LUKE 21:25-28, 34-36; KEY VERSE: “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (v 28).
If you were to ask Catholics the meaning of Advent, they would most likely respond that Advent is a season of anticipation before Christmas. It’s a time of joy and excitement as we prepare to celebrate the day Jesus was born.
Even secular society sees these weeks before December 25 as a time of anticipation. Children anticipate the arrival of Santa Claus and the gifts he will bring. Families anticipate being together and honouring cherished traditions.
Business owners anticipate a record-breaking volume of sales from in store and online purchases. The post office and shipping firms anticipate delivering hundreds of millions of cards and packages.
Restaurants anticipate catering a full schedule of Christmas and holiday parties. And everyone anticipates increased traffic, longer waiting lines, frayed nerves, and the pressure of getting everything done on time.
But for us as Christians, Advent is about anticipating something more than just Christmas. That is made clear in the Gospel passage chosen for the First Sunday of Advent. That reading (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) is about the cataclysmic events that will accompany the return of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. Even in the midst of the world’s confusion and chaos, Jesus reassures us, “The kingdom of God is near,” as difficult as it may sometimes be to discern its presence. Rather than hunker down, “Stand up,” commands our Lord, “and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
That aspect of Advent is easily forgotten as we prepare to focus on the memorable and cherished events of the Lord’s first coming.
But it was not forgotten by the early Christians. They were focused not on Bethlehem but on the Lord’s return in glory. They waited with eager anticipation for the Lord to come again and to usher in God’s kingdom. All things would be set right; all people would live in peace with one another and with God. The Father’s would be done on earth as it was being done in heaven.
But such anticipation for the coming of the Lord has waned over time. After all, almost 2,000 years have passed since Jesus spoke of his return.
Advent is the season when we learn to overcome our “fear and foreboding” and once more open our hearts to others just as God has disclosed and demonstrated his love for us in Christ. Advent requires a certain element of mindfulness – of keeping awake and alert to the universe around us – and to the cosmos within us. It requires as well, a certain sense of recognition and acceptance of others with all their spiritual baggage and insecurities – no small order in an age of polarization and mistrust.
Of course, being on the spiritual welcoming committee has never been an easy task. Who or what are we waiting for, we might well ask. Who or what are we welcoming? Refugees perhaps, from lands far different than our own? Homeless beggars at freeway on-ramps? Christ after all came in a manner completely new and unexpected. Would we have recognized him at rest in that feed-trough outside Bethlehem so long ago? Would we have known to welcome him? His coming is still hotly debated and even denied, his very existence a sign of contradiction for many.
He brought joy, but we still know sadness. He brought life, but we still know death. So, putting out the welcome mat and hanging the “Open for Business” sign in the window of our hearts can seem a scary proposition this Advent season or anytime. As we secure our airports, screen our visitors, and look over our shoulder it can become all too easy to forget about welcome and human commerce altogether.
It is interesting that at perhaps the busiest time of the year, when so much needs to be done before Christmas, Advent begins with a Gospel reading that reminds us of what truly demands our focus and anticipation.
As we pray at every Mass, may we “be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”