Advent is a great time for a retreat. Many folks, however, aren’t able to steal away for three whole days at a time, especially with our culture’s “holiday rush” beginning. So these four weekly reflections, made available on each Friday before the Sunday of Advent, are meant to be a miniature retreat for readers. This four-part retreat (yes, even on paper or on the screen) is intended to help readers awaken, or reawaken, faith in Jesus Christ. In the midst of this “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” it is right to stop for a few moments, even once a week, and remember exactly why we have a reason for Wonder.
The readings for the first Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year may seem odd to some. Isn’t Advent supposed to lead to Christmas, the season when we worship the baby in the manger scene? Why, then, do we hear the Apostle Paul admonishing us against “the works of darkness,” and Jesus speaking to His disciples of the last days? This is supposed to be a season filled with joy and hope and visions of sugar plums and all that, right?
The simple answer is that, during Advent, we anticipate more than the birth of our Lord among human beings (His first Advent). We also prepare for His final Advent at the end of time, the Advent at which we will be judged. These first days of Advent offer a reminder to us that the Lord is coming, and sooner than we might think. While we look forward to celebrating His birth in just a few short weeks, we also anticipate His Second Coming at the end of time with hope-filled longing. At least we should anticipate it that way.
The liturgical readings throughout the whole first week of Advent help us to understand that Jesus will initiate a kingdom of mercy and justice. All nations will be gathered in. The blind will see and the deaf will hear. Broken hearts will be healed. The poor will be elevated as social inequities are turned upside down. More important than any of these, Psalm 147 (recited on Saturday, the feast day of St. Ambrose) reminds us that the Ruler of this kingdom will call each of us by name. The message is clear: Jesus intends to establish one large family among the human race. The great paradox is that those who realize that they aren’t worthy will be the first to enter.
This is truly amazing, but it might startle some of us who aren’t prepared. Therefore, it is good to reflect, during this holy season, on how we feel about the end of days, and about participating in the Eternal Banquet alongside others. There might be some there whom we consider social lepers in this life. There might be some whom we haven’t forgiven of perceived injustices. We must consider the fact that we might hold prejudices and grudges that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings. Upon such consideration, we might experience some distress about whether or not we are worthy of eternal life in the kingdom.
Yet, this moment of humility can be quickly transformed into an act of faith. The transformation happens the moment we call out to Him as the blind men did in the Gospel passage for the first Friday in Advent: “Son of David, have pity on us” (Mt. 9:27)! Just as He healed those men, He can and will make each one of us worthy of the kingdom along with everyone else. He will do so by His overwhelming, all-powerful grace, despite our shortfalls. All we have to do is cry out, “Have mercy on me!”
Faith does not only transform our status for eternity before Jesus. It also has the power to transform the chaotic pace of life between Thanksgiving and Christmas, this season of Advent into which we now enter. Perhaps we find much anxiety within ourselves over the next big seasonal sale, children’s pageants, and obligations to attend or host holiday parties. Those things, as wonderful as they can be, pale in comparison to the encounter with Jesus that is possible through faith. Faith allows us to keep Him at the center of our lives in the midst of a world that would rather see Him pushed to the side during this season.
“Awake from your sleep,” St. Paul exclaims in the second Sunday reading! Our salvation is drawing near! If our appointed end is near, then we probably want to pay attention and make ready for what will happen. Let’s make time to renew our encounter with Jesus through faith: call out to Him in your personal need and ask him to transform your life. Let’s also take time to engage in the works of mercy during Advent, ensuring justice for those who are least among us. In both of these ways, we’ll be well-prepared to greet the Lord when He comes in His final Advent to establish His everlasting kingdom.
This is the first of four weekly reflections on the Advent season. Check back each Friday throughout Advent.