A fortnight after the shops have begun playing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas the Christian season of Advent begins with its promise of a new future for the world and for the individual Christian. I have said it till I am blue in the face: it is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, not just for the coming of Christmas.
This distinction is fundamental to Christian life, since we claim to be people awaiting that blessed hope, the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ. It is what determines how I view Christ’s presence in this moment.
If my faith can cope with nothing more challenging about Christ than that he was born as a baby a long time ago, there is a great danger it has ceased to exert much influence over the now. If I imagine that I understand Christ by reference merely to his coming in history, I am looking the wrong way.
By analogy, when I celebrate my own birthday I do not merely marvel at myself as an infant and see this as the reason for celebrating my life. I celebrate because only the reality of my life as it unfolds explains the true significance of that past event.
The meaning of who I was at my birth was obscure. Its full dimensions become comprehensible not by looking backwards, but by looking at the reality contained in that mysterious event and is still fully to come.
Advent urges us to do something similar. The reality of this world I presently live in and its future derive their inner momentum from the coming of Christ long ago. Christ continues to illuminate and fill the present with meaning by virtue of the working out of that coming long ago, impelling me to seek his presence not just in a commemoration of the past but far more in the now and the yet to come.
More than anything else, what is true of the world is true of me, namely, that the content of my hope should have been transformed by the fact that Christ is ready to come again spiritually at any moment, as St Charles Borromeo puts it.
If I use the first three weeks of Advent merely to anticipate Christmas – to, as it were, baptise Christmas shopping, Christmas parties and anticipated carol services, I am reading Christianity backwards.
I still remember the childhood delight of old cine films when my father would occasionally switch a button on the projector to play the scene backwards. It sent us into hysterics as people leapt backwards onto diving boards or retreated backwards into cars and reversed away speedily with expressions of joy and anticipation.
Plenty of people will do something similar by running Christmas backwards into Advent to make it more entertaining, thereby rendering both absurd by altering their relationship to the real direction of the story.
Many will nonetheless imagine I am making a fuss about nothing, since the images remains the same. But since Advent is a season of which the main characteristic is joyful expectation, to be having Nativity plays in the first week is absurd and counterproductive. It leaves no space for expectation any more than bingeing in Lent leaves any space for fasting.
Without expectation there can be no understanding of true fulfilment, just as without fasting there can be no authentic feasting.
As a Christian, my hope is contained in what I have already received, which alone can open me to the direction of history and the truth of what is to come. If I am not focused on a Christ who left to return in majesty, then I am no longer living true to what I have received, since I am placing my hope in the past (or, at best, in the here and now) and not in the life of the world to come. For this life to come is only in Christ, who reveals the true and authentic face of man to man.
Hope in the future for the Christian is made real and present through the power of the Holy Spirit, which has already formed Christ in me by baptism and reception of the sacraments. Paul tells the Galatians that he is like a mother in the pangs of childbirth, waiting “until that Christ shall have been formed in you”.
“Shall have been”: the future perfect is the operative tense for Advent. I should spend it in joyful hope not just of commemorating that Christ came long ago, but in the hope that Christ shall have been more present to me by the time I celebrate that feast than he was this time last year.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (27/11/15)
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