First Sunday of Advent – Down to Earth

First Sunday of Advent – Down to Earth

Readings: Isaiah 63:14-64:8, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:33-37.

The readings today speak of patience, of holding fast in the certain hope of God’s unveiling at an unexpected time… but why are we waiting? Is Jesus Christ not already the complete self-revelation of the Father in human history and the personal establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven… has not God already “torn the heavens open and come down”, as the first reading has it? Despite our faith in these realities, the world—which we profess to have been definitively redeemed by Christ—seems so scourged, so manifestly unredeemed. But it can be put in another, much more personal, way: why do we Christians, we who bear the name of our redeemer, still fall into the sins of the deceiver. 
Christianity is faith in the future, which is why it is also the religion of hope. In this Second Advent we dare to hope for more even than our forefathers hoped for in First Advent, for we now indwell the tension between an eternal life that has been unveiled as our destiny, and the finite constitution of the time that we’ve been allotted to appropriate it. This time is blessed time, sacramental moments that make a season of grace, not an empty, vacuous, degenerating countdown to oblivion. We see a reflection of this at Holy Mass, when we enter into a period of anticipation and waiting between the sacrificial moment of the double consecration and the reception of Holy Communion. The Eucharist, the Sacrament that makes present the Kingdom of God, is unique in having such a disjunction between the moment it is effected and the moment it is received. In an analogous way, we now dwell between ‘consecration’ and ‘consummation’.

Advent reminds us that we are authentically Christian insofar as our lives are orientated toward that future consummation. Yet this, the infinite future that none of us can escape, is not a future of our construction or human fashioning. We are neither fanatics whose desperation for future liberation inoculates us against the graces and obligations of the present, nor are we hopeless and slothful quietists that accept the unacceptable in the name of a mythical, distant, future. We cannot excuse ourselves from the task of building a better world, nor can we go about that task with historical consciousness alone. But our ‘work’ here is relativised by God’s work, the work of grace; for it is grace itself that propels us outwards into the tasks that God bestows upon us, and confirms us in our hope that our work cannot be in vain. Thus the present is not sacrificed on the altar of the future, nor is the future sacrificed on the altar of the present. The sole sacrifice is the priest-victim Jesus Christ, the altar is the cross, and he alone unites us—past, present and future—to the One True God, sending their Holy Spirit to scatter grace in abundance, as seeds of future glory in today’s present.

So the children of Advent are down to earth. Paradoxically, it is by living the experience of anticipation, by being an Advent People, that we are able to live authentically in the present. Our faith enables us to see the future here in the present, to dwell within it and make it ‘home’, for our future is the God to whom faith binds us, dwelling amongst us in Christ, made present afresh by the Holy Spirit. Advent is a penitential season insofar as it invites us to cast off all the false dwelling places of sin, the mini-idols we create in the present as our personal projects and objectives for a man-made future. What will these detours look like in eternity? Yet Advent is also a season of the profoundest hope, a restful hope, that reposes in God’s grace and awaits its consummation, an invitation to spend time with the timeless God who ‘rested’ with us at the culmination of creation. ‘Be still and know that I am the Lord and I will be exalted among the nations’, as the Psalmist says. Vacate et videte, be still in order to see—vacate yourself, take a holiday from playing God! And there, in today’s silence of eternity, we meet God, the future whom today we prepare to meet in peace.

fr. Oliver is Master of Students of the English Province, teaches dogmatic theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, and has recently been appointed Director of the Aquinas Institute.