I heard a cosmologist on the radio explaining that, in point of fact, we only see about two per cent of the universe. This is the proportion that science has observed. Undeterred, he went on to say scientists “know” by inference that the other 98 per cent of it must be there. It’s just that it is hidden behind dark matter and black holes. Then he started speaking of times and distances which start to boggle my mind. Normally at that point I rather give up, finding talk of the universe having existed for X billion years rather pointless. When numbers become so large they are only that: numbers, words for describing something of which there is no experience. This time, however, I tried to peer over the wall in my mind by telling myself that this was a manifestation of God’s power and might, his dread eternal years, and I thought of the psalmist’s words: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”
Far from being a predictably cosy run-up to Christmas, Advent should make us aware that we know only a little about God. What we have observed, even the wondrous events of Christ’s first coming, are but a fraction of what is still to be discovered. “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,” St Paul reminds the Corinthians.
The particular character of the season is therefore that of a vigil – a kind of looking into the dark to discern, from the data we have from God’s coming in the flesh, what the implications are for the action of God as yet unobservable, a spiritual survey of what is still concealed. One of the beautifully restored Advent prefaces of the “new” translation expresses this perfectly in the plea that, “consoled by the presence of your Son, whose coming we now await, we may be tainted no longer by the corruption of former ways”. Sin, of course, hinders us in part from discerning more about the God who comes. Here the prayer is referring both to personal sin and also to the effects of Original Sin. Part of the Advent mood is expressed in repentance and in penitence (it was originally called the Advent fast in some particular Churches) but also in a kind of entering into the longing for redemption which characterises the whole created world. Advent is the time when I seek to entertain in my own life the longing for salvation which characterises the long march of human history. I allow it to have an urgency which is often obscured by activity and control. It is all too easy to think just about myself as an individual believer saved from human history by the promise of the Resurrection, and not as a member of a race and a world imperilled, a race in need of grace, longing for a Saviour.
While time and matter last, there will be an inexpressible need for completion in God patterned into the very nature of the cosmos, hinted at in the mind-boggling scale of the universe or in the intuition of the invocation of the litany: “Heart of Jesus, desire of the eternal hills.” To speak of such a scale of longing is to recognise that faith, and not human experience, is what allows us to see beyond the dark matter of sin, and the black hole which is suffering and death, faith in a God who has still to come to complete the world of human experience. If not, how could we be sure he were not merely a projection of it?
The Church invites us to live this season, and to feel this need for salvation, revealed in Christ and still to come. Liturgical seasons are to remind us that the life of faith, the supernatural life, is actually supposed to absorb the calendar and calculations of the astronomer. The Church wants us to feel the history of our salvation in Christ as truly as we feel the changing of the seasons. This cannot be felt with a faux Christmas that began in November. As surely as missing spring or autumn would upset the whole balance of the natural world, if our spiritual seasons are out of kilter the ground will not be prepared for what, or rather who, is to come. So in the ancient Advent hymn Christ is called the “Dear Maker of the stars of night”. That’s not just poetic licence, but an expression of faith in the Christ who is still to come, “at whose dread Name, majestic now, all knees must bend, all hearts must bow; and things celestial Thee shall own, and things terrestrial Lord alone”.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)