Over the past centuries the liturgy of the church has developed a spirituality particularly for Christians during Advent. Both the Sunday liturgies and the daily Scripture readings have been designed to direct our journey into the Advent experience of the mystery of Christ. Our parents in the faith have chosen Scriptures that accent three Advents: the Advent of Christ coming into our own lives, the Advent of Christ's physical birth in Bethlehem, and the Advent of his second coming at the end of history. While the liturgies and daily readings of Advent begin with the second coming and move as in a funnel toward the first coming, we are called to a vital personal encounter with Christ through all the readings. As we prepare to be enriched by the Advent liturgies and our personal daily readings, it will be helpful for us to think about how we should journey through the season.
Meditating on the Second Coming
The spirituality of Advent calls us to start our journey in expectation of the second coming of Christ. The end time is the period in history when the work of Christ will be consummated, when the powers of evil will be put away forever, when the earth will be restored to the golden age described by Isaiah and St. John (see Isa. 65; Rev. 20-22). How is this hope for a future restoration of the world to guide our meditation?
First, the hope of a world restored under God proclaims that evil is not the final word. If we were to read only the newspaper accounts of murder, espionage, violence, wars, and the like, we would have only a negative view of the world. If we were to visit the hospitals with the terminally ill, the psychiatric wards with the mentally deranged, or the prisons filled with lawbreakers, we would see the world only from this view. If we were to spend all our time among the poor, among those who are starving to death, among those who are oppressed under political or economic systems that dehumanize and depersonalize people, we would have a pessimistic view of the world.
What the second coming says to us is that the evil of this world is doomed. It will be judged and burned by fire because God in Christ has already dealt a decisive blow to the powers of evil. God has dethroned these powers and taken away their ability to have ultimate control over history and over our lives (Col. 2:15).
Next, the second coming says that the ultimate word in history is the triumph of God, the reign of God's kingdom, the eternal and lasting rule of the good. Here is where our Advent meditation rests. By faith we are promised that evil will be judged and done away with and all will be made whole. This is the vision we want to carry with us as we view the news and visit the hospitals, psychiatric wards, and prisons of our world. Christian hope is an optimism about life that is grounded in Christ and celebrated again and again in the liturgy of the church.
Not only do the readings of Advent build this hope up within us, but the eucharistic prayer of the church reminds us: "Father, you loved the world so much that in the fullness of time you sent your only son to be our Savior. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy. To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new." Here in this prayer is the hope by which we live, a hope to shape our attitude about life, a hope that determines our relationships to the events of the world, a hope that gets us through the bitter times of sickness, disappointments, shattered dreams, and the fear of death.
Meditating on the Longing for Christ
Advent spirituality is not a time to meditate on the actual birth of Christ. According to tradition, we ought not to sing Christmas carols until Christmas itself, for Advent is not a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the manger but a time to long for the coming of the Savior. The appropriate sense of this season is captured in the pleading of "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel."
Because Advent is a time of longing for redemption, we should use the Advent season as a period to identify the matters from which we need to be redeemed. Identify whatever it is that seems to be holding you in its power: Take a piece of paper and write at the top, "Powers that hold me in their grip." Then begin to list everything that you can think of from which you would like to be set free. These powers may be bad habits, undesirable relationships, a job that is stifling and unrewarding, a vice such as a bad temper, jealousy, envy, or dishonesty, or any blockage to living by the spirit of joy, temperance, or generosity. Whatever it may be, commit it to the one who comes to set the prisoners free, turn it over to Christ in prayer, and ask the one who is to come into your life to take this problem up into himself.
There is one more matter that is important in this discipline, however. If you would truly turn this issue over to Christ, the decision must come from the insidefrom the heart and the will. You must purpose it. One of our greatest problems is that we make our decisions intellectually without recourse to the deeper side of our personality. Obviously the mind must be engaged in our decisions, but decisions of life that are primarily formed in the mind without the pain of a gut-wrenching longing that results in sleepless nights and moments of deep anxiety are too often dismissed with the wave of the hand or a rationalization that seems intelligent and acceptable. In your prayer, plead and petition the God who is coming in Christ to touch you on the inside and to birth in you an anxious and heavy longing to be redeemed from the power that holds you in its grip. Then and only then will Christ come to be born in your heart.
Meditating on the Advent of Christ in Our Lives
In Advent spirituality we are also called on to meditate on the birthing of Christ in our hearts. In this matter we are dealing with the conversion of life, the movement away from the old life lived under the power of evil to the new life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. True conversion is a turning from one way of life to another. Christ calls us to be converted to him, to make him the pattern of our lives, to make our living and dying a living and dying in him. This can only be accomplished as we completely submit to him and live our lives in respect to his paschal mystery and by the example he left for us to follow.
Advent is a time to review once again where our faith is placed and how our lives are lived. Trust in Jesus is not merely a onetime act but a continuous state of being, a moment-by-moment existence in Christ. It is a daily turning from a life lived for self to a life lived in tune with the power of the Spirit who continually calls us to be like Jesus.
Some people who have lived particularly wild lives find the contrast between their old way of life and their new way of life to be dramatic and vivid. This was certainly the experience of St. Paul, whose dramatic conversion resulted in an about-face. But for many the transfer of allegiance to Christ and to the way of life he calls us to emulate is quieter and less discernible. Many of us who have been reared in Christian homes and nurtured in the faith are not able to point with certainty to the precise moment of conversion. Whether we come into the faith through a stormy and cataclysmic experience or were parented into Christ is not the real issue. What is at stake during Advent is an assessment of our current state of faith and living and our commitment to keep on living in the hope to which we have been called.
Advent asks us to deal with the basics of our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Do I really believe in Christ? Have I put my hope and trust in him? Do I see the future through the eyes of the one who came to redeem the world from the power of evil? Is there a longing within me for him to be formed within, to take up residence in my personal life, in my home, and in my vocation? These are not easy questions to answer. They require meditation, intention, and above all, a commitment that remains steadfast. But if we would break away from a spiritual life growing cold and a Christ who is becoming distant, we must be attentive to our spiritual discipline and long for God to break in on us with new life. When we do this, we experience the true meaning of Advent spirituality.
Excerpted from Webber, Dr. Robert, Ancient-Future Time; Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, (c) 2004 Robert E. Webber. Used by permission.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More Christianity Today articles, available on our Advent page, include:
Advent: Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind | 'Tis the season when even the free-ranging revivalist pulls up a chair to the table of historic liturgy. (Dec. 03, 2004)
Advent | Quotations to stir the heart and mind from Augustine, Madeleine L'Engle, and Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Dec. 10, 2003)
Word Made Flesh | Quotations to stir heart and mind about the Incarnation. (Dec. 20, 2002)
Christmas Countdown | When does the holiday season really start? (Dec. 07, 2001)