By Sam Keyes
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.”
Advent is the season of waiting — in a way that is similar to Lent, but different. If you look at the liturgical texts, a certain difference emerges. In Lent we prepare for the Feast of the Resurrection; so the penitence and fasting and discipline is focused on the right observance of a great celebration. With Advent, there’s some of that, because obviously Christmas is a great feast. Yet the Advent texts aren’t focused on Christmas, at least at first, as much as they are on the second coming, and the final judgment.
With Lent and Easter, I think, this makes sense to us. Because Easter is a reminder of God’s victory on our behalf; it’s that annual reincorporation into the meaning of baptism and Eucharist: that in Christ we have died, and in Christ we can rise again. That is the basic sense of Easter; it’s why Easter, despite the best attempts of the market, has never been commercialized quite as successfully as Christmas, because it is hard to make a generic secular message out of the theme of Christ trampling down death with death and bringing life to those in the grave.
With Christmas, though, there’s a baby, and a birth, which seems so much more normal, and innocuous, and so over the years it has morphed into that generic celebration of life and family and consumerism that we all know and love. But none of this makes a whole lot of sense with the message of Advent and Christmas as the Church actually presents it. Somehow, if we’re to take the texts seriously, Christmas is about joy, yes, and comfort, but also judgment, the day of the Lord, the end of the world, the dissolution, as St. Peter writes, of the world in fire and loud noise.
Recently my wife reminded me of this classic Mr. Rogers song: “I think it’s very very very hard to wait / Especially when you’re waiting / For something very nice / I think it’s very very very hard to wait.” On a practical level, that obviously applies to Christmas. This week we got some presents from my in-laws. They’re wrapped. They’re visible. But they must not yet be opened. That’s hard. And so we thought it better to hide them, because small children are not actually very good at waiting. And I think as well of the countless people who just cannot wait to put up their Christmas decorations — whether it’s at the stroke of midnight after Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or December 1 — or any number of other dates. This year, more than ever, I understand the longing for Christmas cheer. But what are we actually celebrating?
Is Christmas “something very nice,” in the words of Mr. Rogers? Well, yes and no. It’s the appearance, in the flesh, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And this is cause for joy, as the angelic hosts proclaim. But it is also cause for fear and trembling, as the angelic hosts also proclaim. For a baby, like the Lord, comes in the night as a thief. And his arrival is a cause for terror as much as joy.
In a way, I think that every parent knows this. I have four children, and at the birth of each one, I burst into uncontrollable tears. I really have no idea why. It’s not like I was the one doing the real work. It just happened. Yes, they were happy tears. But they were also tears of fear and sadness, and confusion, and being overwhelmed by the gravity of life and death and everything.
Like any other birth, the birth of the incarnate God is a judgment on us. It’s not a simple gift of cupcakes and flowers. It is the embrace of a hard, demanding love, a love that goes beyond death. And so Advent is not just waiting as in waiting to open our presents; it’s waiting so that we can be ready to receive the challenge that is God incarnate, the challenge that is God entering our lives and giving us the grace to do his will.
Back to 2 Peter: the idea of the elements melting and being dissolved in fire is a favorite, as it were, of a certain Protestant contempt for creation — the idea that it doesn’t matter what we do with this world because it’s all going to burn. But such an emphasis neglects the actual climax of the passage, which echoes that of Revelation: according to Peter, “we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” For Peter, as for John in Revelation, it is exactly because this world is passing away that we must take it seriously. This world isn’t a trial run. It’s not a beta test. It is the actual preparation of the world to come, and this preparation has an end point that we do not know. And so this waiting isn’t just a test of patience and resolve, it’s a procession of transformation in which we open ourselves, over the course of the Christian year, over the course of a lifetime of Advents, to the life of the new kingdom that Christ brings.
As John the Baptist calls us over the next couple of weeks to new repentance, to a preparation for the Lord’s coming, God help us to heed his warnings and forsake our sins, to “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light,” judging ourselves as we will one day be judged, so that when the Lord does come — whether at Christmas, or at the end of the world, or even today at this altar — he will find us, as one old prayer says, a mansion prepared for himself.
The Rev. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.