3 December is the First Sunday of Advent
Advent is a time of waiting. We all know what waiting is like. Sometimes our waiting is impatient – a child hanging out for holidays at the end of the school year, for example, or of teenagers waiting till they can drive legally. Sometimes waiting is anxious – waiting for the result of exams, or waiting for the verdict in a court case. Sometimes, waiting is both anxious and joyful. In the Roman Empire, townspeople might wait for a year for the arrival of the Emperor, knowing that it would be a time of reward for their compliance but also for punishment of crimes committed.
This solemn and awe-inspiring arrival of the Emperor into the city coloured Christians’ understanding of the waiting for Christ. It was a time of waiting for the arrival of the king at many levels. Most obviously it was a time of waiting to celebrate the coming of Jesus as a child in Bethlehem. The Scripture readings of Advent are full of promises that a dry land will flower, exiles will return home, peace will come to a war-torn world, and the harvest will be plentiful. In Advent, we recall the coming of God into our world at Christmas, and we prepare to celebrate it.
Advent is also a time of waiting for the coming of Christ at the end of time, the time of fulfilment, of judgment, of the world united and gathered as God’s people. The Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent emphasises this aspect of Christ’s coming. It tells the story of a master who goes away and tells his servants to care for the house and to wait attentively for his return. The coming of God into our world at Christmas is the beginning of a drama that will end with us gathered with him at the end of time.
Finally, Advent is a time of waiting inwardly. We wait in order to recognise the coming of God into our hearts, and Jesus’ call to us in our daily lives. Seen from this perspective, Advent is a way of life in which we wait on God’s word, a space for reflection in the business of our daily lives.
Advent also encourages us to enter the experience of people in our own world who are compelled to wait. These include Indigenous Australians who have waited for more than two centuries for the descendants of the settlers to recognise the injustices inflicted on them and for gestures of repentance. They include, too, the people forced from their homes in Israel and Gaza, and live in insecurity and hunger. Exiled from their home, they wait on the kindness of strangers for welcome, and survive as best they can. Like other refugees, they share the experience of Isaiah and the Jewish people in Scripture. They have also had to leave their homes, often separated from their families, struggling without support in a wealthy land, and able only to dream of a decent life.
Although we may not be able to offer them a home, during Advent we can keep them in our hearts, spending time to know them better. Through our support in prayer and other ways, we can do for them what Isaiah did for his own people: help encourage them to hope that one day God would come into the world and they would be able to live full lives.
Advent gives way to Christmas. That is a time to look forward to and to celebrate, as people look forward to a Grand Final with a stacked stadium. The first Christmas was a quiet occasion in which the celebrating took place deep within human hearts. It had the intensity of joy that comes with the birth of a newborn and eagerly awaited baby at the end of a hard pregnancy. That joy spread and changed the world. Our compassion and small gestures of support might help to do the same in our troubled world this year.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.