This morning in church I thought how rich a season this is, this season of Advent, this season of coming, these four weeks in which we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation, the festival known as Christmas.
I continue giving thanks, thanksgiving that our culture still recognizes the feast of Christmas. There remains among us a spirit of giving, of love, of sharing. True, we are bombarded by ads and the commercialization of this pre-Christmas time, but even so, the ads enjoin us to give, to buy gifts for friends and loved ones. St. Nicholas with his bags of gold for the maidens who wanted to marry returns as Santa Claus in the malls to question children as to their gift lists. His presence (and presents) assures them this is a magical, a mystical, season.
True also, we as a culture seem to have lost the reason for the magical mystery that weaves through these twenty-five days. Yet weave into our hours and days it does, and we buy fir trees to festoon with lights and hang sparkly, memorable ornaments on bits of wire. We light our trees and stack our gifts, mysteriously hidden beneath wrappings and ribbons. These traditions pull us through an unbelieving desert, a parched time, hopefully to a time of belief once again.
Those of us who believe already in the Incarnation of God in Christ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, a historical intersection of eternity with time, sometimes become impatient and critical of the mania that seems to possess the rest of us, according to the media, as though their madness pollutes our holy time. But perhaps we should be grateful that folks want to buy gifts for others, and that retailers offer discounts so that they can do just that.
Those of us who believe already in this God of love and joy and salvation and eternal life need not pay much attention to the crowds storming the stores. We begin a lovely and sensitive time, a delicious time, this time of little Lent, a time of waiting for the great Advent of Our Lord, the coming of this child born to a young virgin in a manger-cave. Today, on this first Sunday in Advent, we begin our prayers fitfully, each evening, saying the assigned Collect, a prayer that gathers us all together, collects our minds and hearts:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
We wait and we watch. We put upon us the armour of light. We lighten, enlighten, our homes to prepare for this great coming of Christ. We teach our children the meaning of the twinkling stars on the sweet smelling branches and the four Advent candles we light in turn each week, as we count the days and wait and hope and pray for our redeemer to come to earth. It is a dark time in a sense, a time of watching for the greatest light to appear among us, a light to banish the dark, a glorious light.
We sing carols to tell the ancient story, a story renewed each year, one that settles into our souls like seeds planted in fertile ground, seeds sprouting from our watering. The carols are part of the watering. Worship in church in Advent is part of the watering. The seeds feed too upon our prayers and the words we commit to our minds and hearts in these holy weeks.
Advent is a great reminder. It is a season set apart from the rush of shopping and decorating, or perhaps a season overlaying this rushing busy-ness. Somehow Advent intersects our time, just as God intersected all time and became one of us. Advent reminds us of the great truth, the great reality, the great love of God for each of us. For a few days and weeks in the cold of winter and the long dark of night we are reminded that our lives have meaning, that each of us is a star in God’s heart. We are reminded that “he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, (and that) we may rise to the life immortal…” We are told once again that God loves us… that he loved the world so that he gave his life so that we might have everlasting life. And it all began in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. It all began beneath a starry sky as angels sang and shepherds knelt and kings offered their gifts.
So too we offer gifts to one another at Christmas. So too we kneel before the manger and before the altar where Christ is rebirthed with each Mass. So too as we receive him in this purple penitential season, our hearts are washed clean and our souls watered anew. So too we sing our praises with the angels on high.
Some call these stories myths. But myths are true. They tell the greatest truths of all, who we are, who we are meant to be. They answer the great questions why and how? They tell of God our creator, of Christ our redeemer. They tell us of love incarnate. These myths tell a glorious truth.
We light our Advent candles, the single purple one this first evening. Slowly, as we learn our Collect by heart, engrafting the words onto our souls, we change into something slightly different than we were before, something slightly more glorious, something slightly closer to heaven, something holy, as we taste a bit of heaven in this holy season.
This is the adventure of Advent, the coming of Our Lord upon earth.