Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season of the Church’s year during which the faithful are invited to prepare themselves for one of the most solemn commemorations of the Church’s year of prayer and worship- the Christ-Mass or Christmas, the day on which Christians mark and remember the birth of God into this world as a child. Yes, it is the distinctly Christian conviction that the one, true God, as an expression of his love for humanity, indeed all of his creation, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life.
God was born into this world, in the same manner that we were all born into this world. This astounding revelation is called the Incarnation, which means that God become man without ceasing to be God. It is this revelation that we Christians believe discloses the meaning and purpose of every human life, indeed the meaning and purpose of creation itself.
In response to the cries that God send someone to save us, to liberate us, to redeem us, God did not just send someone- God came himself!
Thus, each year, the event of God being born into this world is commemorated with great solemnity, and because this revelation is so absolutely extraordinary, the faithful of the Church prepare themselves weeks before the commemoration of Christ’s birth, through a heightened sense of anticipation, through prayer and penance, and festivity and feasting. Christ came, we believe, to draw all people, all creation to himself, and through our Advent observances, Christians seek to draw closer to Christ.
The prayers and scriptures that the Church will invoke and highlight during the Advent season all direct our attention towards Christ’s coming into the world, recognizing the Christ reveals himself in glory, in mystery and in history.
The revelation of Christ in Glory indicates that the one, true God who was born into this world as a man, who lived, suffered and died and, who proved himself more powerful than death in his resurrection, who ascended into heaven, will one day reveal himself to us and in this revelation we will see him face to face.
The Christ who reveals himself in glory will be clearly and undeniably God and anything that would obscure this truth will be removed from our experience of him.
We Christians believe that this revelation will happen at the end of the course of our earthly life- when we die we will encounter Christ in his glory as God. This revelation will dispel all the illusions and shadows of our self-deceptions, saving us from the lies we tell ourselves, redeeming us from the false gods that we create. This encounter will be a moment of judgment and by this is meant that all the pretense of our egoism and the pomp of our worldliness is stripped away and Christ meets us as we really and truly are, not who we have pretended to be.
Thus, the prayers and scriptures of Advent insist we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ in glory, warning us, that now is the moment to prepare ourselves for a face to face, inevitable encounter with Christ- that day will come and on that day, it will be made clear whether we have known Christ as a friend, and have kept him at a distance as a stranger.
How can we then come to know Christ as a friend?
This question is answered when we consider the coming of Christ in mystery, which means that the living presence of Christ is revealed to us in extraordinary ways in the present, in this world, in ways accessible to our experience. It is through these ways of knowing Christ that we enter into relationship with him and become his friend.
What are these ways?
First and foremost, Christ reveals himself in this world in the Church, for the Church is not merely an institution, but the extension, the continuation of the Incarnation in this world. The same divine life and presence that is born into the world reveals himself in the Church, particularly in the Sacraments, and in a most extraordinary way, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The Blessed Sacrament is not just a symbol of Christ or an expression of communal identity, but the Blessed Sacrament is the real and true living presence of Christ himself. It is Jesus Christ that we encounter, adore and receive in the Blessed Sacrament. In this mystery, Christ reveals himself in the world right now.
It is because the Blessed Sacrament is a revelation of Jesus Christ that on the day the Church commemorates his birth, the faithful gather, not to be entertained simply with songs and stories, but to participate in the Mass, the Christ-Mass, where they can encounter, adore and receive the same divine life and presence of Jesus Christ that was revealed in this world as a child over two thousand years ago.
It is not only in the mysteries of the Church and of the Sacraments that Christ comes to us, he also comes to us continues his Incarnation in the suffering bodies of the poor. Christians are not servants of the poor simply because we are good humanitarians, but because we believe that in our service to the poor we serve Christ himself.
This is the reason that during the season of Advent the Church encourages us to be generous to those in need, so that we might come to know Christ personally in his poor, and in coming to know him in his poor, become his friend.
This is also why Christians should not be content with a service to the poor that is reduced to donations to causes or political support for welfare programs. These endeavors are not in themselves, bad things, and are in fact, a matter of justice, but if they prevent us from ever encountering the poor personally, if they keep the poor at a distance, we risk losing the opportunity to know Christ as he wants to be known, personally, as a friend.
Finally, the prayers and scriptures of Advent signal to us the coming of Christ in history, a fact that is evident in today’s Gospel, in which the evangelist, St. Luke, embeds within his testimony references to real historical persons and events. Note St. Luke’s testimony is not, as a fairy tale would be, situated in “once upon a time”, but instead, he references real people and circumstances- Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod the Tetrarch and real places, Judea, Galilee, the region of the Jordan.
This is not merely decorative detail, but an intentional move by the evangelist that is saying- “Look, what I am telling you here is not a myth or a legend or fiction, but eyewitness testimony to events that really and truly happened”. The Gospels are testimony to real people and real events and to the real, living and true God who revealed himself as a real, living divine person in Jesus Christ.
Christians believe that God became man, not because it is an interesting idea, or because it feels good to believe that such a thing could be possible. Christians believe that in Jesus Christ God entered history into an extraordinary way- not as a dream, or as a story in a book, but in human flesh and blood. God became man in history. As the testimony of the Gospel of John insists “the Word (God) became flesh and lived among us”. Christ came to us in history.
The fact of the matter is that God revealed himself to us in history and continues to do so to this very day- in the Church, in the Sacraments, in the bodies of the poor. And in a particular moment in time, he will enter history again. The revelation of Jesus Christ has happened in the past, is happening right now, and will happen in the future.
In history, in mystery and in glory Christ comes to us. Will we be ready to meet him when he comes?
And when we do meet him, will he know us as his friends or as strangers?