The New Liturgical Year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, which is tomorrow Sunday, December 3rd. In this new year, we as Catholics not only begin a new year year, we are invited to a renewed commitment to the Faith. The Advent Season invites us to a time of deep prayer and reflection during which we "make room" to welcome the message---and the One--who was sent for our salvation.
The Liturgy of the Advent Season encourages us to vigilance--an "awakening." Often, when we hear "awakening", we think of a New Age term. Clearly, that is not the kind of "awakening" to which we are being invited. So really, what does "awakening" mean in this case?
In the coming weeks, we all most likely will be invited to a plethora of things: parties, shopping, concerts, movies, visiting Santa with the kids, cooking, decorating, wrapping, etc. While these things are certainly not bad, we can get lost in them--overwhelmed perhaps, and, in a sense, fall asleep to the reason for the Season. On the First Sunday of Advent, in our second reading, we will hear St. Paul urge us to wake up amidst the drowsiness of these comings and goings:
You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14)
Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that St. Paul refers here to “the sleep of guilt” for our sins (Cf. Eph 5:14) and “the sleep of negligence” through sloth (Cf. Prov 6:9) (Commentary on Romans 13:11-14, CL 13, L 3, n. 1062). Saint John Newman points out that the sleep that St. Paul speaks of is “a state of insensibility to things as they really are in God's sight,” and warns us about the danger it poses to us:
When we are asleep, we are absent from this world's action, as if we were no longer concerned in it. It goes on without us, or, if our rest be broken, and we have some slight notion of people and occurrences about us, if we hear a voice or a sentence, and see a face, yet we are unable to catch these external objects justly and truly; we make them part of our dreams, and pervert them till they have scarcely a resemblance to what they really are; and such is the state of men as regards religious truth.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, n. 5 – “Self Denial and the Test of Religious Earnestness.”)
This spiritual sleep can also mean being distracted, anxious, and disassociated, which blinds and deadens us to the presence of God both before us and abiding within us. So often we are tempted through sin and desolation towards a spiritual gluttony. We may notice a hunger and desire in our hearts for something more and may start looking to fill it with earthly things, concerns, delights, and our own understanding instead of Him. This sleep that distracts and blinds our hearts and ultimately leads to doubt, despair, and narcissism or even to the idolatry of sin. This becomes an obstacle that binds and blinds us from hearing and seeing the way that Jesus is speaking to us and approaching us this Advent Season.
Our Lord Jesus himself reminds us not to fall asleep: “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Matt 24:42-44)
How will Jesus come to us this Advent season? The Church calls us to prepare for the coming of Jesus in three ways:
For the first two weeks of Advent, we reflect on the second and final coming of Jesus in glory “when we will come to judge the living and the dead.” We then close out Advent by prayerfully preparing and remembering His first coming in humility at Christmas with his birth as a baby boy in the manger at Bethlehem, uniting our frail human nature with His glorious divine nature. However, various saints throughout the Church’s history, such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, speak of a third and intermediate coming of Jesus between His first and second coming that we should also be focusing upon during the Advent season. This third coming is known as the coming of Jesus in mystery. It occurs in His Eucharistic presence, the silence of prayer, and in the joys and trials of the present moment of life with various people and events that we often overlook.
This first proper focus on the coming of Jesus in mystery helps us to be alert and watchful for both His coming at Christmas and at the end of time by allowing us to focus first on His presence with us here and now. This awareness of His coming to us in mystery will enable us to be grounded in a way that lets us find Him in the external comings and goings that give us joy and a receptivity towards His loving presence whenever Jesus comes to us. This is so that we can abide in the healing and salvation that He offers us here and now as well as share it with others, most especially those whom we overlook or find it difficult to love. Saint Therese of Lisieux also reminds us in relation to Jesus’ coming in the Eucharist and in Advent, ““Our Lord does not come down from Heaven every day to lie just in a golden ciborium. He comes to find another heaven which is infinitely dearer to Him -the heaven of our hearts and souls, temples of the Blessed Trinity.” (Story of a Soul).
And so, let's begin this Advent Season by praying the great prayer of Advent:
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransomed captive Israel that morns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appears.”
May this cry of the heart ever root us in our daily comings and goings in Jesus’ presence and to put Him on anew in our hearts and lives this Advent Season through turning away from the bondage and distraction of sin by making a daily commitment to mental prayer, frequenting the Sacrament of Confession, as well as the frequent and reverent reception of Jesus in the Eucharist. May our hearts become the new manger in which He can abide and rest so that the great truth, promise, and prayer may be realized in us and the entire Church anew.