We have entered the Season of Advent, but of course the Christmas lights have been up for weeks now. Last week I celebrated Black Friday by taking some out-of-town friends to Macy’s tree lighting ceremony at Union Square. The streets around the Square was packed with happy people radiating an air of anticipation. Something good was going to happen. And lo, Santa himself showed up at 6:30 to lead us in a countdown… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …zzztt! The giant green tree lit up with flashing white lights, and everyone cheered.
But it was really something, to see so many people emanating a certain Christmas joy. It struck me that in fact this tree lighting ceremony was a sort of liturgy, complete with vestments (the fire chief in his dress uniform, the master of ceremonies in a shining red gown, Santa in his red suit and furry hat). There was music, most partook of some food, and Santa even offered a prayer that this Christmas would bring peace and joy to our city. He knew that in the back of everyone’s mind, as dozens of city police stood tensely on the perimeter, were recent terrorist attacks in just such gatherings as this. But we came nonetheless, because everyone needs “liturgy,” special ceremonies that lift us out of ourselves and give hope for a better future.
Advent looks forward, not backward
The Scriptures and prayers of this first Sunday of Advent look to that better future, because they speak not of Christ’s first coming 2000 years ago but his Second Coming. St. Paul urges us to “to be blameless in holiness … at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” He wrote these words fifty years after the first Christmas, expecting his return. Notice also that Jeremiah in the first reading describes a future that has not yet come to pass: “In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure…” Jerusalem has never known security (the “security fence” fifteen years ago has only led to more violence), and most of the world’s terrorism comes from the interminable dispute between Jew and Arab.
Running to Jesus
The opening prayers, or collects, for Advent are among the most beautiful. Consider today’s prayer, the first for the New Year: “Grant your faithful, we pray, Almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ…” We don’t just waiting around, but we run to Christ. Don’t we all prepare for Christmas by running about, displaying the most spectacular energy of the year—decking the halls, trimming the trees, singing the carols, stirring the eggnog, planning social after social. Since we were children, we have run toward Christmas, as we should. The prayer continues: “run to meet your Christ with righteous deeds, so that gathered at his right hand, [we] may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.” Decking halls is delightful, but “good deeds” are the essential Christmas decorations. No good can come from us that doesn’t come from our interior life, and so above all Advent is a time for deeper prayer: daily Mass, daily Scripture, a good confession, and attending your parish mission.
At His First Coming, God came as a darling baby on the lap of his virgin mother Mary. At His Second Coming, Christ will come on the clouds with power and great glory. “Beware,” Jesus warns us, that “that day catch you by surprise like a trap. [It] will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.” Jesus describes his Second Coming as an “assault” and a “trap”— sobering words. We cannot simply wait for the Second Coming; we need to prepare for it and even run toward it.
Advent prepares us for our own death, for Jesus will return to us on the day we die, if we don’t live long enough to see the end of the world. We long for the Advent of a bright, new world, when justice, and the fruit of that justice, which is enduring peace. But first the old order must pass away. No one can better take us through that death, and prepare us for the rebirth, better than the Mother of God. Even as we fight our way through the malls and stage our parties and write our cards, let’s make every Christmas preparation an act of prayer. Buy gifts that will help people become more human, bring Christ into your Christmas parties with a reading of Scripture or praying the rosary, and send cards with Jesus and Mary on them rather than a tawdry rendition of Santa and Rudolf. Let’s not just walk, but run to meet Jesus this Advent.