Life & Soul

Advent is a time to look forward and not backwards

(CNS photo/Lisa Johnston)

Advent is when the Christian recognises that history is not “just one thing after the other”, as Henry Ford opined, but turns on an axis between two polarities – the coming of Christ once in human history, and the return of the crucified and risen Christ in glory as the fulfilment of that history and therefore its Judge.

God came to share human history so that that history would be drawn into God’s mode of existence. It is in this sense that Advent is a preparation for Christmas; my humanity exists for the encounter with God’s humanity in Jesus and all my times are in his hands. Only thus is human life intelligible and complete. This is why readings about stars falling, earthquakes and catastrophe close the liturgical year. Such events are not the finality of history, but tell us that what we think constitutes history is not, in fact, so. The health of our future is directly predicated on the nearness of Christ. The businessman says time is money, the Christian says time is the advent of Christ; time exists as the currency of encounter with Him who took our flesh to raise beyond the horizon of time to resurrection and life in the heart of the Trinity.

The ancient world and therefore Old Testament prophecy is based on an understanding of time completely at odds with our own.

In our linear view we are at the midpoint on a scale on which we can mark events of the past, and the future is blank and waiting for its content (which we assume automatically improves the past). Hebrew, in fact, has no word for time in this sense, only words for a period of time or a point in time. For Israel, it is impossible to think of time in the abstract, divorced from actual specific events, hence, “There is a time for everything under heaven, a time to be born, to die, a time for planting and for uprooting,” as a famous passage in Ecclesiastes tells us. “My times are in your hands,” says the psalmist in Psalm 31.

In such a view, Advent is not the time to prepare for Christmas, if this is from a comfortable, temporal midpoint which looks backwards to try to understand God’s coming merely through the lens of previous experience. Advent faith looks forward in the certainty that God comes ever more intensively with power and love. Thus Advent wisdom is learning to recognise the kairos moments when grace is shaping my history in what unfolds, even when what comes appears to contradict my own projections of where history should tend. Advent faith embraces the future with hope not because it can predict what will come (in the sense of conceptualising it), but because everything is to be categorised though an active and dynamic openness to the presence of the Redeemer of all.

It is in this spirit that the prophets “foretell” the future. They are not able to open little doors concealing events already plotted for the future; rather, each day brings a deeper certainty of God’s loving purpose to be proclaimed. This is how the oracle of Balaam can say “I see him – but not in the present.

I behold him – but not close at hand.” It is a true seeing – “He sees what Shaddai makes him see, receives the divine answer” – but it is a seeing with the heart. In the same way, Our Blessed Lady conceived the Word of God in her heart before she conceived him in her womb. Already her life centred on His presence, a Word begetting her future as well as her past.