Today, the Church here and throughout the world begins the season of Advent.
Advent is a time of heightened expectation and vigorous preparation for the solemn celebrations of the Christ-Mass, or the day that is popularly known as Christmas.
The Christ-Mass is offered on December 25th and it is meant to evoke gratitude and wonder for the coming of God into this world as a man. We Christians believe that some two thousand years ago in the land of Israel, the eternal God, the one, true God, accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life. He took the name Jesus and revealed himself as the Savior of the world and rescued us from the dark powers of sin, death and the devil.
We Christians believe that the coming of God in Christ into the world as a man is not a myth or a legend, but a fact of real history. Jesus of Nazareth is not just a symbol of God, but he is God, who makes of his human nature a kind of bridge or route of access by which we can know him as the one, true God.
When we read the Scriptures or hear the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass, we are invited to listen and learn, not just to “important life lessons about faith and values” or to experience “entertaining stories of a faith-based nature”, but we listen and learn to the great story of how God came into this world in Jesus Christ and offered to the world, through Jesus Christ, the way of knowing him, loving him and serving him.
This great story is for us Christians a real story.
The Christ-Mass is offered nine months to the day the Church commemorates the first moment that God entered into this world through the womb of his mother.
This is meant to signal to us that we are recalling a real person and real events, not legends, myths or symbols.
God does not, in Christ, reveal himself simply in legends, myths or symbols, or simply in ideas or emotions. God does not, in Christ, limit his revelation to the limited spaces of our minds and hearts, but comes into this world in flesh and in blood. He does not come to entertain us, but to save us from sin, death and the devil, but also, and perhaps most importantly, to save us from ourselves.
Jesus Christ is a real, living, divine person. He is God, who accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. He is not just one of many great men of history, but he is the eternal God, the one, true God, who, because he loves us and his creation, revealed himself to the world in an extraordinary way.
Advent is meant to be a time when we Christians come to terms with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
We are invited to repent and detach ourselves from those things in our lives that prevent us from knowing, loving, and serving Jesus Christ, but also we are invited to deepen our relationship with Christ through a careful consideration of the Scriptures and an intensification of our participation in the Sacraments. Further, we are invited to seek Christ’s divine presence as he offers himself to us, particularly in the Blessed Sacrament, and in our loving service to the suffering bodies of the poor.
Finally, lest our efforts simply remain on the surface, and prove ultimately to be truncated and self-referential, we are invited to repent of our sins and seek renewed conversion to Christ. Our defiance of Christ need not be thought of in the most dramatic terms, for most, turning away from Christ happens through a low key indifference, a reduction of Christ’s significance, keeping Christ at a distance from our lives as we pursue our own interests.
This low key indifference is as dangerous to the soul as the most wicked refusals of God’s commandments because it makes Christ into a stranger, rather than accepting him as a friend, and reduces God to an object we use when we need him, rather than a living, divine person with whom we share a very real relationship.
One of the great practices of the season of Advent is the renewal of our relationship with God in Christ by humbly accepting the Sacrament of Penance. It is in this Sacrament that the mercy of God in Christ is given to us and a relationship with Christ, compromised by low key indifference, is brought into proper perspective.
As Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized, the Sacrament of Penance is not an option, but a necessity for us. The Sacrament of Penance is how the mercy of God in Christ enters into our lives and transforms us. But it seems, that for many, listening to what Pope Francis says (as it was with his predecessors) is more of a matter of hearing what we want him to say, rather than actually listening to him and doing what he asks.
If we truly attend to the season of Advent as a time of repentance and renewal we will notice that what the Church asks of us in terms of our preparations for the Christ-Mass is very different than how the culture prepares itself for Christmas.
For the Church, this time is about Christ, while for the culture, it is about ourselves. For the Church, this time is about what God wants, while for the culture it is about getting what we want. For the Church, this time is about the reality of God’s love coming to us in the flesh, while for the culture, it’s all about a fantasy that takes the form of a consumer product.
There is great pressure on the Church to keep its unique celebration under wraps and behind closed doors. But how can we do that and truly call ourselves faithful to Christ who did not hide his love away, but made it accessible to us in real flesh and real blood?
One last insight:
The great saints and sages of the Church remind us that Christ reveals himself in past, present and future. In the past, he revealed himself to us as a man. In the present, he makes himself known in the Church. In the future, he will meet us face to face.
Advent is about all three revelations. And all three revelations are about knowing, loving, and serving Jesus Christ.
And all three revelations beg each of us to answer truthfully: Do I know Christ? Do I love Christ? Do I serve Christ?
It is now Advent and it is time for us to come to terms with our answers to these questions.