Sometimes the very young say very profound things. With simplicity of style unencumbered with the worries of age, they remind us of basic truths.
Recently, I spent an evening with some of the catechumens and candidates of our diocese. I moved from table to table and listened in as they told of the journey of faith that brings them to seek full communion with the Church. Eleven-year-old Rocco, one of the catechumens, cut right to the heart of the matter. He said, 'I want to be with God.'
Death is not something we like to talk about. In fact, I remember the day one of my aunts gave each of our families a grave for Christmas. Not your usual Christmas gift. Then again, she wasn't your ordinary aunt. It took some time before my mother dared to inform my father of the generous and thoughtful gift from her sister.
Discussion of our own mortality does not readily come to our lips. But not for Rocco. He said that one day he would die and he wanted to be with God. Simple as that. One day we will face the Lord. Advent is a time to prepare for that meeting.
As Christians we live in hope. The Lord is returning. He will come to gather us body and soul into his kingdom. The liturgy of Advent strengthens us in our waiting in trust for the Parousia. The prophetic texts of the Old Testament renew the memory of the coming of the Messiah. These readings from Scripture recall the divine promises God made and has already fulfilled in Christ. Advent opens the liturgical year. The Church's calendar begins just as the civil calendar draws to a close. Although Advent comes as - in the northern hemisphere - the leaves fall from the trees and winter makes his blistery entrance, it really is springtime for the life of the Christian.
While liturgists may have some difficulty in determining the precise historical origins of Advent, we do know that from very early on, the Church had set this time surrounding the Christmas celebration as a special period of preparation. The local Council of Saragossa, Spain, in 380, established a three-week fast as preparation for Epiphany. France already had a similar period of preparation. Thanks to Pope St Gregory I (604), we have the present four-week period.
Over the years, the celebration of Advent has changed. Ever since the 10th century, we have worn purple during the Advent season. Advent, like Lent, is a time of more intense prayer and fasting to ready ourselves for the Lord. The 20th century has rediscovered something of the joy that is part of every Christian's hope of being with the Lord. That is why some have begun wearing the color blue during Advent.
In the United States, from the cutting down of the tree for Rockefeller Center at the beginning of November to the displays of Christmas ornaments and holiday bargains, Advent can quickly be swallowed up in other interests. What takes place outside the Church can overshadow this important time. But what takes place in our hearts can recapture the meaning of Advent.
It is appropriate to see how intimately connected this season is with every celebration of the Mass. Immediately after the consecration, the entire assembly acclaims, 'Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.' Every celebration of the Eucharist 'is a straining towards the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (cf. Jn 15:11); it is in some way the anticipation of heaven, the 'pledge of future glory.' In the Eucharist, everything speaks of confident waiting 'in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ'' (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 18).
When we worthily prepare and receive Holy Communion, it is the very Lord Himself whom we receive. Already the Risen Lord lives and dwells in us and shares eternal life with us. The union we look forward to having when the Lord returns, we already anticipate in Holy Communion. St Bernard tells us, 'His first coming was in the flesh and in weakness, this intermediary coming [which we celebrate in the liturgy] is in spirit and in power, the last coming will be in glory and majesty' (Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3).
Nature may divest herself of her beauty and remind us at this time of year of our own mortality. But Advent clothes us with renewed hope and fresh vitality. This season that looks proximately to the celebration of Christmas helps us stretch our eyes beyond this joy filled feast. We keep in sight the goal to which we are straining by our prayer, fasting and holy lives.
Advent reminds us of the very reason for the coming of God's Son among us. He came that we might have life and have it in abundance. Already in each Eucharist, 'we digest, as it were, 'the secret of the resurrection'' (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 18). We do not simply wait for what is yet to come. We even now live the life that one day will be fully revealed when the Lord returns.
Through the intercession of the Virgin Mother of God, may we deepen our longing for the Lord's coming.
Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli is the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, USA. His column is reprinted here with the permission of 'The Beacon', newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, in which it was first published.