The strange juxtapositions of Advent
A Reflection for Tuesday of the First Week of Advent
Find today’s readings here.
Behold, our Lord shall come with power; he will enlighten the eyes of his servants.
Advent is a strange season.
It marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, but oftentimes we spend it looking ahead to the end of days. Advent is a time of both penances and jingle bells. We deck the halls but then sing haunting carols in Dorian mode. We are speeding ahead to the darkest, coldest days of the year, and the standard American response is to pour the cocoa and wrap everything in a comforting mantle of red-trimmed nostalgia. But even as Catholics prepare our Christmas gifts and attend our office parties, we’re also fasting and immersing ourselves in apocalyptic end-times reflections.
When I was a Catholic newcomer, I found this all terribly disorienting. I wanted more clarity about the proper mood of this season. Eventually, I learned just to embrace the curious juxtapositions. It’s okay to feel discombobulated in Advent. Perplexity is the right mood. Jesus is coming, both at Christmas and at the end of time, and we can prepare for both events by letting go a little, opening our minds and hearts to fantastic things beyond our human understanding.
It’s okay to feel discombobulated in Advent. Perplexity is the right mood.
Today’s reading from Isaiah certainly feels wonderfully strange. Looking ahead to the time when “our Lord shall come with power,” we are shown a vision of a world that truly feels like a child’s fantasy. Childhood is a major theme of today’s readings: on the Lord’s holy mountain, babies will play with poisonous snakes, while predators and herbivores graze together “with a little child to guide them.” In the Gospel, Jesus praises the Father for revealing great things “to the childlike,” as the wise and learned are left in the dark. This is a sobering lesson in the depths of December when adults are shoveling snow and pinching pennies as children dream about Santa Claus. We adults are working harder, but the children are closer to the truth.
Would we want it any other way? Even in secular culture, there is a recognition during the holiday season that children have a capacity for hope and imagination that the weary world desperately craves. We break out the jingle bells and watch movies about Santa and the Grinch in part because we want permission to become children again, believing in strange and wonderful things, and looking ahead to a fairytale fulfillment that we still believe will come. The passage from Isaiah even fills out this picture with the righteous king, who judges the poor with justice, slays the wicked, and brings lasting peace. Surely this is the happily-ever-after that we’ve craved since we were children.
It’s exciting and fun to contemplate. Still, we must take care never to let Advent become too cozy, too saccharine or too comfortably familiar. Advent is still the season of cold and dark, of onerous preparations and of peering anxiously ahead at the impending holiday and Apocalypse. Christ is coming; of that, we can be sure. But it will not happen in precisely the way we expect. We must watch and wait like children on Christmas Eve anticipating wonderful things. When the time comes, then our eyes will be opened, and the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.