ADVENT has its origins in a penitential season (the “December fast”) in which the faithful looked forward to their Lord’s return.
The connection with Christmas came later. By the medieval period, the now familiar rhythm of Advent had emerged. In it, the Church looks forward to Christ’s coming in glory, seeks to discern his action in the world today, and learns from those who watched and waited for his first coming in the humility of a Bethlehem stable (Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The once and future coming of Christ).
As Rutledge argues, this is more than liturgical arcana. “Because the church in modern times has turned away from the proclamation of the second coming, an intentional effort must be made to reinstate it” if we are to experience the “truly radical nature of Advent”.
One of the most radical features of Advent is its focus on receptivity. The fractures in our fallen world are too fundamental to be healed by human efforts alone, whether those focus on personal improvement or social transformation. Advent invites us to acknowledge the depths of our plight — our estrangement from God, and thereby from his creation — and to recognise our need of God’s deliverance.
The Advent hope is that God will, at a time of his choosing, complete the work begun in the earthly ministry of Christ. In the light of this hope, our collect asks for grace to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” in this life, in which Christ came “in great humility”; so that “on the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty” we might receive immortal life.
The “last day” is the focus of our Gospel, in which Jesus foretells a period of “confusion” and “forebodings” before he returns “with power and great glory”. He tells his disciples to “stand up and raise [their] heads” when the great tribulations arise, “because [their] redemption is drawing near”. Their posture is to be expectant and confident in God, and they are also to be vigilant, “so that [their] hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life”.
Our epistle likewise summons us to watch and wait, with faithfulness and patience. Paul prays that the hearts of the Thessalonians will be “strengthened in holiness” so they will be found “blameless” when their Lord returns.
The rhythms of contemporary life make it ever harder to watch and wait with faithfulness. The majority of our time is either consumed with the tasks and pressures of work (“the worries of this life”), or spent on consumption through the retail and entertainment industries (“dissipation and drunkenness”). The profusion of labour-saving devices has not led to a discernible increase in the time we spend sitting still, whether with God, our neighbours, or ourselves.
The vigilance to which we are called in Advent is very different from the passivity induced by consumerism. We wait, with “[our] heads raised”, for God’s coming. And we wait because we believe the current state of the world to be neither how things are meant to be, nor how they ultimately will be. To look forward to Christ’s coming in glory is to refuse to make our peace with the world as it is.
It is here that the liturgies of Advent make a deeper connection with the Christmas story. Our Old Testament reading is addressed to a people in exile, and urges them to look forward to a deliverance that God alone can initiate. Later in this season, in the stories of John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, we will see that this attitude of expectation does not leave us passive. Rather, it means that we are ready to recognise God’s deliverance when it comes, and to respond courageously.
Writing in 1951, Romano Guardini observed that faith in Christ’s return lay “dormant” in the Church, and, as a consequence, the faith lacked “the tension which lent its early centuries their clear-cut decisiveness, their ardour and élan”. Christianity would have to “lose some of its complacency” before this dormant seed would spring to life again (The Lord).
For both Church and society, the turbulence of our times makes complacency less plausible. Instead of being immersed in anxious activity or passive consumption, Advent summons us to be a people who wait — vigilant and expectant — for the deliverance of God.