Everyone loves to celebrate Christmas, but Advent often gets short shrift – even in the Church. When Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus (sometime in the 500s A.D.), it seemed logical for them to prepare for it with great care. What resulted was a season of preparation that lasted about four weeks before Christmas (December 25th). Early Christians thought of Christ’s coming not only in terms of the past (as a child in Bethlehem) but also in terms of the present and the future. For them, Christ came to earth in the past but comes to us now in Word and Sacrament and human need, and he will come again at the end of the world. Because the Second Coming will be in the future, the prayers, readings and hymns of the Church through the early part of Advent (before December 17th) focus on the final judgment and the end of the world as we know it.
It can seem a little strange that the themes of the early days of Advent seem a little dark – especially as we prepare for the happy days of the Christmas season. For most of us, the fun of Christmas time cannot start soon enough. It becomes very easy to overlook the more solemn significance of Advent. A real concentration on Advent makes it a little harder to sell Christmas presents at the stores, so if we take Advent seriously, we may feel a little out of step with our families and friends, and especially the wider commercial culture.
For centuries, the Church has divided its thoughts about the end of world into “four last things” – death, judgment, hell, and heaven. These certainly are solemn themes, but this solemnity is filled with a certain quiet joy as we realize that our Creator has ordered all things toward a good end, and that a new heaven and a new earth are part of that plan. So solemnity does not equal sad! There can be as much joy in preparing for a celebration as in the celebrating itself. In fact, it is the excitement of anticipation for Christmas that gives us insight into the kind of excitement that we might feel concerning our anticipation of these “last things.”
Use the time of Advent to prepare. Allow yourself the time you need to ponder and to wonder about the mysteries of God as we prepare. Allow our preparations for Christmas to become a model for how we prepare ourselves for our personal experience of “the last things.” Let the beauty and quiet solemnity of this season enrich our understanding and draw us closer to the mystery at the center of our faith:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.