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Joyful Anticipation

“Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watches, and keeps his garments” (Rev. 16:15).

Today begins a season of waiting. The nights are getting darker. The air is colder, crisper. With the change of seasons, the Church invites us into a new spiritual season: Advent. Around this time of year, the badgers are all burrowing into their dens. We Christians need to do the same, shutting off our televisions, turning down the lights, and retreating into the quiet den of our hearts. Advent arrives and offers the medicine we need most desperately. It invites us into a silence, a deliberate, focused silence, anticipating the joy of our Coming Lord.

Advent has one recurring theme. All the stories tell it: the magi travelling from the East, the shepherds tending their flock in the wilderness, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph travelling to Bethlehem. The Advent wreathe, the fasting and abstinence, the whole atmosphere of this season is steeped in it. First and foremost, Advent invites to take up this theme: quiet, pensive anticipation.

Advent is a kind of pregnancy for the soul. In the sixth month, angel Gabriel announced to Mary:

“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women…Behold, you will conceive in thy womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:28, 31).

From that moment on till the birth of Christ, the Blessed Virgin felt a change take place in her womb. She felt the weight of carrying an infant. She felt the tiny legs kick. Her breathing changed. Her whole heart filled up with anticipation for this mysterious coming – God’s incarnation. In a mystical way, we join the Theotokos in this period of anticipation during Advent. That is, if we really enter into Advent. The Church’s guidelines all serve to put us in this spiritual place. By going to confession, increasing our prayers, giving alms and fasting, we are brought into this place of longing for God.

Our Gospel today is the perfect preparation for Advent.

“When you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains…as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Mat. 24:15-16, 27).

Scriptures are always multifaceted. On one level, Christ is foretelling the destruction of the temple. In A.D. 70, the Roman Empire swarmed into Jerusalem, defiled and overturned their temple, and scattered the Jews into the mountains. In the midst of all this the Church was growing and flourishing. The death of one civilization overlapped the birth of another. On another level, Christ is prophesying about the end of the world. At the appointed hour, this world will end and be replaced with another. Both prophecies share the same theme: anticipation for the Coming of Christ.

Christ now makes a rather strange prediction.

“Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken…Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven” (Mat. 24:29-30).

We cannot know whether or not these words are literal. If the sun will actually darken and the stars fall from heaven is beyond us, and it is silly to speculate. The Church Fathers insist, meanwhile, that Christ’s words have a symbolic meaning. St. John Chrysostom teaches:

“As swiftly as the moon and stars fade before the rising sun, so before the glorious appearance of Christ, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give her light, and the stars will fall from heaven; stripped of their former splendor.”

The stars and the sun represent our human accomplishments and feelings of superiority, our addictions and distractions. In the bright light of Jesus Christ, everything else looses its shine.

What does this have to do with Advent? The Church is calling us today to re-evaluate our lifestyle. What are our false gods? What are the suns and stars that we worship, which, at Christ’s arrival, crumble to dust? In a book about secularism, a philosopher writes:

“[We live today in a] flattened human universe where the escapes are boredom and distraction…most of the time the best ‘salvation’ we can hope for is found in behaviors that numb us to this reality: drugs, sex, entertainments of various sorts…A specter haunts our secular age, ‘the specter of meaninglessness’” (James K. A. Smith).

What behaviors do we have that numb us from reality? What habits have we built up to escape from reality – the only true reality, Jesus Christ in the present moment knocking on the doors of our hearts? St. Paul writes:

“The whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs…we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption [union with God]” (Rom. 22-23).

None of us are content in our addictions and mindless distractions. Advent exists to pull us away from it back into harmony with God.

At the end of his prophecy, Christ tells the parable of the ten virgins.

“The kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps (Mat. 25:1-4).

Eventually the oil ran out. The foolish virgins without extra oil could not replenish their lamps, and the flames died. This is the case in our own lives when not nurturing our souls. It is a parable for Advent. We are the betrothed of Christ waiting for our Lord to come. Advent is a time for waiting, listening, preparing for the coming. Will we keep the oil burning?

“Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watches, and keeps his garments” (Rev. 16:15).

Christ comes. Will we be watching? I want to encourage you to use these next few days to prepare for Advent. What goals can you set to go deeper into your prayer life? How can you keep the garments of your soul more pure? May God allow us all to enter into the quiet of Advent, and there tune our hearts more fully in joyful anticipation.


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