The season of Advent is often eclipsed. The excitement of Christmas, work and social gatherings, buying of presents and preparing food claim much attention in our already busy lives. At whatever stage of life, young or old, Advent often appears to be over before it has begun. The arrival of Christmas lights in our streets even before the four-week season of Advent begins short-circuits its anticipatory power.
Advent is sometimes helpfully compared to resetting one’s clock. This is still something we do twice yearly, though it seems likely that this practice will be abandoned. Within a few years, we will keep to the same time all year round. The loss of the inconvenience of having to reset clocks and watches will be welcomed by many, even though most clocks now change automatically. Something other than inconvenience may be lost. The hour change did provoke reflection about the march of time, the effect on the world and its inhabitants. Advent will remain as a special time for people to reset their individual clocks.
While New Year is celebrated on January 1st, the first Sunday of Advent is the opening of the Church’s Year. The New Year is a time for resolutions and for looking ahead. The Church New Year has an analogous function, only Christian are invited not only to look forward to Christmas or to the year ahead, but in fact to the end of time and the second coming of Christ. This season begins with hope filled expectation of this final coming of Christ where he will establish justice and peace in the whole universe. The Advent cycle of Sunday readings has a curious arrangement. Usually the readings are sequential and advance through the Gospel texts. In Advent however, the readings are from back to front, beginning each year near the end of a Gospel and concluding on the fourth Sunday with a passage from near the beginning. The unusual sequence of the readings is explained by the twofold expectation in Advent of the first and second comings of Christ.
The Advent season has therefore this little-known double function of expecting the two comings of Christ. Most are familiar only with the expectation of the coming of Christ at Christmas. However, Jesus has already come at Christmas some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, and it is hard to work up anticipation for something that has already happened. Christmas might event appear to be just like a regular birthday party. Remembering the second or final coming of Christ at the end of time can be a helpful antidote. The expectation of the second coming in the first part of Advent remains unfulfilled and trains Christians to hope anew in the coming of Christ. This heightened sense of expectation then carries through to the second part of Advent where the first coming is anticipated anew. By entering into the double anticipatory function of Advent, Christmas does not simply celebrate Christ’s birth, but his coming into the world to begin a project of salvation that continues to the end of time. Christ does not only come at his birth or at the end time, but he is constantly coming to every generation, and in a special way to everyone at Christmas. The time of Advent softens hardened hearts to receive him anew. As Sr Maria Boulding so rightly puts it, “What is the point of celebrating the coming of Christ if Christ doesn’t come to me.”