Advent is a time of anticipation, looking forward to the birth of Jesus on Christmas. Of course the anticipation is a liturgical fiction. Jesus was born into the world over 2,000 years ago. Are we playing childish games by entering into such a fictional season of anticipation? No! On the contrary, the sacred liturgy provides us with organized clues as to the importance of anticipating Christ’s coming.
Anticipation is expressed in many ways. A grandmother anticipates the visit of her new baby grandchild with joy. A soldier in a foxhole anticipates an attack with vigilance and anxiety. A little child is sleepless anticipating the celebration of his birthday. A patient in need of surgery finds himself preoccupied and distracted until the day of the scheduled procedure. As we grow older, we silently share the same fear of dying, although we are generally successful in changing the subject. The sacred liturgy teaches us to anticipate every eventuality, even death, with faith.
Advent anticipates the three comings of Christ. Christ is born in history. Christ comes at every Mass we celebrate. And Christ will come again on the last day. The sacred liturgy recognizes the three comings and arouses various emotions depending upon the circumstances of our lives. The liturgy can provoke low-grade anxiety; fear and trepidation; great desire anticipating a joyful reunion. The sacred liturgy helps us to sort out, and to some extent to order our emotions, allowing us to respond, with God’s grace, to our individual spiritual needs.
During the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus warns us that He comes suddenly, “…in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.” (Mk 33:35-37) We prepare for exams, job interviews, important meetings, but we find ourselves sleepwalking, oblivious to Christ’s coming, inattentive to our eternal destiny. So during the First Week of Advent, we’re asked to remember that death can come upon us at any moment. This is a startling thought, if we ponder it. But we’re not dead yet. So like Ebenezer Scrooge after the visit of the three ghosts, we still have time to reform: time to grow in holiness and generosity.
During the Second Week of Advent, St. John the Baptist instructs us to “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” (Mk 1:3) In anticipating his coming, John calls us to clean house for the Divine Visitor, to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. During Advent, a most healthy way to anticipate the coming of the Lord is to make a good Confession and obtain the forgiveness of sin.
The Third Week of Advent reinforces John’s message of repentance. St. John identifies himself as not worthy to untie the sandal strap of the One who is to follow him. Quoting Isaiah the Prophet, he insists of the necessity to anticipate the coming of the Lord when most people are not paying attention: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (Jn 1:23)
It is noteworthy that John preaches repentance to the Chosen People, not the gentiles. Thinking that we as church-going Catholics somehow make up a moral majority (as if we’re immune from the effects of Original sin) is mistaken. We are and will remain a spiritual work in progress. And knowledge of Christ brings a great responsibility. So it is far more accurate to think of ourselves as a people in constant need of repentance.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we anticipate Christmas. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she will bear a son by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Mary responds with perfect faith and trust: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Lk 1:38) The Fourth Sunday anticipates the manifestation of the Child Jesus on Christmas as the Word takes flesh in the womb of Mary nine months before his birth. The joyful mystery of the Annunciation has a very practical application for all time. Nobody can be a true Christian without recognizing the inestimable human dignity of an unborn baby from the very moment of conception.
Like any mother with child, Mary anticipated the birth of the child. But the delight of her anticipation was even greater because of the purity of her faith. Despite the many preoccupations of her life, including the anxiety as to where she and Joseph would reside in Bethlehem the night of the Child’s birth, Mary was sinless in any of the anxieties she may have felt. Armed with the same faith that said “yes” to God through the angel Gabriel, no worry could distract Mary from giving birth to the Child in that manger with joy and love.
A resolve to increase our faith in God’s grace is the key to inflaming our hope and resolve in anticipating our union with Christ and living according to his way. Hence, with every Mass we reverently attend, we not only renew the covenant with the Lord, we increase our faith, hope and charity according to the accents of the liturgical year.
When we allow the Advent season to help us cultivate the emotion of anticipation for our final salvation in Christ, we can begin to sense the possibility of knowing the same joy felt by Mary and Joseph on Christmas. After all, at every Mass during Holy Communion, Jesus is born again into our hearts.
Now is the acceptable time to anticipate the Lord’s birth with a clear faith, firm hope, and good cheer. Be attentive and keep watch.
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