It is my pleasure to host a weekly meeting of adult Catholics at my parish who are preparing for Confirmation, having not received the sacrament in their youth for any number of reasons. It is a pleasant circle: we have coffee and cookies while I go over the heart of the Catholic message as a preparation for their profession of faith at the Cathedral. Last night I was walking them through the Nicene Creed, which we proclaim or recite at every weekend Mass. I fell into the trap of trying to explain the Holy Trinity—how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit compose One God. I did not do a very good job of it and fell back on St. Augustine’s frustration in trying to do the same thing in 400 A.D.
But at least I could console myself that I avoided teaching an even greater mystery, the observance of the Advent Season. In the present Church Calendar, Advent is a devotional season constructed around the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which is permanently set at December 25. Consequently, Advent can extend from 22 days to 28 days depending on which day of the week Christmas falls. This year, 2022, is a long Advent, figuratively speaking, four full weeks. In the United States, ironically, the First Sunday of Advent generally falls on Thanksgiving weekend—no distractions there!
If you ask a liturgist or a specialist in church worship for a definition of the Advent season, he or she would begin with an analysis of the Latin word adventus, which translates to “arrival or coming.” The month of December is thus a period in which the Church prayerfully reflects upon the coming of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one sent by God the Father. However, Christianity has long held—based upon the Bible itself—that Jesus is glorified in two comings—his birth as a human to Mary, and his dramatic coming as judge at the end of time. Advent attempts to do justice to both, and it is not easy, for during Advent we observe the Second Coming first and the First Coming second.
The late Father Raymond E. Brown, in his [severely overpriced] An Adult Christ at Christmas , reminds us that the “Infancy Narratives” or the traditional Christmas stories of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are not soft and cozy narratives to warm our hearts; they are foreshadowings of the suffering of Jesus and those closest to him; “miniature Calvary stories” as one scholar puts it. In this respect the “Christmas Gospels” are of a weave with the “End of the World Judgment Gospels” that open the Advent season. However, we are so conditioned to hearing Luke’s narrative of the Bethlehem scene in our contemporary setting of family reunions and good cheer that the continuity of the first half of Advent [the Second Coming] with the second half [the remarkable events leading to Jesus’ birth] is often lost.
It has been many a year since I was directly involved in catechizing children, so I cannot say with certainty how today’s teachers broach the subject of Advent with children. I can remember in Catholic school being taught that Advent was something of a countdown to Christmas, though it was never clear precisely how we should be preparing ourselves spiritually other than to follow the directives of the Scripture readings at Mass. My motivation for good Advent behavior, I admit, was fear of offending Santa Claus. I can vividly recall, around the second and third grade, being stunned on the First Sunday of Advent with the proclamation of Luke 21: 25-33: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world….” [In the 1950’s the same Gospels were read every year on Sundays; it was not until 1970 that we went to the three-year rotating cycle we have today, Thus, Luke’s apocalyptic message on the First Sunday of Advent was read annually till I was 22, the same year I stopped waiting for Santa.]
Luke 21 was indeed heavy stuff for a nine-year-old who, based upon his religion classes, was expecting to hear about Mary and Joseph packing for Bethlehem on the First Sunday of Advent, and I was still confused that “grown-up Jesus” was the highlight of the Second Sunday. I felt a little better the third week when John the Baptist came into the Mass reading, although he too was grown-up and describing the adult Jesus, the one who was to come after him. Finally, I could breathe easier on the Fourth and final Sunday when Matthew 1: 18-21 described Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy and the angel’s announcement of the birth of Jesus, though I had no idea of the complications involved in the story. To my way of thinking, it took three weeks for the Church to get to the meat of Advent, which I believed to be the Christmas narrative.
I may be wrong, but I suspect that the dynamic of the Second Coming gets lost, not just for kids, but for adults and even preachers, in Catholic life and worship in the Advent season. This came home to me in a powerful way last night with my group. We were wrapping up our discussion of the Nicene Creed, specifically the line “and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I shared with them what I had been taught about judgment, and more to the point, what I had heard countless times as an altar boy at funerals, the gripping hymn “Dies Irae,” [Day of Wrath] possibly written by the Franciscan Thomas of Celano in the thirteenth century:
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How great the tremors there will be,
when the judge comes,
investigating everything strictly!
Dies Irae describes Christ’s glorious return as final judge at the end of time. Our personal judgement, I learned, occurs as soon as we die. We were taught that upon our death our lives would be assessed by God, and that most of us, if we had not died in a state of mortal sin, would spend time in Purgatory [from the Latin purgatorium, a purge] to be cleansed of guilt we bore from a lifetime of imperfection and sin, before we could proceed to the presence of God. Catholics believe that our prayers and good works for the “souls in Purgatory” shorten the period of purgation or purification. While there is an essential truth here, the catechetical and pastoral articulation of Purgatory and judgment is somewhat impoverished today. Purgatory is much more than “paying down your mortgage.” Our failure over the years to think creatively about ultimate encounter with the glorified Christ after death is one of the missing ingredients of our present-day Advent observance. Or, put another way, how do we talk about our own judgment?
As my wagon continues to rumble toward the inevitable end of my earthly existence, I have given more thought to the reality of judgment. Given my background in both theology and psychology, my meditations on life after death have taken me in the direction of judgment and Purgatory as painful encounters with the Holy Spirit, who infuses in us the wisdom to see our lives as they really unfolded. Put another way, we will suffer from an encounter with the truth about ourselves. On earth, we can hide, divert, ignore, or busy ourselves against the Spirit’s gift of insightful truth. But after death, we cannot run from such knowledge any longer.
In talking to my class, I gave them my ideas about the truths I would encounter after my death. First, the reality of how much Jesus loves me and how little I have done in my lifetime to walk with him in Scripture reading and prayer. In early elementary school I was taught that if I were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have come down from heaven and gone through his sacrificial life just for me. That impressed me as a little kid; as an adult, I know—intellectually—that such is the case, but the enormity of that truth is only now beginning to penetrate my religious obtuseness. It is a blessed knowledge but a searing one as I reflect upon how little of that love I have reciprocated, or even recognized.
A second painful truth which I believe is only fully understood after death is the reality of how hurtful my sins of omission and commission have been for those who were the object of my selfishness or neglect. A third truth, related to the second, is the extraordinary number of wonderful people I have come to know in my life’s journey, and how much I missed by not taking more time to engage in their goodness in response to their invitations to me. And finally, I believe the Spirit will make clear to me the personal, material, and spiritual gifts I received over a lifetime in contrast to how I recognized and utilized those gifts for the service of the world. So much wasted time! So little Christian focus!
In retrospect, there is probably an “Advent logic” in devoting the first 75% of the season to a liturgical orientation to Christ’s Second Coming. To reflect upon the encounter with Christ’s Spirit of Truth at the end of our time is the greatest incentive to intensifying our present union with Jesus, whose earthly story the Advent season introduces on December 17 and continues through Christmas and the full liturgical year. In an introduction to Fleming Rutledge’s powerful new work, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ , Professor Michael J. Gorman writes: “Advent is not merely preparation for Christmas, much less ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ It is, rather, the season of difficult yet hopeful watching, waiting, and participating—the season that encapsulates the Christian life between Christ’s first and second coming.”
On My Mind