The Voice of Advent
by Joan Chittister
“‘Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking
for someone else?’ Jesus told them, ‘Go back to John and tell him what
you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are
cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is
being preached to the poor.’” (Matthew 11:3-5, NLT)
When the first small flame of the Advent wreath lights the monastery chapel and the soft, clear voices of those who have sung the chants and haunting melodies all their lives open the first of the Advent vigils, there is no doubt that we have begun a moment out of time. It is the beginning of the liturgical year: Christmas is four weeks away. We are at the moment in which a new cycle of old ideas will be stirred up again within us. We are beginning a spiritual crossing on dark waters led only by an ancient sailing chart marked by a star. Here in the dark we will begin the search for light in the soul.
Advent is not the oldest season in the church. Easter, the Pasch or Passover, is far older, by at least two hundred years. Advent did not begin in Rome. In fact, the earliest mention of a period of preparation for Christmas didn’t exist until 490 in Gaul, what is now modern France.
We are not here in this dark chapel tonight, then, because Christmas is the high point of every church year, and Advent its most profound season. The church year does not start here because Christmas is coming. The church year starts here to remind us why Jesus was born in the first place. Most of all, it starts here to call us to determine why we ourselves are here at all.
Advent, from the Latin, means “coming.” But Advent is not about one coming; it about three comings. The great spiritual question the season poses for each of us is, which coming are you and I waiting for now? At this moment in our lives, at this present stage of our spiritual development, what we’re waiting for surely determines how we will wait for it.
Each of the three comings of Advent is very different. The first coming is the remembrance of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh, based on the infancy narratives in the Gospels that give its historical context. But if our expectation of Christmas remains on this level, the birthday of the “baby Jesus” becomes at best a pastoral attempt to make Jesus real. This Jesus is a child’s Jesus that, too often – if our definition of Christmas is simply a child’s story about the birth of a child – will remain just that. It is a simple, soothing story that makes few, if any, demands on the soul.
This coming too often leaves us, whatever our age, at the stage of spiritual childhood. The baby Jesus captivates our hearts, true. But the birth date of this child is not one of the great mysteries of the faith. As Augustine pointed out, “The day of the Lord’s birth does not possess a sacramental character. It is only a recalling of the fact that he was born.”
The next coming to which Advent calls our attention is a coming greater than the simple fact of human birth. This is the coming of the presence of God recognized among us now in Scripture, in the Eucharist, in the community itself. This coming makes Jesus present in our own lives, eternally enlivening, eternally with us.
The final coming to which Advent points us is the Second Coming, the Parousia. It is this coming that whets the desire of the adult soul. At the end of time, Jesus has promised and the Christian believes that the Son will return in glory. Then the reign of God for which we strive with every breath will come in all its fullness. This is the coming for which we wait. This is the fullness for which we long. This is what we really mean when the choir sings into the dark, “Maranatha.” “Come, Lord Jesus, come” is one rendering of the word. But taken from the Greek, as maran atha – two words – “The Lord has come” is another equally acceptable translation. Then the comings – past, present, and future – all live together in one long sigh of the soul.
Over the centuries and out of many traditions, Advent as we know it now has emerged to center us in these multiple layers of awareness, in these many levels of faith, in these varied plies of spiritual maturity. We grow from one to the other, realizing as we do, that life is about more than the past, even about more than the present, and certainly, in the end, about the fullness of a future that is far longer than even our own.
Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas but, unlike Lent, it is not a period of penance. It is a period that focuses us on joy. We prepare ourselves to understand the full adult meaning of the feast. We come to realize more each year how great are our blessings, how beautiful is a life lived in concert with the Jesus who came to show us the way. We learn the joy of anticipation, the joy of delighting in a sense of the presence of God all around us, the joy of looking for the second coming of Christ, the joy of living in the surety of even more life in the future.
Are you preparing for Christmas by focusing on joy? Prioritize your time and thoughts this year and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas through advent.
“Come, Lord Jesus, and center this season around You. Thank You for Your birth, life, death and resurrection. Help me to focus on the true meaning of Christmas and the joy of Advent.”
Sister Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun and international lecturer. Her book The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life – The Ancient Practices Series is available at Amazon and Christian Book Distributors. This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Thomas Nelson, Inc.