When we were children, waiting – for a birthday, for Christmas, perhaps for a new baby sister or brother – could seem interminable. Later in life, schedules can become so crowded that we can’t easily to find the time to prepare adequately for some imminent event. But it’s not only age that determines attitudes; it’s often the way we understand time itself. For many, time has become just another commodity, and the language shows that very well: we waste, save, spend, gain or lose time, just like we do with money. When time is just another limited resource, we treat it economically.
What does this have to do with Advent? A whole lot. Advent is a period of time, but our attitude to it says much about the way we actually live the faith we profess. The days immediately before Advent are a kind of end-time: they mark the dying of the liturgical year, as a period marks the end of a sentence, paragraph, or page (in our life’s journey). Then the first Sunday of Advent is like New Year’s Day: a beginning, like a clean new page on which new words or paragraphs can be written and all manner of things might happen, even wonderful things.
Oddly, perhaps, the beginning of the liturgical year and the end of the chronological year occur within weeks of each other. But that might remind us that our whole lives are spent in transition: as one thing ends, another begins. Or, as T.S. Eliot puts it so cryptically and well: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
The readings [for the First Sunday of Advent] offer encouragement and insight into how to approach Advent and prepare for the birth of Jesus. From the Entrance antiphon (“To you I lift up my soul, O my God. In you have I trusted”) to the final words of the Gospel (“Keep awake!”), we are invited to turn again, to reflect on what, and who, sustains us: the God of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, who is the very key to the meaning of our lives. And as we do so, we are reminded to stay alert, to remain awake, because we simply cannot afford to miss what is slowly but surely coming to be. We have four weeks to prepare actively, not simply to wait, and surely not to drift off to sleep. So we beg, with the urgency of an Isaiah that God will “tear open the heavens and come down”; and with the passionate hope of Paul, we believe that “God will also strengthen [us] to the end, [for] God is faithful.”
After all the Advents that have slipped past us for want of time or attention, let’s go out to meet this one purposefully; let’s prepare for Christmas by re-focusing our lives on the things that matter. And as we think of the birth or Emmanuel, “God with us,” let’s notice some of the other refugees, migrants or and homeless families rather closer to us than the Holy Family at the dawn of the Christian era, and let’s do to and for them, what we piously imagine we would have done if that Family had stopped at our Inn, looking for compassion. There is time. We have time. But Advent is not just about waiting. It is about engaging with an event that changed the world, because the world needs it to happen again, and very soon.