Prepare for the Coming
The city of Rome was bursting with anticipation. The streets and alleys echoed with excitement. Butchers prepared cattle for the slaughter. Wine makers filled their barrels. Years of quarreling lords had fractured Rome. At last, one emperor conquered and united them all. After the battle at Melvian Bridge, 312 A.D., Constantine the Great rode in to Rome. His arrival, the era it marked, and all the jubilation, was celebrated with one word: the adventus, the coming, the Advent.
We cannot cherish enough the beauty of Advent. Today, on the last Sunday of the Church year, our service already points us to the season ahead: Advent. Our Gospel prepares us for the meaning of Advent, and hints at the importance of how we walk through this season. Advent is a time for looking ahead, for avoiding deceptions and idols, and for delighting in the wonder of who Jesus Christ really is.
"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; someone on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat" (Matthew 24:15-18).
We prepare for Advent with a reading about the Apocalypse. Christ is warning us about the end times. However strange this might feel, it is the perfect foundation. Advent, latin for ‘The Coming,’ is not primarily about the birth of Jesus Christ. It is about the entire new era that that birth represents. Christmas is as much about Jesus, the innocent baby, as it is about Jesus, the conquering warrior. At the shepherds’ meadow, the angels announced: “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). In John’s revelation, the prophet revealed: “I saw heaven standing open there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True…His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns…Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Revelation 19:11,12, 15). These two revelations go hand in hand. Christmas is about the coming, and everything that coming will bring.
Advent is a time for looking ahead.
“Those in Judea must flee to the mountains”
First and foremost, Advent is a time for fleeing. Recognizing that Christ is coming and will vanquish the world, we have to detach from the world. The rest of society starts its parties now. December begins: the champagne bottles open. It is always such a challenge keeping the spirit of Advent in our culture. As soon as we start fasting, everyone around us wants us to celebrate.
This is so iconic of our times. We want everything instant: food, sex, success. In traditional cultures, Christians set aside time and preparation for everything important. The months leading up to marriage are marked by abstinence. A meal follows a long time of waiting while mother cooks in the kitchen. Christmas comes after forty days of fasting and quiet. Advent is so important. Right at the start of the year, it teaches us the art of waiting.
Fr. Thomas Hopko taught: “A human being must fast. The effort enlightens the mind, strengthens the spirit, controls the emotions and tames the passions.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann adds: fasting fosters “a state of preparation and expectation -- the spiritual concentration on that which is to come…the ‘opening up’ of the entire human being to the approaching joy.” Advent is a time for fasting from food, entertainment, ‘screen time’, noise, and everything that stirs up and distracts the soul. Why fast now? We fast to have the same kind of heart that the shepherds had in the meadow — so open that they heard the angels singing in the night sky - and the magi in the orient lands — with hearts tuned to the whole universe which shouted: The Lord is Coming!
“Then if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!”—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:23-24).
Advent is a time for avoiding deception and idols. We all fall into routines. It is so important to take “retreats from the world,” like Advent, because these retreats help us to put everything into perspective. Jesus Christ’s words are so contemporary! Is not this exactly the heart beat of modern American life. Everything claims to be the Messiah. The political parties, technology, amazon, Bill Gates, the CDC, everything promises a fix for humanity. “Just bow down and take your pill. We have the answer.” Advent comes to say ‘no’! Step back and look to the stars.
“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” (Matthew 24:29).
This may be a literal prophecy. The Church Fathers also interpret it allegorically. When Christ comes, everything in our life that looks heavenly now will appear dull — the stars of Hollywood and the powers of industries — all of it will loose its shine. Only Jesus Christ is worthy of worship.
“The Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31)
Finally, Advent is a time for delight and wonder. All the Christmas lights and the festivities also have an importance. They should wake us up and make us little children again — lost in the wonder of everything.
“The silence created by the absence of the world’s noises…is to be filled with positive content” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann).
How should we fast in Advent? Along side our fasting, we should also fill up our hearts with beauty and goodness. Spend Advent going on late walks and wondering what it would have been to look up at the stars and see the angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest”. Spend the season listening to Christmas songs, reminiscing about the past, and cherishing every beautiful thought about Christmas. Spend time simply sitting in the dark in front of a Christmas tree all dressed up in ornaments and lights. For the next few weeks, everything should become an opportunity to contemplate and cherish the Coming of our Lord.
Can you imagine the excitement in Rome? The crowds filled the streets, the soldiers marched in pomp, and Emperor Constantine rode on his horse through the gates. All that joy because of their lord’s adventus. He did bring a little peace to the people, for a little while. But there was also a lot of scandal, sin, death, and eventually the collapse of Rome. All the advents of this world are the same: good for a short time, and then disappointing. But there is one Advent that will never disappoint: the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our efforts to prepare for Christ’s coming should far excel the world’s efforts to prepare for its kings. This is the true Advent. May our Lord prepare our hearts.