Advent and the Apocalypse
“Advent and the Apocalypse”
Fr. Peter Kavanaugh
“Paratus sum ad Adventum Domini.”
"I am ready for the coming of the Lord.”
The word ‘Advent’ stems from this ancient Latin prayer. In the historic Church, it was customary for Christians to begin every day of Advent by attending what was known as a ‘Golden Mass.” The faithful first lit a candle at their hearth, offering up this pious prayer, “Paratus sum ad Adventum Domini.” Each soul, candle in hand, walked solemnly to the chapel, which was kept in complete darkness, except for the light cast from altar candles. By the final “Benedicamus Domino,” the dawn’s first rays lit up the sanctuary. These golden dawn rays mystically symbolized the coming of Christ, banisher of darkness.
“Jesus said unto his disciples: There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea, and the waves roaring: men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads: for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:25-33).
Advent arrives to plunge us into this apocalyptic reality.
A hush sweeps across the earth now, in nature, and in our Christian hearts. We should remember that there is nothing arbitrary about the Church Calendar. All nature lines up with it. Indeed, nature was created first to foreshadow the calendar, and is fulfilled in it. The badgers and foxes burrow in their dens. The trees shed their leaves and concentrate their energy down into their roots. The sun hides its rays and rests in darkness. We Christians are called to follow their example, to quiet our lifestyles now, turn out our lights and screens now, and to burrow deeper into our souls.
Advent is an apocalyptic time. What do I mean with this? The Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent sets the tone.
First, the whole world is falling apart. “Signs in the sun, moon, and stars.” “Distress of nations.” “Perplexity in the sea and waves roaring.”
Isaiah describes this tumultuous day in vivid detail: “Behold, the Day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning . . . The stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises and the moon will not shed its light” (Isaiah 13:9-10).
“The windows above are opened, and the foundations of the earth shake. The earth is broken asunder, The earth is split through, The earth is shaken violently. The earth reels to and fro like a drunkard” (Isaiah 24:18-20 ).
The nations on earth will be overwhelmed with distress — συνοχή: acute anxiety, a terror, a tearing apart. It is the same word used in Jeremiah 52:5, when Jerusalem was surrounded by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, watching as their doom surrounded them.
The worldly minded will suffer great perplexity — ἀπορία: senselessness, bewilderment, gnawing nihilism. Even the powers of heaven will be shaken, the spiritual entities of the airs, the demons and gods under Satan’s dominions, all these too will tremble.
At this moment, Jesus Christ Himself appears. “The gates of heaven, closed from all ages, by the hands of ministering angels are thrown wide open,” Eusebius preaches. “They shall see the Son of man coming, faithful and unbelieving alike shall see Him. Both cross and Redeemer shall shine more splendidly than the sun” (St. Theophylactus).
“Then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
This is where our Gospel returns to us.
Where will the people of God be in all this tumult? What is our place when the world falls apart?
“When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads: for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28).
Look up. Lift up your heads.
ἀνακύψατε καὶ ἐπάρατε τὰς κεφαλὰς ὑμῶν.
Straighten up. Stop walking with a stoop. Lift up your eyes from the ground. Rejoice and Hope.
This is the crux of our Gospel today, and the soul of Advent.
Why do we get upset about the problems in our country? Why do we get anxious about our finances or schedules. Why are we caught up in the stress of the world.
“Look up, and lift up your heads,” our Lord says to us, right in the heart of darkness.
Advent is an apocalyptic time. We must place our hearts in the place of those Medieval faithful, waiting in the dark chapel through the Advent Golden Mass — morning after morning, waiting, longing, and hoping for the light of dawn.
Advent is our season for unplugging from the chaos and anxiety of the world. It does not belong to us. The consumerism, the hedonism, the frenetic entertainment, the sensual distractions — this is satan’s realm: “upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity . . . men’s hearts failing them for fear.” The Christian is called to stand cut off from all of it, with hearts lifted upwards.
Advent is our season for detaching, for getting quiet, for burning anticipation for our Savior: the true celebration, the happy dawn, the Spirit of Christmas, peace and mirth.
Advent is our season for fixing our heart on Christ.
There was another Advent tradition in Medieval Christendom. Each morning and evening leading up to Christmas, in Northern Europe, the people blew a trumpet: the Midwinterhoorn Blazen. Linden wood horns, eight or nine feet long, were blown over frozen wells, ushering loud, deep, solemn calls across the mountain side. One master horn maker in the Netherlands described the sound with wonder:
"On a winter's night when you hear many horns, sounding from all directions, across ice-sheeted meadows and everything is black and still, then the music is beautiful. The sound carries great distances – sometimes as far as three kilometers."
Why did they blow their advent trumpets. The call reminded the faithful of the angelic trumpets on Judgment Day.
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them” (Revelation 8:1-2). “Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them . . . [When] the seventh angel blew his trumpet, there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever”’ (Revelation 11:15).
Advent has come. Christ is coming. We are given a challenge. Will we be able to say, in all due sincerity: "I am ready for the coming of the Lord.”