In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. As I keep repeating, its hard for me to believe that Christmas is right around the corner. It seems like just yesterday we were in the midst of high summer, struggling to keep the air conditioner going, in the long slog through the Church’s “green season.” But here we are.
It seems like the older I get, the more quickly time passes by. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’ve always loved Christmas, and I well remember, when I was a child, it seeming like Christmas would NEVER get here. I had an Advent calendar on my wall, with which I counted down the days of December until Christmas, and each day seemed like an eternity. Christmas eve was so full of expectancy as the family gathered, and eggnog was served. My granddad put corn whiskey (aka Moonshine) in it, but there was an alternative bowl for children and designated drivers. The whole evening glowed with warmth and good cheer, at least in my memory, just like it does in Christmas songs and popular mythology. But it seemed to me like the day would just never end, and that Christmas morning, the main event, was in danger each year of never arriving at all.
This perception was a product, I now realize, of my childishness. Not in a pejorative sense, but just because I was indeed young. My lifespan constituted, in toto, five, six, or seven years, or whatever, and a single 24-hour period constituted a much greater proportion of the whole than it does now.
And it wasn’t just Christmas. I well remember driving with Mom and Dad during the summers to my aunt and uncle’s farm in south Georgia, where I would romp with my cousins, roam through the woods, shoot guns, and ride horses and four-wheelers. It was a boy’s paradise. It was about a three hour drive from our house near Atlanta, but the drive might just as well have taken a million years as far as I was concerned. It seemed like we would NEVER get there. And I well remember asking over and over again: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” In retrospect, I’m surprised I ever arrived at all, that my ceaseless pestering didn’t get me ejected from the car before we got to Macon.
Every auspicious occasion was like this from the vantage point of my childhood. The prospect of turning 16, and attaining to the liberation that comes with a drivers license, was another conspicuous one. And the prospect of living on my own, as an adult, with some as yet undetermined vocation and life-trajectory lay over a far-distant and inscrutable horizon. Of course all these things eventually came to pass, and are mile markers now lying behind me.
There remains one, though, that looms large over every life, but that yet, for most of us, remains a similarly distant and inscrutable improbability. And that is death, the final stop at the end of all of life’s way stations. From time to time, in part motivated by a morbid curiosity or anxiety, but also at least partly from an effort to do what the saints have done and exhorted us to do, I will remind myself that I will in fact one day arrive at the event of my own death, just as I have arrived at every other destination, no matter how impossible the arrival might seem when it yet lies in the future. I occasionally try to envision the range of potential circumstances surrounding my death: at home with family, after a long illness, or suddenly, in a car crash, or whatever. There is no way to know.
During Advent, the readings at Mass and the Divine Office focus on the second advent of Christ, and the coming Kingdom. They have an apocalyptic tone that should jar our modern minds, suffused as we are in our culture’s obsession with reindeer and eggnog lattes (admittedly MY obsession), hyper-consumerism, and other facets of the radically here-and-now. But just like each of the other unthinkable remotenesses of what now lies in our lives’ past, that day too will come.
This has been the theme in particular at the readings at Vespers during the past week, from the second epistle of St. Peter. Peter writes:
you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God [the] heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. (2 Peter 3.3-15)
As surely as there was a first Advent of Christ, and two-thousand-and-some Christmases have intervened since, so there will be a second Advent of Christ, “and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. [And] Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness[?]” Herein lies the true meaning of this season, and it has nothing to do with maxing out your credit card(s). Saint Benedict, the great Father of Western monasticism, gave some advice on this score to his disciples, and we would do well to heed it as well. Benedict urges us:
To fear the Day of Judgment. To be in dread of hell. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit. To keep death daily before one’s eyes. To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere. [And] When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately. (Rule 4.44-50)
Such are the contours of a truly Christian preparation to meet the inevitable. But we should always remember that what had been, for all the world, the dreadfulness of the world’s and our own personal inevitabilities, has been transformed by Christ, and that in him death itself, and the dissolution of all things, only means rebirth and transformation and glory. And on this score the words of the letter to the Hebrews seem an apt commentary:
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12.18ff)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.