Opening the Word: Seven words of Advent

What is Advent? Pope Benedict XVI, in a homily given on the first Sunday of Advent in 2008, noted that the Latin word, Adventus, is one that “could be translated by ‘arrival,’ ‘coming’ or ‘presence.’” It reminds us of the first coming of Christ 2,000 years ago; the present coming of Christ in and through the Church, especially in the Eucharist; and it orients us to the future coming of Christ, at the moment of our death and at the end of time. 

The pontiff further stated that Advent is “a time of expectation and hope, a privileged time for listening and reflection, as long as we let ourselves be guided by the liturgy, which invites us to advance to meet the Lord who comes.” 

Today’s readings present many of these interrelated words and truths so we might contemplate more deeply the meaning of this great season. There are seven words I will focus on here: The first three are words addressed by man to God, the next three are words addressed by God to man, and the final word has to do with God meeting man face to face. 

The first three are from the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 80: return, come and save. The reading from Isaiah is taken from a lengthy poem of confession and lament (Is 63:7-64:11) written after the return from exile in 538 B.C. There are two intertwined confessions in the passage, one being an honest admission of grave sin and the other a declaration of trust in God’s saving power and fatherly mercy. “Return,” the author beseeches, “for the sake of your servants,” longing for a palpable, even shocking, display of God’s presence among his people. God, however, had hidden his face from the sinful people; yet, despite the silence, there is hope that God, being a father, will again take up and mold his people as a potter molds clay. 

Similar expressions of penance and hope are voiced in the responsorial Psalm, also a lament. “Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.” To see the face of God is to be cleansed of sin and embraced as a child of the Father. The Psalm is filled with a yearning that finds fulfillment in the Incarnation: “Rouse your power and come to save us.” It points to that moment in time when the power of the Most High overshadowed Mary. In all of this, God initiates; man calls out for mercy, but must wait until God acts. 

The next three words or exhortations are variations on the same theme: wait, watch, be alert. St. Paul assumed that waiting “for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the constant and expected status of every disciple of Christ. Jesus repeatedly told his disciples, “Be watchful” (Mk 13:9,23,33,37). This is what Advent is all about: being watchful, attentive and alert. This means being aware of our need for repentance and our need for a deeper fellowship with Jesus Christ our Lord. 

We are to be patient “until the coming of the Lord” (Jas 5:7), and to “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 1:21). In doing so, we express our belief in the first Advent, when God became man, and in the coming Advent, when the God-man will come again in glory. Which brings us to the seventh word: “day.” That is, the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” when the Son of God will judge the living and the dead, rendering to each man according to his works and response to God’s grace. “The Advent cry of hope,” writes the pontiff, “ then expresses … our extreme need of salvation.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of