This Sunday we begin a new liturgical year as we enter the Season of Advent. As you know, Advent is a time of preparation and anticipation, as we await the coming of Our Lord on Christmas Day. And already you can see some differences even here in the church. We add the Advent wreath which helps us countdown the four weeks until Christmas. We sing hymns about God's coming like “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” or “O Come Divine Messiah,” or “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” We wear vestments in the color violet, a color which symbolizes a time of preparation. Basically, every external thing we do during the season of Advent points to one fact: it’s not yet Christmas, and that’s OK. Advent is the season of “soon, but not yet”. Soon, Christmas will be here — soon, Jesus will come, but not yet.
If you take a moment to think about it, though, we’re terrible at Advent. And that’s simply because we live in a world which doesn’t enjoy “soon, but not yet” and instead loves “now”. All the seasonal indicators already point to Christmas — the stores had Christmas decorations in the aisles months ago, radio stations play Christmas music nonstop, Starbucks has the red cup out. Externally, there is no difference between today and December 25th — the world wants Christmas without Advent, and it wants it now. Even as Catholic Christians we fall into the temptation of wanting something so badly that we give up the waiting for it. And I’m right there with you. I was that kid who skipped ahead a couple of days in the chocolate Advent calendar. We have to realize that waiting, preparing, anticipating — are all God given gifts, they are part our very being, it is natural to being a human.
Let me give you an example. In my own life most of my peers in their late twenties are doing two things. They are either (A) engaged to be married or (B) expecting a child. And they are in a period of waiting and preparation which is vital and necessary for their future lives. To think of a marriage without anticipation — without the journey of falling in love and learning how to love, learning commitment and sacrifice — it doesn’t make much sense. To think of having a child without those months of pregnancy — of learning from others how to parent, how to change a diaper, how to hold a baby — it doesn’t make much sense. Being engaged, expecting a child, these are both precious moments of “soon, but not yet”. Moments when God is allowing us to grow deeper in our love, to ready ourselves for the gifts He has in store. That is precisely how Advent works; we each are in a period of preparation because we have a longing for something in our heart, and when we patiently await its coming, we grow deeper and deeper in love. Advent, along with being a season of preparation, is a season of longing — of entering into that longing we each have to experience the grace of Jesus Christ who comes at Christmas.
In the last couple of weeks we’ve been watching that short video by Matthew Kelley which asks us to have “the best Advent ever”. At first I thought that was sort of a strange line, but after some prayer it really does make a good point. Because it’s so easy to recall memories of Christmas last year, of spending time with family and friends, of attending Christmas Mass, of giving and receiving presents. But can you recall a memory about Advent? A time in Advent when you had a life-changing experience, a moment of grace, a lasting memory? It’s hard for me to do so. And that’s why this year we need to approach this season differently, like never before.
Today St. Paul tells us: “it is now the hour for [us] to awake from sleep, for our Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” That word “awake” has a deeper meaning than to just to get out of bed. In it’s context, originally in Greek, we could translate it as “to be alive” — “be alive,” because salvation is nearer than ever before. To be alive in our relationships, to see grace in our marriages and in our family life. To be alive in our community, to give of ourselves and help others with our time, money, or talent. To be alive in our faith — to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to take time to pray each day. These are all ways we can come alive this year, to make this the best Advent ever.
And remember, too, that becoming alive includes realizing the fact that where we are now, is much different than where we were before. This Advent is unlike any other because in this moment you are unlike how you’ve ever been in the past. Perhaps you had a spectacular past year: full of successes, of joys, of advances in life — you’ve never been happier with where you and your family are this year. Perhaps you’ve had a difficult year: you‘ve experienced failure or suffering, or heart-break, or you lost a loved one and this is the first holiday season without that person. Wherever you are in life, it’s a different place than you were a year ago, and a new opportunity to have the best Advent ever. And Advent where we each slow down, become alive, and enter into joyful anticipation.
I’d like to end this week’s homily with the short story of Father Alfred Delp. Father Alfred was a little known German Jesuit during the Second World War, who helped encourage faithful Catholics to resist Nazi Rule. Eventually he was sent to prison where he was held captive and tortured for nine months leading up to his execution. While in prison, Father Alfred was confined to his cell where he wrote reflections on his experience which he compared to Advent. They were eventually published and entitled “An Advent of the Heart”. Near the end of his time Father Alfred wrote this: “It is time to awaken from sleep. A waking up must begin somewhere. It is time to put things back where God intended them. It is time for each of us to go to work – certain that the Lord will come – to set our life in God’s order wherever we can. Light your candles where ever you can. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, what Advent must be, if we want to live.”
My friends in these precious weeks of preparation and anticipation we come alive to God’s grace in our lives. We stay awake to see where it is the Lord wants to lead us. We light candles of faith, hope, and love to show others and ourselves the way. And we patiently wait — because we know that the Lord is coming soon, just not yet.