It is nearly impossible to remove from our minds the association of Advent with the birth of Jesus and a host of holiday expectations that now precede Christmas by at least two months. This is a secular holiday upon which a large part of the economy depends; so, in this secular context, the birth of Jesus is important only insofar as it can be used to prompt selling and buying. This is perhaps not good, but it is not entirely bad either. A season of gift-giving, family gatherings, special meals, and celebration can (notwithstanding the unavoidable stress) build up families and communities. The wise men from the East brought gifts. The exchange of gifts can be a beautiful act of love.
For a few moments and with some effort, however, we are invited to step out of the world, which is what we do every time we come to church, and live and breathe the church’s own liturgical life, which is, fundamentally, the active and real presence of Christ. Christ is here and Christ speaks, and today he says nothing of his birth. He speaks not of his first Advent, his first arrival, but of his final coming at the close of the age. Speaking of the end of all things, Jesus says, “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36). “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42). Keep vigil and be ready. The Lord is coming and you do not know when. The Nicene Creed uses the future participle to highlight the immediacy and suddenness of Christ’s final coming, saying, “he is about to come to judge the living and the dead.” The customary English translation, using the future tense (he will come), obscures this entirely. He is about to come at any moment!
And indeed, just as he will come at the end in a moment of time we cannot know, he is coming moment by moment in what one theologian has called the middle Advent. Jesus came in his infancy, and he will come at the end of time, and he is arriving now in both grace and judgment. This is the moment, St. Paul tells the church in Rome, when we are called to “wake from sleep.” The day of the Lord’s arrival is near, and so, “Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires” (Rm. 13:12-14). Having put on the Lord Jesus in baptism, we “lay aside the works of darkness” and walk honorably in the light.” This transformation is in progress. Stay alert to the coming of Christ moment by moment so that “when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, [you] may rise to the life immortal” (Collect).
Advent is the time of waiting, the time of expectancy, the recognition that Christ is coming now in his Spirit and will come again in radiant glory. Strikingly, there is a long tradition of welcoming the arrival of Christ in the dark hours just before dawn. One Latin hymn for the morning pleads, “Bear away the darkness of minds” (Aufer tenebras mentium), “put to flight the crowd of demons” (fuga catervas daemonum), “expel drowsiness” (expelle somnolentiam). Wake up. Keep watch for the urgent presence, grace and judgment.
Look It Up: Rom. 13:13
Think About It: Do not sleepwalk toward death. Open your eyes. Keep vigil.