December 1 is the First Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 121(122):1-2, 4-5, 6-9; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 37-44
When I was a student, our college looked out over the city of Melbourne. Towering over the city were the spires of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Now, the Cathedral is like a shed in front of the skyscrapers, a toy house. This is an image of the place of religious observance in Australian life.
Once the weekly and yearly rhythms of the church corresponded to the seasons of Australian public life – Sundays, Easter and Christmas were recognisably, for some tiresomely, linked to Church practice. Now, the activities of churches are like a children’s playground between high rise buildings – it has a place but is not the life of the city.
The same change has affected the celebration of Advent. When the Church calendar was the State calendar, Advent was naturally seen as a public season. It was about public events. The season when the Son of God came to us as a baby laid in a manger, naturally was modelled on the visitation, the Advent, of the Roman Emperor to outlying parts of his empire.
The imperial advent was designed to be fear-inspiring. The people were given long notice, officials would come to examine the books, and then the Emperor accompanied by battle-tried troops would come, preceded by the sound of drums, long lines of troops marching silently, and finally the Emperor sitting impassively with unmoving face gazing straight ahead in his chariot. On his arrival, rewards and punishments would be announced and implemented. It was an event to be prepared prudently for.
In this context, preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas was marked out as a time of reflection and preparation. It recalled the humble coming of the Son of God at Bethlehem, and looked ahead to the awe-inspiring coming of the Son of Man at the end of time. It was also a time for personal preparation and reflection about how well one was prepared.
The Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent spells out the urgency of our time of preparation. Jesus describes it as a time when one person will be spared, another taken. It echoes the Australian experience of the bushfire season that is almost upon us. It is a time for preparation and for reflection, a time of seriousness.
The public celebration of Advent in the early church was correspondingly serious. It involved rigorous fasting and times of prayer, which we can best imagine today by looking at the Muslim observance of Ramadan.
Today, however, the Australian context of Advent is the rush towards Christmas in which work presses hard, preparing for family celebrations and perhaps vacation afterwards occupies the mind. It is a time when the ringing of cash registers is heard throughout the land. Advent offers us a time to find a moment of space in a busy world.
Perhaps for us, the best image of Advent is that of pregnancy, which after all was the initial experience of Mary and Joseph as it is described in the Gospel stories. That pregnancy also was a time of waiting, no doubt anxious given the high mortality rate of children and the risks of childbirth, not to mention the trek described in Luke’s Gospel to a crowded town of Bethlehem. Mary’s pregnancy, as is the first pregnancy of any woman, was a time of preparation for a new life which brought changing patterns of relationships and adjustment to a new and all-demanding arrival in the family.
Advent is a time for waiting through old and tired ways of living and for pondering new possibilities.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.