The season of Advent provides a unique occasion each year to reflect upon the coming of Christ in our lives by the grace of the story of Christmas. The key to Advent activity is the Church. As Fr Yves Congar put it, "the Church is the sacrament of the return of the world to God in Christ."
He added: "What Christ saves and must one day reunite in his Kingdom is mysteriously projected and assumed by this sacrament of salvation ... the spiritual reality of his body on earth: the Eucharist and the Church" ( Jesus Christ, 1966).
Today Benedict XVI calls on Catholics to take up the challenge to evangelise, which is to speak to others of Christ: "If you do not become His witnesses in your daily lives, who will do so in your place?" He further says: "The proclamation and witness of the Gospel are called the first service that Christians can offer every person and the whole human race, as they are to communicate to all the love of God, who manifested himself fully in the Holy Redeemer of the world, Jesus Christ" (Benedict XVI, 4oth Anniversary of Vatican II's Ad Gentes).
Advent faith, therefore, can be an opportunity for a homecoming and a freshly renewed participation in the life of the Church. This renewed participation means Sunday Mass, a well prepared confession and a return to the Eucharist with the consciously recalled fervour of one's first communion. Advent faith means an opportunity for us to renew our relationship with Christ in the community of the Church.
Advent faith reminds us that we are preparing for the feast of the birth of the Saviour, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us so that he might redeem us and, having risen from the tomb, that we might live forever. Christ, the light of the world, dispels the darkness of sin and ignorance. Christ, having been born into the world invites us to discipleship.
Christmas tells us that humanity is good since the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became a human being, not simply taking on the appearances of a human being. For he was born of a woman and had a genealogy (Matthew 1:1-25) which only a true human being can have.
God was not only born among us for by his birth he came close to us. "All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel' - which means, 'God with us'." At Christmas, God literally embraced us in our humanity - all of us. No one who is human is excluded from this embrace.
Advent faith has all the elements of the call to evangelisation which Pope Benedict XVI has referred to in many of his addresses to the world in recent years.
The feast of Christmas teaches us that God is not merely a God transcendent, a God out there, a God who dwells only in the heavens, but a God bestowed, a God who wills to communicate himself to us that he might draw us to him in faith, hope and love.
Christmas also teaches us the reason why God bestows himself, a reason only God could reveal, of course, since it is his own mind. In the Epistle to Titus we are told "God became one of us because he loves us" (3:4-7). The divine motive underlying the Incarnation - the enfleshment of the Word of God - is love. The Father gives his gift to us, the gift of his own Son, because he is in love with us.
In accepting this Gift we profess our faith. We renew our affirmation of Christ as true God and true man, the way, the truth and the life. We are reminded that as God comes to us in a manifestation of love, so we can approach God only through love. We must love God as Jesus loved. But since in Jesus God has joined himself to mankind, love of God cannot be separated from love of our fellow men. In Christ God has made his human creation into his brothers and sisters.
Tool of salvation
Advent faith reminds all of us that we the Church are called to share our faith through evangelisation. As Pope Benedict reminds us: "The Church must constantly re-dedicate herself to her mission. ... She finds her meaning exclusively in being a tool of salvation, in filling the world with God's word and in transforming the world by bringing it into loving unity with God.
"In the concrete history of the Church, however, a contrary tendency is also manifested, namely that the Church becomes settled in this world, and she becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world. She gives greater weight to organisation and institutionalisation than to her vocation to openness.
"It is not a question here of finding a new strategy to re-launch the Church. Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully ... stripping away from it anything that may seem to belong to faith, but in truth is mere convention or habit" (Freiburg, Germany, 25 September 2011).
Fr Dennis Byrnes is a priest of the Lismore Diocese who is based at Port Macquarie, NSW.