Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and so we light the first of four candles in our Advent wreath.
When you think about it, the season of Advent is really quite underrated, but after all, what do you expect from something that comes right before Christmas–and naturally pales in comparison to it? Yet the Church in her centuries’ worth of wisdom has thought it important that before we rush and celebrate the birth of our Lord, it’s worthwhile to spend some time–in fact, four weeks–just to prepare for Christmas.
The root word of “Advent” comes from the Latin “venire,” which means “to arrive.” Advent then is the time for us to prepare for the arrival of the Lord at Christmas. Our First Reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, describes this arrival in a dramatic way: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains before you.”
This image of God tearing up the heavens in order to make His descent to the world really captures the significance of God becoming one of us: For God to come down from His heaven–that’s awesome enough. But for One as infinite, and as perfect as God to actually become a mere human being–which is exactly what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas–is, in every sense of the word, a breakthrough. It was totally unheard of and completely inconceivable for the Jews. The Incarnation–God becoming human–is a dramatic, if not a subversive, event. Our problem is, we tend to take it for granted because we’ve grown too accustomed to it. After all, we celebrate Christmas every year and sing of its story through every possible carol that we’ve learned by heart since our childhood. We have grown too accustomed to the image of the Baby Jesus surrounded by his parents, shepherds, kings, and animals.
Advent is the time to call to mind something we usually forget: how utterly innovative God’s plan of salvation is and how absolutely extraordinary our God is.
But Advent is also exactly the time to recall that the event of Incarnation is as quiet as it was dramatic and incredible. And our God is extraordinary precisely because out of His extraordinary love for us, He has, despite being God, freely decided to be ordinary.
Advent is the time for us to prepare ourselves to meet the extraordinary and ordinary God of Christmas. How do we do this? Our Lord gives us a short–but not so simple–advice in today’s Gospel: “Be watchful! Be alert! For you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.”
in other words, the way to prepare to meet the Lord is active waiting. Now, let’s not get him wrong like many people, who think that waiting actively means getting all anxious and obsessed with what’s going to happen in the future. You know what I mean. You may have done it before–or maybe you do it all the time. When you expect something to happen and you’re not sure how it will turn out, you engage in speculation and play the worst possible scenarios in your head. In other words, you catastrophize. Meanwhile, you get all stressed, waste your emotional energy, and just as importantly, allow your obsession with what hasn’t happened yet to keep you away from living the present moment–when in fact, active waiting means doing something good, and the only possible place where we can do something good that’s real is the present moment.
Just last week, a friend of mine shared with me a quotation that she says has been very helpful to her. For me, it captures what active waiting is all about. It reminds us of the value of the present moment, for it is only there that we can meet God. Maybe reading it will help you begin your Advent. Here goes…
There are two days in every week
about which we should not worry,
Two days which should be kept free of fear and apprehension.
One of these days is Yesterday,
With its mistakes and cares,
Its faults and blunders,
Its aches and pains.
Yesterday has passed forever beyond our control.
All the money in the world cannot bring back yesterday.
We cannot undo a single act we performed;
We cannot erase a single word we said.
Yesterday is gone.
The other day we should not worry about is Tomorrow
With its possible adversities, its burdens, its larger promise.
Tomorrow is also beyond our immediate control.
Tomorrow the sun will rise,
Either in splendor or behind a mask of clouds,
But it will rise.
Until it does, we have no stake in tomorrow
For it is as yet unborn.
This leaves only one day – Today.
Any man can fight the battles of just one day.
It is only when you and I add the burdens of those two awful eternities
–Yesterday and Tomorrow–
That we break down.
It is not the experience of today that drives people mad.
It is remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday
And the dread of what tomorrow may bring.
Let us, therefore, live but one day at a time.
To wait actively for the Lord, we need to embrace the only real time available to us–the present moment. Only there will the extraordinary–and ordinary–God of Christmas meet us.