There is an ancient story that depicts a man entering the gates of heaven. Once inside he discovers nothing but a place to sit facing a huge wall. When he asks his escort, St. Peter, for an explanation, Peter says, “You have but entered the antechamber of paradise. Paradise itself is on the other side of the wall. An opening in the wall will appear, but only once a year. It could emerge at any time: possibly in the next hour, possibly in many months. Keep vigil and watch. If you miss it, your waiting will continue.”
There are two striking similarities between this man’s situation and our own. First, like the man who has already passed the gates of heaven, we too are already saved, already sisters and brothers of the Lord and blessed by his Spirit. And yet we wait for the consummation of that salvation. We wait for the second coming, and in a very real sense we are in exile from the Lord (1 Pt 2:11). Today we begin Advent. In this month-long season, we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of the Word made flesh, the coming of our salvation. And yet our Advent Gospel reading is apocalyptic, anticipating the second coming. Jesus predicts “signs in the sun and the stars,” where “the powers of heaven will be shaken.”
The first and second comings have everything to do with each other. We could say that the end time itself began with the incarnation. Christ is God’s final word to humanity (Heb 1:1–3) and his presence is destined to be the “fall and rise of many in Israel” (Lk 2:34). Jesus says in the Gospel today that those who resist him will experience “dismay” and be “perplexed” (literally, “panicked”). The faithful, in contrast, are invited to “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” We need not fear the second coming, but can anticipate it with great hope and joy. Indeed, the joy of Christmas includes the anticipated joy of the second coming.
Given these considerations, what kind of posture should we assume during Advent? Jesus commands us to avoid being “drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of life.” Rather, “Be vigilant at all times.” Like the man before the walls of paradise, we prayerfully watch.
Being prayerful and attentive brings us to the second way the opening story resonates with our own situation. A state of spiritual vigilance is exactly what we ought to cultivate during this period between the first and second comings. As many wisdom figures in our tradition have insisted, God often blesses us with opportunities to know him more intimately, but we can easily miss them by simply not paying attention. It is hard to be alert, to be present to the moment with a spacious heart. It is hard not to let “the anxieties of daily life” absorb us. It is easy to get lost in the minutiae of endless tasks and plans, many of them unnecessary.
When a student knocks on my door unexpectedly, I am welcoming, of course, but sometimes my first thought is, “How long is this going to take?” Could not the Lord desire to speak to me in this encounter? Could I be unknowingly entertaining an angel (Heb 13:2)? What is the quality of my presence when I am preoccupied? Not great, that’s for sure. I need to remind myself that my experience of God (or lack thereof) here and now not only has everything to do with the quality of my spiritual life but also represents the very foundations of my future life with God.
Advent invites us to do more than simply commemorate Christmas; it invites us to embrace a larger vision. Advent draws us to prepare to live the mystery of the Word made flesh here and now. Life is Advent. Perhaps this can be our daily reflection in this season: “Trust in the Lord and wait for his light; for it is easy in the eyes of the Lord suddenly, in an instant, to make the poor rich” (Sir 11:21).