This article first appeared at: catholic.com
You’ve heard of ‘the gift that keeps on giving.’ But Jesus is more than that.
“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.”
How is Advent different from Lent? On the surface, we might point to things like violet vestments and no flowers, interrupted by a single Sunday of rose; a dropping of the Gloria in Excelsis in Advent as well as the Alleluia in Lent. Both are seasons of waiting. In Lent we prepare for the feast of the Resurrection, the central fact and foundation of our faith, so the penitence and fasting and discipline are focused on preparing our hearts to understand and experience the mighty acts of redemption that we walk through ritually in the Sacred Triduum. In Advent, obviously, we’re preparing for the great feast of the Nativity. And the readings, especially in these early weeks, present a similarly sobering assortment of reminders that we do not know the span of our life, or of history.
With Lent and Easter, I think, this penitential emphasis makes sense to us because we know that the climax isn’t just the Resurrection, but also the cross. Easter is a reminder of God’s victory on our behalf, and the penitence of Lent helps us confront the horror of Good Friday and all the ways that we need that divine victory over sin and death. That is the basic sense of Easter. Despite the best attempts of the market, Easter has never been commercialized quite as successfully as Christmas, because it is hard to make a generic secular message out of the theme of Christ trampling down death with death and bringing life to those in the grave.
With Christmas, though, there’s a baby, and a birth, which seems so much more normal and innocuous. And so over the years it has morphed into that generic celebration of life and family and consumerism that we all know and love. But none of this makes a whole lot of sense with the message of Advent and Christmas as the Church actually presents it. Somehow, if we’re to take the texts seriously, Christmas is about joy, yes, and comfort—but also judgment, the Day of the Lord, the end of the world. It is about the dissolution, as St. Peter writes, of the world in fire and loud noise.
Being a child of the ’80s, and a parent of small children, I’m fond of the classic Mr. Rogers song: “I think it’s very, very, very hard to wait / Especially when you’re waiting / For something very nice.” On a practical level, that obviously applies to Christmas. Usually around this time in Advent we start getting presents in the mail from extended family. They’re wrapped. They’re visible. But they must not yet be opened. That’s hard. And so usually we just hide them, because small children are not actually very good at waiting. And I think as well of the countless people who just cannot wait to put up their Christmas decorations—whether it’s at the stroke of midnight after Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or December 1—or any number of other dates. Certainly, in these times of international anxiety and deep social division, I understand the longing for Christmas cheer. But what are we actually celebrating?
Is Christmas “something very nice,” in the words of Mister Rogers? Well, yes and no. It’s the appearance, in the flesh, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is cause for joy, as the angelic hosts proclaim. But it is also cause for fear and trembling, as the angelic hosts also proclaim. For a baby, like the Lord, comes in the night as a thief. And his arrival is a cause for terror as much as joy.
In a way, I think every parent knows this. I have six children, and at the birth of each one, I burst into tears. I really have no idea why. It’s not as though I was the one doing the real work. It just happened. Yes, they were happy tears. But they were also tears of fear and sadness, and confusion, and just being overwhelmed by the gravity of life and death and everything.
Like any other birth, the birth of the incarnate God is a judgment on us. It’s not a simple gift of cupcakes and flowers. It is the embrace of a hard, demanding love, a love that goes beyond death. And so Advent is not just waiting, as in waiting to open our presents; it’s waiting so that we can be ready to receive the challenge that is the God incarnate, the challenge that is God entering our lives and giving us the grace to do his will.
Returning to our epistle reading in 2 Peter, the idea of the elements melting and being dissolved in fire is a favorite prooftext of a certain Protestant contempt for creation that was once, at least, quite common in the evangelical world—the idea that it doesn’t matter what we do with this world, because it’s all going to burn. But such an emphasis neglects the actual climax of the passage, which echoes that of Revelation: according to Peter, “we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” For Peter, as for John in Revelation, it is exactly because this world is passing away that we must take it seriously.
This world isn’t a trial run. It’s not a beta test. We get to do it only once. It is the real preparation of the world to come, and this preparation has an end point that we do not know. And so this waiting isn’t just a test of patience and resolve; it’s a process of transformation, in which we open ourselves, over the course of the Christian year, over the course of a lifetime of Advents, to the life of the new kingdom that Christ brings. We receive the gift of Christ anew each Christmas because, unlike most human gifts, he is the gift that not only keeps giving, but keeps taking. He doesn’t just want you and me from that magical Christmas when you were seven; he wants you and me this Christmas, next Christmas, every day, every hour. We are human beings, not boxes of fudge, and to give ourselves in love for real involves fidelity over time. The sacraments aren’t financial transactions; they are food that nourishes us to grow.
As John the Baptist calls us over the next couple of weeks to new repentance, to a preparation for the Lord’s coming, God help us to heed his warnings and forsake our sins, to “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light,” judging ourselves as we will one day be judged, so that when the Lord does come—whether at Christmas, or at the end of the world, or even today at this altar—he will find us, as one old prayer says, a mansion prepared for himself. Amen.
Why We’re Catholic
– Trent Horn (Paperback)
How can you believe all this stuff?
This is the number-one question Catholics get asked—and, sometimes, we ask ourselves. Why do we believe that God exists, that he became a man and came to save us, that what looks like a wafer of bread is actually his body? Why do we believe that he inspired a holy book and founded an infallible Church to teach us the one true way to live?
Ever since he became Catholic, Trent Horn has spent a lot of time answering these questions, trying to explain to friends, family, and total strangers the reasons for his faith