, enters into our darkness, our self-imposed prisons, the basements and attics we cower in, and there embraces us, suffers with us, grieves with us, and then offers us a way forward, a way to light and life and even glory—if only we would let him.
Isn’t it Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that a proper image of Advent is the image of a cell door unexpectedly ajar, a cell door that can only open from the outside?
That image brings us closer to what Advent should be for us—a time to prepare for our deliverance, our emancipation. It is time to prepare to live forgiven and unshackled. We need time to prepare for such a great rescue because we have acquired habits of mind, heart, and practice that blind us to the open door, deafen us to the liberating call, numb us to the strong hands that would lift us up and out.
Advent’s opportunity is this: If we prepare well, then at Christmas time, we will gladly embrace and refuse to let go of the one who came to save us.