First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2011
"Living into the Reality of Advent Today"
While our Churches greet Advent with the penitential color of purple and solemn liturgical music and readings, our shopping malls are resplendent with diverse seasonal greetings, muzak and multiple enticements to gift-buying – two very different and even contradictory approaches to the important celebration of Christmas. Advent’s significance can be lost in the cacophony of advertising and its diversions. In many ways it is a more gentle season than Lent which opens with Ash Wednesday confronting us with reminders of suffering, death and the finiteness of life. In contrast, Advent opens us to the hope of a new liturgical year and prepares us for the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The meaning of ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin, adventus, which carries the tensive connotation of both ‘coming’ and ‘to come’, of ‘arriving’ and ‘arrival’ – the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ aspects of the Reign of God in our world. It is a time of celebration of Christ’s coming into our world, and a preparation for the Final Coming. The exact date when the season of Advent began to be celebrated, or indeed, of the feast of Christmas itself is uncertain, but it appears to be around the end of the 6th Century or early 7th Century that the season as we know it today became an integral part of the liturgical year.
What is it that we are invited to prepare for personally and as members of a living faith community this Advent? Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of Advent is the experience of waiting in a cultural context where instant response is a given. Trusting hope is not a common commodity in our western world. Advent reminds us that God’s covenant of Love accompanies us every step of our journey. We may fail God, but God’s steadfast love will not fail us. The first reading from Isaiah reminds us that we are the clay and God is the potter, “We are all the work of your hand.” (Is:64:8)
What does it mean to say that we are the work of God’s hand? Surely it is a reminder to us that we are not on our own in our effort to live authentic lives in a world where so much trust has been lost as a consequence of the post Global Financial Crisis and where nations are struggling with inconceivable debt because trusted institutions have betrayed the people who believed in them. Fiducial breakdown has accompanied financial breakdown at the global institutional level.
Advent calls us to consider that in the multi-leveled and diverse experiences of relational failures that have affected us all in our communities, “God by calling you has joined you to his Son, Jesus Christ; and God is faithful.” (1 Cor: 1:9) In Baptism we have been given the vocation to witness to God’s faithfulness through our own steadfast commitment to living faith, compassionate love, and resilient hope in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. When there is so much suffering, despair and relational breakdown around us, the darkness of Advent reminds us that the dawn of new life has not only been promised, it is present in our world and yet still to come – the Reign of God.
As we begin to farewell 2011, and move to welcome 2012 we can call to mind the promise of “the new and the possible” that Christmas offers, and that Advent prepares us for. That we have every reason to hope is evidenced in the weekly liturgies of Advent. Some key ways in which we can also shape our trusting hope in our present time can be found in the statement of the U.S. Catholic bishops, Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium (1995). We are reminded that we are sent by God “on the Church’s apostolate, an apostolate that is one yet has different forms and methods, an apostolate that must all the time be adapting itself to the needs of the moment.” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no.33)
The “Four Calls” of our Baptismal vocation: to holiness, to community, to mission and ministry, and to Christian maturity express key aspects of Christian spirituality for reflection over the four weeks of Advent. The call to holiness resonates with the affirmation of Irenaeus that the glory of God is the fully alive human being. Such an understanding of holiness is one of a life lived to the full, not of being controlled by the fears that constrain so many people, whether a fear of failing, of commitment, of being asked for more than we might be ready to give in our relational lives. Advent reminds us that in our patience with ourselves and others, and in our readiness to take risks, we are living lives of openness to new understandings of ourselves, of others, and even of the graced ways in which God works in and transforms us through our human circumstances.
To live and love is to open ourselves to suffering. Newspapers and online sources document the multiplicity of experiences of physical and emotional suffering and abuse in our world. Hope and despair are two poles that break us open to new levels of understanding of what it means to live courageously today. To sustain trusting hope in face of rejection, discrimination or prejudice does not diminish suffering, but it can open people to deeper experiences of compassion for others, enable them to break through boundaries of difference and to work together to bring about a just society. Suffering of one sort or another is integral to the capacity to love. Nobody can love authentically if they have not suffered in some way in and through their relationships. The life, death and resurrection of Christ offers us a mirror for our own experiences of life’s struggle, of the ‘death’ experiences that we may undergo in our home, our work and our loving relationships.
Our Baptismal call to holiness is a call to live as openly as possible within the ordinariness of our lives. Advent invites us to see beyond the mundane to the graced presence of Christ. While the marketplace shows us new ways of spending money and time in ways that take us out of our ‘ordinariness,’ Advent challenges us to see “the new and the possible” in the simplicity of a child in a crib who came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. (John10:10)