It would be easy to complain about how, as a culture, no one seems to care about advent. And most Catholics have probably heard similar complaints or even rants, from priests and the devout, who do very much care about advent. I’ve heard the complaints of Christmas decorations appearing after Halloween, whereas before it was always Thanksgiving—the cynics swear that soon it will be Labor Day! These are common with religious and non-religious alike. But for Catholics, even post-Thanksgiving is not Christmas time. It is advent. So there are complaints about carols, nativity scenes, and trees being up too early. ‘It’s advent, people!’ they say.
To these complaints I usually give my customary half smile, which not even I know the meaning of, while thinking: ‘quit your bellyaching… what’s the big deal.’ I think it’s pointless, pious party pooping.
Okay. Personally, I can’t stand the 24/7 holiday music stations, cranking out cool yule from Thanksgiving to Christmas. But not because they are jumping the gun. Rather, because it’s terrible music for the most part. Even in the years following my father’s death when holidays were more painful and awkward than pleasurable and eagerly anticipated, it was not that this music was a prolonged pouring of salt in the wound, but simply that hearing Feliz Navidad for the twentieth time in a week was even more painful and awkward than grief. And that’s saying something. (Not to mention—Feliz Navidad is such a repetitive song to begin with that hearing it once is already equivalent to having heard it three consecutive times.) One of the contributing factors to the annoyance of prolonged holiday music is that there simply aren’t that many good holiday songs. (Technically, this is not true. There are tons, but they don’t get recorded by mainstream artists. According to iTunes, my collection of mediaeval and renaissance Christmas music alone lasts about three days. I can’t get enough of that.) How many times can one hear ‘Winter Wonderland’, ‘Sleigh Ride’, ‘The Christmas Song’, and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ in a day without the screw coming just little bit loose? Only a few listens can cause one to realise what a manic and deranged tune the ‘Ukrainian Bell Carol’ is. It doesn’t really matter that these same songs are being tastelessly performed by a whole variety of pop artists. It’s the same few songs, over and over; one arrangement and performance more unconvincing than the next. And I’m not saying that one has to be a good Christian to make good Christmas music. The Jews have made most of the best Christmas music in the past 100 years. I say, ‘Amein to that!’
My view is not so negative, though: if the music lifts your spirit for a month and helps you get through the other dreary months of winter, I’m all for it. Though, I don’t work in a cubical, or for a retailer, so I may be biased.
The trees and the lights I love. If I could have my druthers, the lights would stay up all year—on everyone’s house, not just the creepy guy’s who is either too eccentric or too lazy to take them down. Further, there are few amenities more therapeutic than the ambient glow of delightfully adorned Fraser Fir in a dimly lit living room. You can bet I’ll be marinating in that for a solid 25, at least. And if this temporary installation causes even a few couples to sit quietly a while, closely snuggled together on the couch, in lieu of ‘her’ watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta while ‘he’ checks his fantasy football team stats, then I shall sing a hymn to thee, O Tannenbaum.
Even though I have more admiration for the real St. Nicholas than the Coca-cola Santa at every mall in the country, if as a society we still encourage belief in a chubby white male who is actually loving and benevolent, rather than a corporate criminal, then I say, ‘Thank God! It really is the season of hope!’
What does bother me, (even more than people being merry and bright, believe it or not) is when even intelligent Catholics get advent totally wrong. As frequently as it happens, I still startle every time I meet someone who thinks advent is about preparing for the birth of Jesus. Spoiler alert: Jesus was born somewhere between the years 4 and 6 B.C. Yet, I see this misunderstanding of advent being most frequently employed. In many ways it is the very ethos that drives the aforementioned pointless, pious party pooping—no tree, no lights, no little figurine in the manger until Christmas eve. This misses the point and embodies the snivelling to which the pseudo-pious are prone. Advent is not the season when we pretend or act as though Jesus has not yet been born.
But, since no one likes a bitter know-it-all, I have preferred that such opportune encounters spark a deeper understanding and appreciation, within my own life and thinking, of what advent really is all about. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and the realisation of this is in many ways one of the great lessons of advent. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts.
