This text was originally delivered as a homily on the first Sunday of Advent.
Blessed John Henry Newman begins one of his sermons on the season of Advent by noting the stark chill of December: “The year is worn out,” he says, “spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over and the end has come.” There’s something about these days of increasing darkness that naturally puts us in the frame of mind to consider the future, to consider the passing of all things. “These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age,” says Newman, “waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.”
Advent is a season particularly for those intent on Christ, intent on their relationship with him in this world so as to enjoy the promises of the next. Again, from Newman:
The season is chill and dark, and the breath of the morning is damp, and the worshippers are few, but all this befits those who are by profession penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims. More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them.
In short, the liturgical season of Advent is the preferable season for the wayfarer, the pilgrim, in this world, especially those consecrated to be eschatological signs of the life to come. This is our season.
The words of the prophet Isaiah are not simply the opening motif of Advent but the conviction, the judgment, under which every one of us stands.
As to the people of Israel, again and again, God shows himself to us as Father and Redeemer. Often with great works, great acts, wonderful moments of consolation and spiritual enthusiasm. For us, it may be the moments we come to see his call, our vocation, the moments we find healing from some ailment, or liberation from some habitual sin. It’s the time we note that God clearly hears our prayers for a loved one. Great moments. Powerful moments. Consolation. We want to hold on to them.
But, inevitably, these are easily forgotten. Call it an effect of sin, a forgetfulness when things are going well. Isaiah calls out the good works that we do, that preoccupy us. For Israel, this forgetfulness always seems to happen in the absence of conflict, in the absence of struggle and sorrow.
Great moments of consolation do not endure, and it is very easy to slip back into sin, to harbor sins with which we struggle, to slip back into old ways, to fall back from the success we experience in the spiritual life, which we achieve only by the grace of God. It’s easy to become presumptuous of our status with God. And in the designs of God’s providence, he allows this: “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” He is angry and we are sinful.
It’s from this condition—this place of utter frustration, of utter lack, of absolute sorrow of what we become apart from him—that the cry of Isaiah goes up. And this too is a grace; this too is a gift from God. It is a grace to cry out to the Lord, to send up a plea to him: “Return for the sake of your servants . . . . Rend the heavens and come down with the mountains quaking before you while you wrought awesome deeds.” Show us once again your power! Remind us again of what you can do. We wait for you. Make us turn to you!
In such a situation, all we can do is beg. “Nothing can so effectively humble us before God’s mercy as the multitude of his benefits,” St. Francis de Sales once wrote, “and nothing can so deeply humble us before his justice as our countless offenses against him.”
Given the vast inequality between him and us, if he were to answer just one such plea for just one person in all of history, we would rightly reckon it an infinite act of mercy.
It’s because of this that Newman reminded his hearers that “true faith does not covet comforts. It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel . . . . Its only hardship is to be hindered, or to be ridiculed, when it would place itself as a sinner before its Judge.”
Set in this posture, interiorly knowing what we are without him, we find our claim on the mercies and benefits of God. Chief of these is the act of the incarnation, in which he comes to us not in quaking mountains or thunderous clouds but as a child born like us to live our life, to walk our walk, and to talk our talk in all things but sin—not only to redeem us, as if this were not enough, but to reveal to us the way to the Father.
He is born, he grows up, he lives, he preaches, he works miracles, and then he suffers, dies, and rises. He ascends to the Father with the promise of his return in glory. It is in the gap between his wondrous incarnation and his glorious return that we live our lives. The season of Advent is the season of that tension: the anticipation and preparation of a celebration of his Nativity, but at the same time an anticipation of and preparation for his glorious return.
His consistent message about his return is that the time is unknown. Therefore, “Be watchful! Be alert!” The veil separating this life from the next is thickly clouded, and is breached only by Christ himself, personally, and at a time only of his choosing. And so we ourselves are left to wait, but not to be passive. We are to be watchful and alert.
There is an inheritance he promises to his co-heirs, to you and me. We want to take possession of what is promised, yet it’s precisely because we know that we are not ready to receive him that we beg him to make us so. Make us ready, O Lord! We beg that he might find us, in the words of Isaiah, “doing right” and mindful of him in our ways. This may be why he delays his return: his patience in our growth, not wishing any of us to perish.
It’s a recurring theme throughout the writings of the saints, from the Church Fathers to Newman to St. John Paul II: Our worship of God in prayer and praise (but most especially in the divine liturgy) prepares us to receive the promises of Christ (which is to say, to receive Christ himself). The liturgy acclimates us through the visible to receive what today remains invisible to us, but what we hope one day to see face-to-face: God himself.
Prayer and worship are necessary today, here in this life, so that we may meet Christ in the next. And according to his providence, the sacraments are necessary to acclimate our nature to bear his presence in its tremendous glory in the life to come.
Regardless of the dark winter that is about to descend, regardless of the struggles we face, the difficulties we have in our lives, the difficulties we see in our families and among our friends, regardless of the violence and challenges we see in the world, and regardless of the confusion that’s out there—regardless of all this, and sinners as we are, with a claim on the mercy of God, this season reminds us that God will keep us firm to the end, that he is faithful and that we have been called to fellowship with Jesus Christ.
As Isaiah says, “The grass withers, the flower wilts, but the Word of our God stands forever.” His Word is his promise, and his promise is the basis of our hope in this season, in fact, in every day of our life. It’s this hope that enables us even when we are dejected, as Newman says, to be calm and earnest with some comfort on the whole for the coming of Jesus Christ.
Thomas Petri, O.P. is dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.