Some years ago – actually 14 years ago, in December 2001 – two men I knew well died very suddenly within a few days of each other. Both of these men were in what we would call the "prime of life." One was 40, the other 56. Both were family men, husbands and fathers of three children. Both were seemingly fit and healthy. Both were, by every measure, very successful businessmen. And both probably thought they had 20 or 30 years of productive life ahead of them.
And yet in a flash, or perhaps more accurately, in the single beat of a human heart, both of these men were gone from us. For their families and friends, coping with such sudden loss, dealing with the grief and emptiness, was extremely difficult. Just as difficult were the questions they asked then, and have continued to ask since – questions to which there are no easy answers.
But against this uncertainty as to how and when we will die, is the absolute certainty that all of us will die. We humans are a strange lot. We accept the fact of death in general terms, because the evidence is irrefutable. But when it comes down to specifics, to ourselves or to someone close to us, we act as if God has somehow double-crossed us.
We tend to have a similar attitude about the end of the world. And yet, for my two friends, the end of their world arrived when they experienced their own personal second coming of Jesus. Oh, yes, as Catholic Christians we believe that Jesus will come again at the end of time. We just don't want it to happen on our watch. And maybe, if we don't think or talk about it, it won't. But that's exactly what we're asked to do during this season of Advent: to think and talk about it.
Today too many of us view Advent in one-dimensional terms. We see Advent simply as a prelude to Christmas, a sort of ecclesiastical version of the Christmas shopping season. Advent then becomes a warm and fuzzy time to turn our thoughts back to that first Christmas in Bethlehem, to the manger, to the bright star in the night sky, to Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, to shepherds and angels and wise men, to the ox, the donkey and the lamb, to the little drummer boy.
Now I suppose that’s all a part of Advent, but quite frankly, it’s really only a small part. Lost amidst all this Christmas nostalgia, is the very fact of what we are called to celebrate. For Christmas isn't just the celebration of Jesus' birth. Rather, it's our commemoration of a defining moment in history: the manifestation of the incarnate Son of God to the world. Christmas is the celebration of an almost inconceivable act of love by the Father. It’s our loving God injecting Himself into human history in the most personal and direct way possible.
I will save you from yourselves by sending you my own Son, who will take on your nature, your flesh. He will live among you, teaching you about Me and how I expect you to live, to love, and to worship. And He will sacrifice Himself for you and for your sins.
Advent, then, is a time to ask ourselves whether we are prepared for the Son of God’s arrival into our lives. This is the Advent preached by John the Baptist: “…one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals” [Lk 3:16].
As Jeremiah prophesied in today's first reading:
"In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land" [Jer 33:15].This is what we celebrate during Advent as we look forward to Christmas: the beginning of the divine drama of the Incarnation, this wondrous manifestation of God's love through the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But that's not all we celebrate. We also look to the end of the drama. For the Church calls us not only to turn to the past, to Jesus' first coming, but also to the future, to the end of human history, to the second coming of Jesus. Unlike His first coming, which came quietly, almost secretly, His second coming will be quite an event.
In today's Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect.
"…signs in the sun, the moon and the stars."Yes, God will manifest His power as creator of the universe, and humanity will come to understand what the word "almighty" really means. So much so that Jesus tells us "people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world" [Lk 21:26].
"…nations in disarray."
"…roaring of the seas and waves."
"…the powers in the heavens will be shaken." [Lk 21:25}
Now on the face of it, this doesn't sound like something to look forward to. But Jesus tells us, wait a minute…as Christians you have nothing to fear.
"…when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand" [Lk 21:28].And it won't be easy, for "that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth" [Lk 21:35].
When will it happen? Today? Tomorrow? Next year? 100 or 1,000 years from now? We don't know; and those who throughout history, and even today, claim they do are false prophets. And because we don't know, Jesus instructs us:
"Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man" [Lk 21:36].And so, during this season of Advent we are called to prepare ourselves, to act as if the end is near…for it might well be. And for some of us, like my two friends, it is.
"Be vigilant," Jesus says. Be watchful. That's what Advent is all about.
St. Bernard speaks of three comings of Jesus: One in flesh and weakness; one in glory and majesty; but another, a hidden coming, in which Christ comes into our lives through the working of the Holy Spirit and manifests His love through us. How better to prepare for His second coming than to be alert with God's love, to be alive with Christ's light.
What else can we do?
We can recognize Jesus when He comes to us through the others who touch our lives. We can see Jesus Christ in all others, so they will see Jesus in us. Like Mary, we can be “God-bearers” who take Jesus Christ, God’s Eternal Word, into the world. What a wonderful way to celebrate this coming of God's love into our hearts.
Listen again to the words of St. Paul in today's second reading:
"May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His holy ones" [1 Th 3:12-13]How do we celebrate God's love? By loving. That's the point of Paul's prayer.
And what a prayer!
And what a world Christ would return to if everybody loved with His love. If Christ's light, emanating from the love of the Father, was truly the light of our lives.