On the Advent season
Unlike possibly most of you, I did not have the advantage of a Catholic school education. Instead, I had an hour a week of what was titled “Religious Education” allowed by the State of New York. Most of my classmates had attended Holy Cross Catholic School for their first eight grades before migrating to the public high school. This weekly hour was limited in scope to the basic Baltimore Catechism and devoid of any church history or more advanced ideas. I occasionally come across an idea that may have been explained in a more enhanced presentation or perhaps had been explained to me but did not make a lasting impression.
We are almost midway through the season of Advent. This year, I learned or relearned the meaning of the season of Advent. The word itself is from Latin and means the approach of someone or something of importance. Until this year, I had assumed this to be Christmas and the nativity of Christ.
For the first 400 years of the church’s existence, the Advent had little or nothing to do with the birth of Christ. These four centuries were a time of persecution and expectation of the second coming of the church. The gospels spoke of Christ’s return, which was believed to be imminent. How could Christ allow these persecutions to continue? After the Empire declared Christianity to be an acceptable religion, the belief that the second coming was imminent lost much of its urgency, and Advent slowly began to take on the mission of preparing the faithful for the birth of Christ.
The constant commercial hype for the celebration of Christmas, the parades and the parties do much to further this theme. Do not misunderstand me. There is nothing basically wrong with parades and parties, etc., as long as we do not lose sight of the Advent season and its idea of preparation and hope. The church devotes the readings during the fourth week exclusively to the coming nativity.
The readings for the first three weeks can be interpreted as leading to either the birth or the second coming. I believe they tend to speak of the second coming more than the birth. The gospel reading for the first Sunday is from Matthew and tells us to stay awake, to be prepared for we do not know when He is coming. Pray, forgive those who have offended you, go to Reconciliation and be prepared for the second coming. Buy your gifts, mail your cards, get your house decorated, for Christmas is coming.
The first reading from Isaiah speaks of the coming, when he shall build his house upon the highest mountain and he shall bring an end to war. Isaiah wrote 700 years before the birth and, to me, this reading speaks of the second coming most directly. Some believe now that the book of Isaiah was written over a period of about a hundred years by at least three individuals. The second reading is from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans. St. Paul tells them and us that the hour is at hand, the night is nearly over and we need to put on Christ, for the hour of our redemption is nearer than we thought. Again, be prepared but also hopeful.
The gospel reading for the second Sunday, also from Matthew, speaks of our coming baptism. John the Baptist was baptizing with water but that another was coming who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. He shall judge, rewarding those who are deserving and casting the rest into eternal fire. “He shall separate the wheat from the chaff.” The first reading, also from Isaiah, also tells us that someone is coming — “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” — and Isaiah speaks of judgment and of a reign of peace and coexistence after the coming. St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes of hope. Hope that what has been written will instruct and lead them and us to lives of peace and harmony. We do not live in a world of peace and harmony; the lion has yet to lay down with the lamb.
Advent begins by reminding us we must always be prepared for the second coming, for we do not know when that will occur. Advent is also a time to prepare for the nativity of our Lord, one of the most universal celebrations of all. Advent is also a season of hope. Isaiah spoke of a time when the lion shall lay down with the lamb. That peace shall be universal and a time when we shall treat each other as equals.
I was at St. Joseph’s in Waxahachie last weekend, and the deacon, in his homily, reminded us that there is a third coming. A universal coming that we all shall experience. We have heard this theme before, when the Deputy Grand Knight reminds us that death is universal. We should be mindful that we shall all experience this third coming; we just do not know when or where. We should always be prepared for the coming of our Lord as we pass from this existence to the next.
This theme that Advent speaks of both the first and second coming is also expressed in the songs we sing at Mass during the first three weeks. Pay attention to the words, and you will come to realize that many emphasize the second coming more that the birth.