Something is happening --- change is in the air; you can see it all around. The autumn leaves of gold, orange and red, dislodged from their branches by the gentle winds, cover the ground.

Squirrels, fattened with their coat of winter fur, scurry about collecting the rich meat nuts. Some of these prize possessions will be buried in the earth and some collected in nests, all done so that food will be available in the spring. The duration and the strength of the sun begin to wane a bit more each day. Nature knows that it is time to prepare.

Society has become aware of its need to prepare as well. As the temperature outside has dropped and the seasons begin to shift, we too experience transition. We have exchanged short sleeves for long sleeves, cold drinks for hot. We are more tired in the afternoon, reluctant to leave a warm bed in the morning and retire earlier in the evening. All of these things are natural for us as humans.

Be alert

Advent, which begins Dec. 2, is the Christian world's time of preparation. In the midst of the reality of our places in the natural world, we Christians are being warned to be alert, to be waiting, to be prepared. This is what the Church tells us during the Advent season. We need Advent -- without it we stop being who we are, a people who are waiting. We need the Gospel's terrifying announcement of the end of time. We need the prophets' consolations and threats. We learn more about who we are in the uneasy raving of John the Baptist and in the gentle strength of Mary.

The barren leaves, the frost on the garden, the slow ebb of daylight these are all warnings as sharp as the words of the Old Testament prophets and as loud as the preaching of John the Baptist. We are asked to prepare the royal highway for the Sun of Justice, the Wonder Counselor, the God-Hero, the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah the prophet tells us to build a superhighway to God by leveling the mountains of obstacles and filling in the valleys of barriers that keep us from our God.

In Advent, our preparation is twofold. We prepare for the Incarnation, Jesus' coming to our world in history. For this blessed event we prepare with time on our side. We know the date of his arrival and what must be accomplished before the event. Like nature we prepare systematically for what we know will come.

At the same time, Advent prepares us for the second coming. This event will come suddenly without warning. It will be a startling happening, like the twinkling of an eye or an unexpected snow that transforms the landscape. The image is proclaimed keenly in the Gospel warnings of the end of time, a terror made more frightening by the darkness of the receding sun and the chill of the evening moon. With Jeremiah we wail, "The harvest has passed, the summer is at and end, and yet we are not safe!" (8:20).

Advent is the Church's winter, with its darkness and its cold, the threats of starvation, illness and death. Yet, there is a paradox. In such a fearful night, the lighting of candles brings great joy. In the numbness of silence, the Spirit and the bride sing "come."

Wondrous paradox

It is the wondrous paradox of God's reign, where the desert blooms; the mountains are made low; where swords are beaten into plowshares; where the lofty city is made into dust, trampled by a nation of the needy and the poor. It is the paradox as well of a virgin found to be with child. It is our anticipation of Emmanuel, "God is with us."

Advent is a gift. Few people ever get the chance to prepare properly for things these days. We rush from one crisis to another; we never seem to catch up. The Church gives us Advent to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord.

May our endeavors be strengthened with the assistance of God. May the Advent season bring us to a greater sense of the presence of God as we prepare the way for the Lord!

Father Gribble, C.S.C., writes from Massachusetts.