Some years ago, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, shared some aspects of his meditations on the meaning of Advent with those who had gathered for the First Vespers of Advent. He spoke of Advent being a powerful liturgical season. For Benedict, Advent invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of each day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us.
The first aspect of Advent, Pope Benedict considered was ‘waiting.’
He asked the question: are the people of our time still waiting for a Saviour? If we look around ourselves honestly, at the world around us and people’s opinions and lives, we would be forgiven for thinking that many people today consider God as foreign to their own interests. Apparently, they do not need him. They live as though he did not exist and, worse still, as though God is an ‘obstacle’ which they need to remove in order to fulfill themselves. Pope Benedict even felt that some Christians allowed themselves be attracted by enticing dreams and distracted by misleading doctrines that suggest deceptive shortcuts to happiness.
We live in an age of easy answers, where ‘pop’ psychology tries to convince us that we make our own happiness and we are responsible for our decision to be happy. If someone hurts or annoys you, it is your fault: you have allowed yourself to be hurt.
Yet, despite its contradictions, worries and tragedies, and perhaps precisely because of them, humanity today seeks a path of renewal, of salvation, it seeks a Saviour and awaits, sometimes unconsciously, the coming of the Saviour who renews the world and our life, the coming of Christ, the one true Redeemer of humankind and of the whole of the human person. As someone once wrote, there is a ‘God-shaped’ hole inside each one of us and that hollowness, that emptiness drives us to fill the vacuum inside us. But only God can truly fill the vacuum. Some still try to fill it with whatever attracts their spiritual, intellectual or psychological appetites. But as only God can fill that hole, they keep looking. Advent is a time to reflect on the fact that nothing can satisfy the longing of the human heart except the one for whom the human heart was made and by whom the human heart was made.
A second aspect of Advent is that it is a time of ‘preparation.’ This season of Advent, this time leading up to the great feast of Christmas is a truly privileged opportunity to meditate on the meaning and value of our existence. On the one hand we can take the time to think about the drama of history in which people, injured by sin, are perennially in search of happiness and of a fulfilling sense of life and death. On the other hand, we are brought face to face with the merciful kindness of God who came to us to communicate to us directly the Truth that saves. God comes in love with hands outstretched to us in the person of a helpless child. God, in Jesus, demonstrates that love is a reaching out and in Christ, God is reaching out to us in a way that we cannot be frightened of him. We cannot mistake his meaning. We are invited to partake in God’s friendship and his life. As a child in a cradle reaches his or her hands out to the adults around the crib, asking to be picked up and loved, the Christ-child invites us to pick him up spiritually, to love him. And – in a strange reversal – in embracing the baby Jesus, we find that we are in reality the ones being embraced, embraced by God.
Therefore let us prepare ourselves for Christmas with humility and simplicity, making ourselves ready to receive as a gift the light, joy and peace that shine from this mystery.
A third aspect of Advent which attracted Pope Benedict was ‘sign.’ God’s sign is his humility. God’s sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love. How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, irresistible sign of God’s power and greatness! But his sign summons us to faith and love, and thus it gives us hope: this is what God is like. He has power, he is Goodness itself. He invites us to become like him. Yes indeed, we become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign; if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness; if we renounce violence and use only the weapons of truth and love. In one Christmas Mass, Pope Benedict put it simply and beautifully – the Word of God became brief … a little child.
A fourth aspect of Advent which Pope Benedict reflected upon was ‘changing.’ So often we hear idealists proclaiming that we need to change structures in order to create a more just, peaceful society.
Jesus thought otherwise. God knows that only if people change will the world change. Changing structures does not change people’s hearts. It is in more loving exchanges, person to person, that the world truly changes. And in order to change, people need the light that comes from God, the light which so unexpected and yet is the only light for which we wait, the light of Christmas that bursts into our night of sin, selfishness and shame.
Fr Scott, CSsR