By Jonathan A. Mitchican
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which makes it the beginning of a new liturgical year. Advent is a misunderstood and often forgotten season. Our culture has already moved on to Christmas. I saw the first Christmas stuff in the stores in September this year.
But even if you’re someone who likes to wait, by the time Thanksgiving is done, you’ll find that Christmas is hard to avoid. The music is on the radio, the decorations line the streets, the sales are on in the stores. And, to a certain extent, there’s nothing wrong with participating in the cultural phenomenon of Christmas a little bit. Some of it’s all in good fun. There’s a wonder and magic to the anticipation of Christmas. So enjoy it. Don’t get all self-righteous when your coworker starts humming a Christmas tune and tell him to keep his “fa la las” to himself.
We can participate in our culture’s happy anticipation of Christmas, but there’s a danger for us, as Catholics, if we don’t also engage in the season of Advent. Because the cultural Christmas that’s happening around us is so all-encompassing, we can fall into the trap of thinking that Advent is just about preparing for Christmas. The word Advent means coming, and so yes, we are preparing for our annual celebration when we remember the Lord’s coming into the world as a baby in a manger. But that’s only the secondary purpose of Advent. Its primary purpose is for us to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s second coming.
Jesus says, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” We may not know what we’ll face tomorrow, or next week, or even next year, but we know how all this ends. Jesus will return and take his rightful place as the Lord and King of all creation. And when he does, everything will change. All what’s been wrong will be set right. We will be judged. All that’s evil will be cast out. All that’s good will be blessed and strengthened. Jesus will return. This is incredibly good news! And it comes for us with a great deal of responsibility.
“You know what hour it is,” says Paul, “how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep.” We know that Jesus is coming, yet we spend so much of our lives just sleepwalking from one thing to the next, not paying attention, not preparing ourselves for what we know is about to happen. We know Christmas is coming. We feel that pressure acutely. Only so many days left to buy gifts and wrap them, to put the tree and the lights out, to make travel plans.
We know that the day when we remember the Lord’s first coming requires us to prepare, yet we often forget that the day of the Lord’s second coming also requires preparation. Jesus is coming. He’s on his way to set the world right. Have we prepared a place for him, in our homes and in our hearts? Are we repenting of our sins and relying on his mercy, or saying that Confession and repentance can wait for another day?
Are we taking care of the things that have been given to us for stewardship — our children, our planet, even our own bodies — so that we can hand them back to God better than how we found them, or are we just going through the motions, always consuming and using, never conserving and building up? Do we know — I mean, do we really know — that Jesus is returning, or is it just some religious idea to which we pay lip service?
Advent is the first season of the liturgical year. That’s not by accident. For us as Christians living in between the time of the Lord’s Ascension and his Second Coming, every day is Advent. And Jesus warns us sternly about the consequences of not being prepared, that they’re the same as they were for those in the days of Noah who weren’t prepared for the flood. And yes, that should frighten us a little.
But this isn’t all meant to be ominous. After all, Advent is ultimately good news: whatever terrible things are happening in the world, they won’t last. Whatever ways in which the evil have taken the upper hand and oppressed the good, justice will be done in the end. Whatever hardships and suffering you’ve had to endure in your life, it will only make the light that is in you shine that much brighter when it’s finally united with the light of Christ.
And so just as our preparation for Christmas is often joyous, our anticipation of the Lord’s return can also be joyous. Even those things that can make this time of year difficult for some of you — the heartaches and the loss — Advent says that all of that will be set right when the Lord returns, all that’s been lost will be restored, all that’s been broken will be made new.
Prepare yourself and your family. Care for this world and the people who live in it. Ignore the naysayers who wring their hands and counsel despair. The Lord is coming, and you know it. Live like you know how the story ends.
The Rev. Jonathan Mitchican is chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas.