The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas often find us running in many directions with lots of things to do. Long lists and longer lines sometimes can try our patience! In the breathless rush of preparing for and celebrating the holidays, the Church, in her wisdom, gives us the season of Advent.
With its twofold character of remembering the First Coming of Christ and looking forward to his Second Coming at the end of time, Advent is a time of “devout and expectant delight,” according to the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year. Pregnant with the promise of a world turned upside down, the Scriptures of the season come alive with almost magical imagery: the desert blooming and the winding ways made straight, mountains made low and valleys filled in; the blind seeing and the deaf hearing, the lame dancing and the brokenhearted healed, swords turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, a peaceable kingdom with its shepherd-king.
This is a world of dreams and hungers and yearnings, where fear and darkness are put to flight, sins are forgiven, and God’s lavish mercy is poured forth on those who fear him. The lowly are lifted up, the proud cast down, the hungry filled with good things.
As she waits in wonder for these promises to be fulfilled, the Church cries out her urgent plea on the First Sunday of Advent:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that gathered at his right hand
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
In these opening words of the Advent season, the Church proclaims the coming of Christ and his kingdom and lays out for her followers a way to enter the Kingdom — namely, a life of righteousness. As we run the race of life with our hearts set on the heavenly kingdom, we must do our part here and now to make this world an image, an icon, of the heavenly Jerusalem. Putting our faith into practice and meeting Christ as he comes to us here and now in our sisters and brothers, we prepare to greet him when he comes in glory.
Mindful that what we do to the least of our sisters and brothers, we do to Christ, we set out on a way of life that reflects the mercy of God: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries and bearing wrongs patiently.
Grateful for the First Coming of Christ in Bethlehem, and looking forward in hope to his Second Coming at the end of time, we pray for the grace to recognize Christ in the many ways that he comes to us each day, in word, sacrament and one another. Lest we focus simply on the coming of Christ at Christmas, the opening prayer on this initial Advent Sunday helps us to keep the big picture in mind. It also serves as a reminder for Christmas and the season beyond, that the works of mercy are lifelong and bear a continued remembrance in our prayer, our preaching and our daily living.
Growing in Heavenly Wisdom
On the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist makes his appearance, crying out: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight his paths.” A voice in the wilderness, camel’s hair clothing, locusts and honey, winnowing fans and threshing floors, a brood of vipers and unquenchable fire, all remind us that Advent is a wild season: a season of surprises and warnings, expectation and puzzlement, a world turned upside down with the coming of the Lord’s Anointed. He follows in the prophetic tradition of keeping the promises alive, even when the promises grow old and the people lose heart.
Clearly he is not talking about the babe in the manger, but the coming of the One who will fulfill the promises of old. This is God-with-us, who comes with power, who rules with his strong arm. Yet with compassion and tenderness, he feeds his flock, gathering the lambs and leading the ewes with care. This is the mighty One of God who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Enlightened by the same Spirit, the Church earnestly cries out and prays for strength and perseverance on the Second Sunday of Advent:
Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly undertaking hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company.
Having set out to meet Christ with righteous deeds, we continue our journey in haste, as we grow in our learning of the heavenly wisdom handed down to us by the prophets and apostles. We are told: Fear not. Cast off the deeds of darkness. Put on the armor of light. Be blameless in holiness. Conduct yourselves so as to please God. Do not worry. Do not quench the Spirit. Abstain from every evil.
By living in this manner in this world, we prepare to take our place in the new heavens and new earth that God is preparing for us. As on the First Sunday of Advent, the Church reminds us that this season is not simply about preparing to celebrate Christmas once again. Rather it is about deepening our relationship with the One who is coming through our prayer, reflecting on God’s word and a life of service. These are the real gifts of the season that we must value day by day.
Worshiping with Glad Rejoicing
As we move to the Third Sunday of Advent, the focus shifts from the Second Coming of Christ and the preparations we are to make throughout our lives for that coming, to the approaching feast of the Lord’s Nativity and the joy that this annual celebration brings.
Isaiah captures this sense of joy in the words that Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue:
“He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (61:1).
In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes that “the joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all those who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (No. 1).
When we experience that joy, we are impelled to share this joy and the good news of God’s love with others in all we say and do.
Each week as the Church gathers to pray, we are sent forth as missionary disciples, nourished by word and sacrament. The Eucharist, the source and summit of our spiritual life, becomes the Advent prayer of the Church, par excellence. Gathered together by God himself, we listen to God’s Word, who became flesh for our salvation.
In gratitude for this gift, we offer the Church’s great prayer of thanksgiving. God, who is never outdone in generosity, transforms our gifts into the body and blood of Christ and gives them back to us, so that we who receive them might become what we receive. Sent forth as living members of the Body of Christ, we put our faith into practice by our lives of loving service.
Therefore, to our righteous deeds and our learning of heavenly wisdom, the Church now adds solemn worship and glad rejoicing as a way to both prepare for and celebrate the gift of salvation in Christ:
O God, who see how your people
faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity,
enable us, we pray
to attain the joys of so great a salvation,
and to celebrate them always
with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.
In addition to preparing the liturgical environment and the music for the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, we must be sure that the proclamation of the prayers at Mass reflect both this call to solemn worship and glad thanksgiving. Our preparation for the feast of the Lord’s Nativity might therefore include some time for prayer and reflection on the prayers we lead and a proclamation that reflect not only solemn worship, but also glad rejoicing.
Living the Paschal Mystery
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we pray the prayer that is used to conclude the Angelus, a prayer that recalls the Angel’s visit to Mary and her response.
Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord,
Your grace into our hearts,
that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son
was made known by the message of an Angel,
may by his Passion and Cross
be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.
This prayer sets the stage for the events surrounding the Nativity. The annunciation and visitation, Mary and Elizabeth, a barren womb no longer empty and the virgin with a child, Zechariah and Joseph — it all bears witness to a world turned upside down. God who is mighty has done great things, and holy is his name!
But this prayer also reminds us of the deeper meaning of the Incarnation. The focus of the entire Advent/Christmas season is not the infant lying in the manger, but Christ who comes with the gift of God’s salvation. This great gift was not simply the birth of Jesus, but his entire life, death and resurrection — the Paschal Mystery.
While specific aspects of the Paschal Mystery are celebrated at their own distinct time during the liturgical year, this prayer reminds us that each Sunday the Church celebrates the fullness of the mystery of God’s saving love revealed in Jesus Christ. This insight reminds us that there is so much more than the birth of a baby to be pondered and celebrated during the Advent and Christmas seasons, and throughout our entire lives.
As we pray these collects and prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ, may we strive to act righteously and grow in heavenly wisdom, so that our worship and glad rejoicing may lead us deeper into the mystery of God’s love, revealed in the birth, death and resurrection of the Lord.
MSGR. MICHAEL J. BEGOLLY is the pastor of Mount St. Peter Parish in New Kensington, Pennsylvania.