We all have our own thoughts about the season preceding Christmas. Some of these thoughts might be grounded in solid theological understanding, after all, it is the beginning of the Church year. Others might be more pedestrian than that, since Advent inhabits the same calendar space as the Christmas shopping season. Our own sentimental reflections and memories can color the way we approach Advent, whether those memories are of hanging ornaments, singing carols or festive parties, or even of personal hurt and pain. Advent, though, is much more than what most of us have come to understand.
More importantly than anything else, the arrival of Jesus is approaching. He wants to arrive within our hearts. He wants to radically convert us and transform us into more than we are. He wants to shake us up and bring something completely new out of us. Advent is the time for a new beginning, for us to allow God to bring us into a new birth.
The word ‘advent’ has Latin roots and means ‘to arrive’. It implies something new or different. Advent, though, is far more than the arrival of the baby Jesus in the sweet pastoral setting we’ve made it. Advent is many things to many people, but few enter this season with the sober intensity it rightly deserves.
Yet, that is what the Gospel readings for Advent tell us. On the first Sunday of Advent, Jesus offers a cryptic, dire warning to the apostles. He tells them to ‘stay awake’. He uses the analogy of a thief coming in the night. Jesus is letting them know that the Son of Man is about to arrive, but they will miss it if they are not paying attention. It is the perfect, prickly opening to this season.
“Adventure” comes from the same root as “advent”, and is defined as an exciting experience, or a bold, usually risky undertaking: a hazardous action of uncertain outcome. Adventure implies risk. The adventurer often places himself in great personal peril to obtain a goal. This definition, if we peer inside the Gospel readings for Advent, brings us much closer to the true meaning of the season, both historically and spiritually.
The Gospel for the second Sunday of Advent brings us John the Baptist, a camel skin-wearing, locust eating wild man from the desert. Like the great prophets before him, he is calling the people to repentance and conversion. When the Pharisees and Sadducees show up, he vilifies them as snakes and evildoers. He forecasts the coming of Jesus, who will sweep them away. This is all very, very dangerous stuff. John was in the middle of an adventure! His words were dangerous and incendiary- definitely hazardous.
If adventure implies risk, it requires courage as a response. Courage is a word loaded with meaning. It’s root comes from the latin “cor”, which is “heart”. The Church, in her understanding of the “heart”, teaches that it is the center of our being, the place only God knows, the place of encounter (CCC 2563). Courage, then is a virtue that wells up from within us. It is a response to danger, the internal motivation that propels us forward. It inspires us to move forward in the face of danger, despair, and hopelessness.
Advent’s third Sunday Gospel opens to inform us that John the Baptist’s antics have landed him in jail. He has irritated and agitated the powers that be, and now they are moving to destroy him. He has acted with the courage of his conviction, without regard for his personal safety or well-being. When John sends a messenger to Jesus, a more prudent man might respond and move on to his next sermon. But not Jesus. He broadcasts his approval of John, telling everyone that John is the one written about in the Scriptures themselves. To add to the point, Jesus says that “none are greater than God”.
A New Beginning
The Church’s new year is filled with things to make us uncomfortable- conversion, repentance, adventure, risk, danger. All of this is the true setting for Christmas. Jesus’ arrival in the world is bold and audacious. It will change the course of human history. It is also meant to change the course of our lives. The call to the Christian life is not an idyllic, pastoral scene. It is, instead, radical and fraught with danger.
It is also the richest, most powerful, and most rewarding life that is available to us. The fourth Sunday of Advent demonstrates all of this. Mary, a single woman, probably about 15 years old, replies ‘yes’ when an angel shows up and says, “You are going to become pregnant- by God Himself.” Joseph, her betrothed, gets his own visit from an angel. He replies “yes”, when the angel says, “Marry the single pregnant girl.” As a parting word, the angel tells Joseph that this child will be the savior that Israel has awaited.
These four weeks of high drama climax with the birth of Jesus, which is its own adventure. Joseph takes his pregnant wife off to Bethlehem because of the census. Jesus is born in a stinky, dirty stable. His crib is a manger, which is rough wooden feed box for animals.
The authentic Christian experience is not easy- so much for “opiate of the masses”. It is a rugged, rough and tumble experience. Whatever it is on the outside, the real struggle of the experience is inside of us. Wrestling with our demons, battling sin, repenting for our wrongdoing, amending how we live, confessing our mistakes. All of this is the stuff that most are unwilling to do.
Stepping into the unknown, where the outcomes could be quite painful, is the way of Christianity. Saying “yes” to God is the beginning of life’s greatest adventure, the amazing, crazy, risky love affair with Jesus. This is the season for what is new. Let us prepare our hearts for the arrival of the One who changes everything, and brings us to new life.