Monday, November 30, 2009

Because Advent Has Never Been Better

I remember the feeling last year: my first Advent as a Catholic! What a thrill that was, to experience the anticipation, joy, and depth of meaning fully for the first time in my life. This year? With apologies to B.B. King, the thrill is definitely not gone. I picked up today's Office of Readings and found a reading that just couldn't possibly have been there last year! How could I have missed this?

From a pastoral letter by Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop

Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awatired by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. 

The story of Simeon has always touched something deep in me. I think I knew it even as a child and it gave me a shiver then. He's happy to die! Now that he has seen the Lord, he's happy to die. 

This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. 

How I celebrate Advent is really important. In recent years, I had become something of a Scrooge. The period between Thanksgiving (all that food) and Christmas (all that shopping) had become more stressful than I could bear. Last year, its meaning was completely transformed: I am a Catholic now. It's time to be vigilant! Emmanuel is coming!

In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the sees of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.

Get a load of that one long sentence. Imagine that every promise in that sentence is precisely, literally true! To be welcomed into the innermost recesses of heaven? To be trained in right conduct? To be a child of God? I want in! 

Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ's coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all. We shall share his power, if through holy faith and the sacraments, we willingly accept the grace Christ earned for us, and live by that grace and in obedience to Christ.

Christ is born today! Isn't that what the carol says? Have you ever considered that these words are not a fragment of dialogue from 2,000 years ago but a statement of fact? 

The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace. 

This is the best explanation of the Second Coming I have ever heard. I mean, I'm willing to believe that Christ will come again as in a sort of Cecil B. DeMille epic in the full splendor of IMAX some day. But I've never marked the date on a calendar, and I'm not moving to Waco or some remote mountaintop to wait for Him. Too busy today, sorry. But to remove all obstacles to his presence so that he may dwell spiritually in our hearts? I'll do my best.

In her concern for our salvation, our loving mother the Church uses this holy season to teach us through hymns, canticles and other forms of expression, of voice or ritual, used by the Holy Spirit. She shows us how grateful we should be for so great a blessing, and how to gain its benefit: our hearts should be as much prepared for the coming of Christ as if he were still to come into this world. The same lesson is given us for our imitation by the words and example of the holy men of the Old Testament. 

We are all Simeon! And the words of the prophet Isaiah, also from today's Office, were written expressly for us:

     In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord's house
     shall be established as the highest mountain
     and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
     many peoples shall come and say:

"Come, let us climb the Lord's mountain, 
     to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, 
     and we may walk in his paths."
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
     and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
     and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
     and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, 
     nor shall they train for war again.

That last statement—no more sword-raising, no more war colleges—suggests that the time might not quite be at hand, that I'd best not mark my calendar "Second Coming Today." Better far to "remove all obstacles to His presence."