On this Second Sunday of Advent, Br Toby Lees OP explains the true trajectory of Advent as a preparation for Christmas.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Matthew 3:3)
One of the great joys, and there have been many, since joining the Dominicans in September last year, has been the chance to fully live the Church’s liturgical year. A kaleidoscope of liturgical colours marks the passing of feasts and seasons, the food on the table alters and excitingly wine glasses appear on the table on Solemnities.
It was only last year that I truly realised that for most of my adult life I’d lived Advent and the Christmas Octave back to front. Working as a solicitor in the City for 7 years, Advent had been marked by client socials, office parties, and the attempt somehow to fit in drinks with the friends who I really wanted to see as well. It was exhausting . . . and fattening. Christmas could feel like one last jaded push and then one could have a few days of respite and recovery before a final hurrah for New Year’s, followed by the onset of the January doldrums. Last year all that changed. For a start Advent was marked by the exciting change to my brand new blue breviary for the Divine Office – the cycle of prayer that punctuates our daily lives as religious – having used the brown volume of Ordinary Time for the previous 26 weeks. The psalms remained the same but the changing antiphons – the introductory lines to the psalms – and hymns were a constant reminder that we were getting ready to celebrate something truly momentous; the coming of Our Saviour. One that excited me and still remains fixed in my head is a verse from First Vespers of Christmas Day:
The rose of grace and beauty of which Isaiah sings,
Is Mary, virgin mother, and Christ the flow'r she brings
By God's divine decree
She bore our loving Saviour, who died to set us free.
That first year in religious community, Advent became a time of preparation, and not just a countdown to Christmas. There were not quite the same number of “before Christmas” Christmas party invites; what there was, instead, was plenty of time to reflect and prepare for a true celebration of the full Christmas Octave. I am acutely aware that religious life puts you in a privileged position in this respect. For the first time I realised that Christmas was too significant to be celebrated, and its enormity absorbed, in just one day. It was a time of genuine rejoicing with my new brethren and, thanks to the generosity of many parishioners, those wine glasses which mark the most significant of days were ever-present at the community meal. It was a truly joyous time.
In today’s Gospel we hear Matthew designating John the Baptist as that one who was spoken of by Isaiah, the prophet. He is that voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (John 3:3). We are reminded to “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”(John 3:2) having been cautioned in last week’s Gospel “to be ready for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:44)
|Crucifix with John the Baptist, Chapter Room, Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford|
Now I am not advocating that we should use the fact that over 3 weeks remain until Christmas as a delaying tactic, lest the Son come sooner(!), but hopefully in the remaining time of Advent, amongst the festivities and the good of meeting with friends and family, we can put aside some time for preparation and for a renewed fervour in our faith. We can use the time to reflect on where we have gone wrong and how to put it right. Any time is a good time to seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but Advent particularly so. Advent has traditionally been a time of fasting, perhaps we might consider this as a way of making the spiritual feasting, and mealtime feasting if we are fortunate enough, of Christmas more pronounced.
Pope Benedict wrote that: “Advent invites us once again, in the midst of many difficulties, to renew our awareness that God is present: He came into the world, becoming a man like us, to bring His plan of love to fullness. And God demands that we become a sign of his action in the world. Through our faith, our hope, our love, He wants to enter the world again and again He wants to shine His light in our night.” We mark Advent each year not because Jesus did not come once and for all, but because he keeps on coming, wherever we are in our lives he is there for us, just waiting to be let in. As Elizabeth Scalia, one of my favourite Catholic writers, reflects: “Yes, it has 'already happened'. But if God is outside of time, and we know He is, then that momentous event 'is happening' even as you hear this. 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; it sends a flare as a guide! And the One who is All in All is moving toward us — in breathtaking humility — to show us the way back."
So this Advent let us try and put aside a little time each day to take comfort and be grateful for the fact that each one of us is truly loved, loved so much that God should give “his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
|Baptistery, Church of St James, Castres|
On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.
where such a mighty Guest may come.