The first day of December paints the Advent season in our minds and points us dramatically towards Christmas. I write on a day off with priest friends at Lake Tahoe. A day of skiing awaits us. I write gazing from our cabin window over snow-covered pines and whiteclad peaks. Mountains and trees, which live so much longer than most of us, speak to me (as I approach my 55th birthday on Sunday) of the brevity of human life. Advent is the season of joyous expectation, but recall that which we await: we await our death, the end of all things, that is, Christ's Second Coming.
Advent is the most joyous time of expectation, but it follows seamlessly the month of the dead, November. We exchange black chasubles for purple, and they are not that far apart. It is usually still November when Advent arrives, and the Advent wreathe shares room in the sanctuary with the All Souls envelopes. Candles burn before both, but Advent's joy is not compromised by November's sobriety; rather, November finds its full meaning in Advent's promise. Death is transformed by Christ's coming.
Jesus is coming for every man, and for most of us that coming will be on the day of our death. Advent points us toward the Second Coming, that is, toward the day we will die, and a fine thing it is. As Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins reflects in today's Magnificat meditation, "God has given us more warnings of death: age is a warning, sickness is a warning, and the deaths of others that go before us are a great warning." A "warning," yes, and a promise. A warning not to let the kingdom of this world attach us to itself, and a promise that another, a perfect Kingdom is coming. That Kingdom's name is Heaven.
The month of November saw quite a few interesting funerals at my parish. Yesterday, the last day of the month of the dead, I stood before an open grave, pronouncing the last few words of Christian blessing as they lowered a woman into the ground. It began to rain, then rain harder, and those of us without umbrellas began to panic as the cold water invaded the insides of our tightly-wapped coats. The honest-faced gravediggers didn't pay any attention to the rain, but my cassock, surplice, and fine black stole began to sag. A kind man came up behind me with large golf umbrella. "Here, father, come out of the rain," and we huddled together against the elements.
God will shelter us from the elemental forces of a cold universe. Of course we will have to feel, for a brief moment, the icy pain of death, but soon enough he will come for us. He has gone through death for us, and has come back from death to take us with him. The mountains testify to this; the trees bear witness to God's good order in the universe. And most of all, we witness to the hope that is latent in every created being, that we are not made to no purpose. We know from whence we came, and know where we are going.