“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)
You read it correctly and it bears repeating: there is a problem with Advent! Consider the Church’s description of Advent: “Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance (recall last week’s Word of THE WORD on the significance of “to remember”) of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight.” (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 39.) The ‘problem’ lies not in the relatively short span of time, although Advent is the ‘longest’ it can be this year - a full 4 weeks. The ‘problem’ lies not in the hustle and bustle of decorating, gift purchases, parties, food preparation and family gatherings. The ‘problem’ with Advent is that we know how it ends, or so we think.
The Church describes this holy Season as “preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas” and as a period of “expectant delight.” Generally, when any of us prepares for and expects some reality, there are varying levels of certitude concerning the result. Ask anyone in the construction trades. When it comes to building and especially remodeling, there are plans as well as some visualization of the completed project. Invariably though, one runs into unexpected obstacles along the way that necessitate change orders causing a slightly (hopefully!) different outcome. Even when the there are no change orders or the ones that happen to be minimal, it is a wonderful experience to see ‘the look’ on people’s faces when the job is complete. No matter how the end had been pictured in one’s mind, the end reality is always greater and comes as a delightful surprise.
It is this sense of the unexpected or uncertainty that forms Advent’s challenge and opportunity giving rise to the question, ‘how can I be drawn into Advent?’ The question initially sounds odd because the question ‘how’ often returns the answer what I do, what I initiate, plan and execute. Yet Advent, like all dimensions of Christian living, is pure, gratuitous grace. We can only respond, we cannot initiate. This is what got us into trouble in the Garden as an anonymous Rabbi of antiquity mused. ‘While God rested on the Seventh Day humanity, unwilling to accept the Creator’s rest, initiated an attempt to create god’ – the biblical equivalent of idolatry: the fashioning of ‘god’ according to human desire and outlook.
Like Advents before, we will be schooled in ‘Adventing’ this Season of preparing and expecting by the quintessential prophet of hope, Isaiah. He teaches us just about every day of Advent how to respond to the grace of preparing and expecting the Messiah. While always acknowledging and living the otherness of God, Isaiah is also profoundly concrete and earthy in that God is not a distant or disconnected energy, cosmic force or ethereal goo but a Person whose invitations to humanity are always the product of infinite life and love. Isaiah contemplated (saw) this life and love “in days to come” when “They shall beat (כָּתַת, katat) their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4) Beat as well as swords, plowshares, spears and pruning hooks are graphic, earthy and they recall for Isaiah the reflective teaching of Moses as well as life in the Garden.
Employing a principle from the great Alexandrian scholar, exegete and martyr - Origen - who proposed to let ‘Scripture interpret Scripture,’ the Hebrew verb כָּתַת (katat, to beat) expressed a military objective of ‘beating back’ or ‘keeping the enemy at bay.’ In the journey of the Hebrew people from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, Moses navigated the Chosen People through many dangers. Sometimes those dangers involved battles like the one with Amalek. In the unfolding of Biblical living and reflecting, such battles became identified with the individual and communal battles against sin in all its forms. One and all had to harness, through proper discernment, all talents, skills, abilities and gifts and place them in the service to combat threats to life and love.
But there was another threat Moses knew too well, idolatry. In Deuteronomy 9, Moses minced no words about how the Golden Calf angered God and himself. But one can also detect in Moses disappointment, hurt and even a broken heart when he saw the idol and the consequent idolatrous living because humanity had once again ingested the toxin of death-dealing sin. “Then, taking the calf, the sinful object you had made, I burnt it and ground (כָּתַת, katat) it down to powder as fine as dust, which I threw into the wadi (stream, source of drinking water in the desert) that went down the mountainside.” (verse 21) The implication here is that the object of their idolatry ultimately was consumed in a way like humanity’s consumption of fruit in the Garden that attempted to create another god the first time. כָּתַת (katat, translated here “to ground”) is couched in the context of idolatry, the failure not only to recognize the One God but to attempt the creation of a god of one’s own making and projecting.
So, in the end one might argue that Advent’s ‘problem’ is our Lord’s gift to us. We intellectually know how this Season of preparing and expecting ends. In this Liturgical Year when the Gospel according to Saint Matthew is proclaimed on Sundays, we know that Saint Joseph is directed to name Mary’s child Yeshua (“Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” [Matthew 1:21]) and as a result “they shall name Him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23). Being drawn into Advent as a way of living is to honestly admit and deal with the idols of our lives: any reality (realities) that is not (are not) the authentic, genuine “God-is-with-us.” And so, each of us must ask: what are the realities that dictate my decisions? (The very fact that that there are multiple realities is an indication of sin as ‘they’ stand in opposition to God Who is One.) Is it ‘my’ time and how it is used even when it comes to the life of God (Worship) and other people (charitable service)? Is it ‘my’ money and its selfish acquisition? Is it ‘my’ possessions and hoarding when I know the poor can benefit? Is it ‘my’ objectifying of people and using them for my pleasure and benefit? Is it ‘my’ sense of entitlement without responsibility and thanksgiving? Is it ‘my’ supposed quest for tolerance that is ultimately an intolerance for Truth? Is it finding ‘my’ comfort in behaviors or substances? Is it ‘my’ quest for power that manipulates and deceives? Obviously, the list to examine where each of us stands can go on and on. The urgent task of Advent is to bring them to the Door of Mercy Who stands open 24/7/365. The Door of Mercy stands open, not because the weapons of swords and spears forcibly move God the Father of mercies. In love, the cosmos came into being and in love humanity was summoned to cultivate and care for that same cosmos. “Plowshares” and “pruning hooks” are the tools we have been given for this cultivating work that keeps sin at bay and eyes fixed always on the One God of love. A plow digs into the earth. There are no pretensions. Earth is earth, life is life and one gets dirty. This “work of human hands” not only keeps one ‘grounded’ but also thankful for the resources provided as gift. The dirt is not the dirt of sin but of authenticity and genuineness, thus the virtue of humility. Similarly, “pruning hooks” (think perhaps of ‘garden shears’) are the “work of human hands” ‘stained’ by what they prune and cut. Again, no pretension, no duplicity, no falsity only an honest admission and genuine embrace of life in an earthy way that, while painful, effects growth (see John 15).
Thus, one may consider the ‘problem’ of Advent to be the challenge to face the idolatry of sin in one’s life and approach this reality non-defensively by admitting, “Lord be merciful to me a sinner.” Idols distort our senses, mind and heart along while numbing us at the same time to the reality of sin. If you do not know what sin is or what your sins are (a question I hear quite often within and without the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation), ask Holy Spirit to bathe you in the light of His healing mercy (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus) and then act IMMEDIATELY on the knowledge you are given. Do not procrastinate! This Advent can be the season when each of us admits what idols do and realize why we need a life-giving relationship with ‘God-in-the-flesh’ — Jesus. As Emmanuel, Jesus is God-with-us most especially as we receive Him in the Most Holy Eucharist. He is the antidote for the poisoned food consumed in the Garden. He is the antidote for the toxic idols we have drunk into our nature. Let today be the Day Isaiah saw when we allow Jesus, Emmanuel to crush all the idols in our lives and so live in the loving freedom He gives as pure gift with senses, mind and heart fixed on Him.