I’ve got to just admit it to myself and get it over with: Advent is my favorite season of the year. I actually kind of like it better than Christmas itself. I mean, who doesn’t want to get right to the gift giving? And I get it: Christmas is pretty important, as the Son of God was born as a man into this world so that men and women may be reborn as sons and daughters of God. We are an Incarnational people. And we also hear so much about how we are an Easter people (and Alleluia is our song!). No doubt, we are nobody without the resurrection. St. Paul reminds us so, that if Jesus did not raise from the dead, we are the most pitiable of all peoples. Easter makes us who we are. But Advent! I love to think that we are as much an Advent people as we are an Easter people. I’d dare say, then, that Christmas and Easter make us who we are, but Advent just as much tells us who we are.
We are an Advent people, a people longing and waiting for Jesus to come back. And we do more than sit and wait. We expect. And that expectation changes us.
And, as Catholics, we have such a richness to understanding what it means for Christ to come back. In the Office of Readings for this first Sunday of Advent, the Church calls to mind St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s beautiful reflection on Christ’s impending return:
We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom…At the first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels. We look then beyond the first coming and await the second. At the first coming we said: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. At the second we shall say it again; we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
The very name of the season comes from the longing and this waiting. Coming from the Latin word adventus, meaning an “arrival,” it is perhaps a translation of the Greek word, parousia. Unfortunately this rich Greek concept has been hijacked by certain rapture theology, claiming that Jesus will come and simply snatch away the righteous, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves through a time of tribulation. But the parousia, promised to us by the Holy Spirit, through St. Paul’s writings, harkens back to the ancient tradition of the king’s “arrival” to a city. Rather than a king coming into town to snatch away his most loyal subjects, the entire town would come out to meet the royal procession, and join the parousia as it makes its way into their home. Christ’s adventus is more than His arrival, but our waiting for Him, our longing for Him, our expectation and going out to meet Him.
But again, as Catholics, we encounter daily a third kind of Christ’s coming. We proclaim that same cry of adoration daily in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, along with the seraphim’s own heavenly cry of adoration in God’s own presence, Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts! We recall Christ’s first humble coming, we eagerly await His glorious return, but every day we encounter His healing and forgiving presence in the Sacraments. And we can’t dare to forget His challenging but no less real presence in the poor and forgotten.
A few years ago, when I went to visit Haiti with my seminary classmates, we spent the week in the poorest slum in Port Au Prince. As we were walking between schools one morning, two large trucks full of soldiers drove by us, armored and holding weapons. The priest we were living with told us all to get back on the bus so we could get out of that part of town. We had thought that maybe a riot was about to start, and we needed to get to safety. So the priest had us taken to an even more dangerous part of town, where there were bullet holes in the roof and you couldn’t take a step anywhere without walking through trash and dirt. We asked him why he brought us to an even more dangerous part of town. He pretty much told us that it was because this is where Jesus is. This is where he is enthroned. He told us that the soldiers were there to protect us, but that we did not need protection from the people we had come to live with and to love. So we came to where Jesus was, because his relationship with us is Eucharistic, it’s not just vertical. It’s horizontal, and because Jesus is one of us and he is God, we must live that way. We must live with the people around us as if Jesus is real and alive. Our relationship with the people of Haiti must be Eucharistic, because that’s what Jesus does.
As we left from Haiti, not really expecting to change anything there by our few days spent getting to know some of the people and their stories, we were the one’s changed by the experience. We went to meet Christ in His poor, our brothers and sisters, and we came back home, hopefully bearing Him with us in some new way. We went out to meet Him and to come back to Los Angeles with Him. As an Advent people, we go out looking for Jesus in the places we might least expect to find Him. But when we find Him, we join the royal procession back home.