A good place to start is the word itself, ‘advent,’ and what a remarkable word it is. It comes from the Latin, adventus, which comes from advenire, meaning ‘arrival.’ However, there is a sense in which ad venire can indicate the ‘coming toward one’ of something from someplace else, as in something ‘other,’ something beyond us, that transcends us in a marvellous way and is approaching. Thus, this word is saturated with mystery, evoking thoughts of pregnant expectation, but also the shattering of expectations; patience, but also ardent longing; hope, but also uncertainty. An ‘advent’ is something utterly astonishing, that invites us to become adventurers, pursuing the strangeness of what has manifested itself in our world as a kind of inbreaking. So there is a directionality to this word, indicating that something is coming toward us. And the whence of this coming toward is connected to the future. In Latin there are two kinds of directionality when it comes to the future. Futurum expresses future in the sense that we in English usually mean it, as the point to which we are progressing in chronological fashion. The word adventus also is connected to the idea of the future, but it is the future approaching us. The German language also allows for two kinds of ‘future’ with these two different trajectories. Futur expresses our chronological movement toward the future, and Zukunft expresses the future’s approach toward us. So, the future is not simply something that we arrive at through our projects and human striving in the passing of chronological time, but it is also something arrives at us, with its own plans and intentions, which exceed our limited understanding and expectations. There can seem something unsettling in this idea. Our tendency is to want to control our destiny, to make plans for how things are going to go, and we prepare things so that they will go our way, the way we would like them to go. But this sense of advent in some way tells that we cannot prepare for something definite, but would do better in preparing to be surprised.
The Latin, adventus, is preceded by the Greek word, παρουσία (parousia), well known in theology as the arrival of the ‘Second Coming,’ or the arrival of the fulfilment of creation, the fullness of time. The word also means something like ‘becoming present.’ In some theologies this Second Coming is seen in rather harsh terms as Judgement, a day of great sorrow and great exaltation, or as the Day of YHWH, where the world will be obliterated and a new one will replace it. Though these ways of thinking have some validity, a more robust response that seems better able to accommodate more elements of tradition more coherently speaks of this Second Coming as the full realisation of God’s intentions for humanity, to share most abundantly in God’s love. The advent that we await with joyful hope is the fulfilment of the reign of God.
In Jesus’ ministry, he tells us that the reign of God is at hand already, if one changes one’s way of seeing and thinking and being, attuning oneself to God’s intentions for human life. This change is referred to as μετάνοια (metanoia), which can be translated as: going beyond the mind that you have, or a radical, holistic change from a way of being that is curved in on itself (curvatus in se) and fearful, toward a way of being that participates in a trusting relationship with God, allowing God to empower oneself. In many ways, original sin, famously depicted in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, represents the tendency for humans not to trust in God. Though many readings of this story focus on who was at fault in eating the fruit first, and the true meaning of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, I think these discussions often miss the point. For me, the most important aspect of the story is that it is the serpent who convinces Adam and Eve that they too could be gods, but that God doesn’t want them to be because God is trying to keep them down, in a subservient way. Thus, the serpent convinces Adam and Eve that God is their competitor rather than the one in whom they can trust most ultimately. It is when they turn toward themselves in an autonomy wherein God becomes extrinsic to their lives, as a competitor or judge, that they becoming fearful and attempt filling the void in their lives and shielding themselves from without by the proverbial fig leaves. And today these fig leaves are represented in all of the goods we feel we need or must have in order to feel safe, secure and fulfilled. This autonomous state in which we feel we must be gods ourselves, at odds with God, causes a mindset of fear which is the root of all sin and evil. Although this can sound simplistic and ‘too easy’ an explanation, it is remarkable how well this perspective holds up. Try to think of an evil in our world today that is not caused by fear. In many ways, this story predicted the unfolding of world history, in nuce.
