What’s the point of Advent?
“‘Advent’ does not mean ‘expectation,’ as some may think. It is a translation of the Greek word parousia, which means ‘presence’ or, more accurately, ‘arrival,’ i.e. the beginning of a presence. In antiquity, the word was a technical term for the presence of a king or ruler and also of the god being worshiped, who bestows his parousia upon his devotees for a time. ‘Advent,’ then, means a presence begun, the presence being that of God.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Dogma and Preaching
I have been asked more than once, particularly by my evangelical friends, why Catholics and mainline Protestant Christians put so much stock in “ritualistic” sorts of things not explicitly spelled out in Scripture, things like Advent, and its trappings — the purple vestments, the Advent wreaths and colored candles; the season of “light penance” as we anticipate once again the birth of Christ. “Jesus came once for all; he doesn’t keep coming,”a friend argued. “Christmas is a wonderful season. Why do you need a whole Advent season, too? What’s the point?”
It’s all right. Christ’s birth has, of course, happened already. But if my professors were correct about the constructs of time, it is happening still (and so is the passion of Christ and the Resurrection, but let’s save that for April!). Intellectually, my friend understands that, but in terms of faith, my friend’s sola scriptura is resolute, and, therefore, our Catholic traditions seem confounding.
My response to her exasperation was to remind her where I had been a year earlier — at the deathbed of a beloved brother — and where I was a year later, and where I would be a year after that. “Christ is constant,” I said, “but our lives are not. We can get so caught up in things, in working, paying bills, making deadlines, tending to our families. …”
Speaking for myself, without the Advent season, I might not manage to set aside a few minutes each day to reflect on the tangled trails I have traveled in the passing year, and to realize just how far into the wilderness I have strayed. Especially in an election year, it seems, one can wander pretty deeply into the wilds and the weeds. The world, beautiful as it is, is also full of spiritual potholes, tricky nettles and the thickets that make us feel entrapped, even if we are not. Without even realizing it, we turn inward, where things seem more comfortable.
Advent coaxes us out. We look up and there is a darker sky than before. The stars show more clearly, and they inspire us to hack through the stuff that has begun to imprison us within the year so that we may walk a freer path, made clear. Engaged and with a certain goal, our awareness shifts and becomes heightened. We hear a memory: “All things, all senses, all times, all places are alive in the sight of their King.” And the King makes everything new.
Without Advent — without the putting up of purple in the midst of all the red and green in that tiring rush between Thanksgiving and the new year — we might forget to mark this time, make straight our paths and ponder what transpired in a lonely cave in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago; what it meant then, and what it still means for all of us today.
Because it is monumental, this coming — it is the coming of Love in a way never before (or since) encountered.
And yes, it has “already happened.” But if God is outside of time, and we know he is, then that momentous event is happening right now.
A star is shining brightly.
A people are moving toward the places from whence they came.
A young woman is great with child.
Wise men are lifting their eyes to heaven and wondering.
The place of our own origin, from whence we came, beckons and sends a flare, and One who is All in All will come — in love and breathtaking humility — to show us the way back to the Creator.
We are great with expectation.
We raise our heads from the wilderness of our lives, and we look about and wonder. And we touch base with a sense of hope that has by now been drained from us.
When we pray, each day, “come, Lord Jesus,” we pray for this coming of Love. We pray for that moment when heaven reaches down in song and succor and cradles earth, albeit in the guise of One needing a cradle — or a manger — himself.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come, begin, again, to be near. Come, still, into our bustling turmoil and our distractions.
Come, every day, to needy, weak and helpless me.
Advent is the Presence begun. The season helps us to make ourselves ready for him — to make straight the paths in the wilderness of our fickle, changeable, distracted, all-too-human hearts.
My friend’s question draws one from me, in return: Where were you at this time last year? Aren’t you in a different place this year? And don’t you ache for a promise renewed?
Elizabeth Scalia is the culture editor for OSV News.