Jesus’ ministry predominantly focuses upon getting people to move out of that fearful state and into a state in which one realises that he or she is profoundly loved by God, and that God desires from him or her an empowering relationship of love and trust. When one allows oneself to be empowered by this relationship of love and trust, and this relationship enhances one’s attunement to God’s intentions for humanity, then one begins to see with the eyes of the reign of God and can begin to bring that more just way of life to realisation. Thus, Jesus calls us to live in and work toward the reign of God here and now. Of course the reign of God is not complete, nor will it be completed by us. The reign of God is completed by the advent of God’s fulfilment of creation. This is where our human efforts to create a more loving and just society, in which it is possible for all to enter into loving relationship with God and neighbour, are brought to fulfilment by God. Our movements forward meet God’s loving embrace toward us in the advent of the perfect fulfilment of creation.
Advent, then, is a time in which we recommit ourselves in working toward the bringing about of the reign of God, continuing the work of Jesus’ ministry, in the joyful hope that we will more deeply experience the reign of God present in our world now, seeing the world as God intends it to be, not in the distorted vision caused by fear; preparing for when God brings this reign to its fulfilment. It is fitting that the advent season marks the ‘new year’ of the liturgical calendar, since this season calls us to envision a new way for humanity, of peace, justice, and healing. We are asked to ponder possibility, in hope. The line from ‘O Holy Night’ that I have come to appreciate most is expressive of this: ‘For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!’
This is connected with the other sense of parousia, ‘becoming present.’ During advent we prepare for the celebration of the incarnation of God, God’s having become human, and thus made present to us in the most radical manifestation. The way in which we properly celebrate this incarnation, God’s becoming concretely present among us, is to live in the way that Jesus, God incarnate, did. In this we allow God to work through us, so that God’s presence among us can be more fully recognised, and that humans might live in happiness with one another, which is precisely why God loved the world into being in the first place. Human persons are made in the image and likeness of God, the Imago dei, and thus we are called to be like God by being empowered by God, and living in a way that participates in and reflects that love. Due to the human tendency not to live in this way, we tend to forget what a proper life in relationship to God looks like. And so God became human in Jesus to provide a perfect example of what human life should look like, and by imitating this example, we are able to be restored to proper relationship with God, and can live once again as citizens of the reign of God. Jesus shows us how to be properly human. It is interesting to note that in German, the word for incarnation is Menschwerdung, which literally means ‘becoming human.’ We become most like the image and likeness of God when we are most human. We are not most Godly when we try to be false gods, but when we are who God intends for us to be as humans. This is the true realisation of human freedom, wherein we are free to be us.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus speaks of the doctrine of divinisation. His famous phrase states that “God became human so that we might become divine.” Of course he doesn’t mean that we become God, but that we participate most fully in the divine life in following the example of Jesus’ relationship of love and trust in God, which enabled him, as it will us, to proclaim the reign of God. He also uses the example of a fresco, which has become dirty and decrepit, in the same way that the human image has become decrepit by millennia of sinful behaviour. Jesus comes as the restored image, showing us most profoundly how to be human in the most full sense of the Imago dei. Thus it is important to recognise that God’s voluntary entrance into humanity is a wondrous affirmation of the immensely positive possibilities for humanity. In advent we commit ourselves to refining our vision for imagining these possibilities within us and for our world. The best way to celebrate the incarnation, God’s profound presence among us, is to continue to deepen the way in which our way of life makes God manifest among us.
We still struggle with doing this, with putting on Christ. One of my favourite ideas to reflect upon in advent is a famous quotation from Karl Rahner, S.J.: “It is both terrible and comforting to dwell in the inconceivable nearness to God, and so to be loved by God Himself that the first and last gift is infinity and inconceivability itself. But we have no choice. God is with us.” This is profoundly expressive of the desire for but also the difficulty in accepting God’s invitation, the gift of God’s self. It is ironic that as often as we seem godlike in our own ambitions and projects, we often do not count ourselves worthy or able to do God’s work; yet this irony magnifies the delusional state that is at stake. In advent we prepare ourselves to recognise more significantly how God is trying to become more present in our lives and in our world. And that indeed this is the greatest gift we can receive, and the greatest gift that we can give to one another. God is with us and completely for us. We are still struggling to accept this.
Perhaps it is by preparing a space within ourselves and rethinking the arrangement of our priorities that we might allow God a more profound space within us and our world; the outward manifestation of which might indeed proclaim, but with authentic expression of love, “It’s advent, people!”
Adventus for the Rest of Us
December 3, 2012 by gregorygrimes2012