Alpha and Omega: The first in a series for Advent and Christmas

To the nonbelieving observer the different liturgical seasons can appear at first to be an exercise in make-believe. When Christians begin the season of Advent, do they pretend that the Nativity has not already happened, so that they can celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas with fresh innocence? Make-believe of any kind, is, of course, totally opposed to the experience of faith, the nonbeliever to the contrary. Authentic Christian faith is never an escape from life, and make-believe, occasional or chronic, is a dangerous form of escape.

The seasons of the liturgical year are not times for pretending but exercises in remembrance that focus on different events in salvation history, inspired by the belief that God continues to act in our world according to patterns revealed in biblical history. Gods word was not only spoken in the past but continues to be spoken today. As the Old Testament texts repeat: today you must hear the word of the Lord.

To hear the word of the Lord we must pay attention. And that is one way of describing what the season of Advent is all about: paying attention. The great figures of the Advent liturgy (Isaiah the prophet, John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus) are all models of paying attention, concentrating on what is important as the several biblical Isaiahs did, being single-minded in its pursuit as John was and waiting in hope as Mary did. All three of these Advent figures suggest ways to clear the clutter from our lives and focus more freely on what really deserves our attention.

There is some irony, then, in the fact that the season of Advent in the liturgical calendar coincides with the end of the year in the secular calendar. The end of the year brings with it a flurry of activities: the busiest shopping season, a frenzied social calendar for families and friends. It is not the best time for the kind of silent night that helps us pay attention to what is really important.

As we recall the waiting of Israel during this Advent season, we do not simply bring past history to mind, but in that act of remembrance we recognize our own longings and hopes. What we want determines, to a great extent, who we are. Our desires, of course, are many; some are trivial, others only dimly perceived. And we live in a consumer society where a busy, creative advertising industry is devoted to the creation of desires. Many of our desires are deceptivenot just the momentary tugs on the heart but our grander projects as well. Sometimes the good we want is counterfeit. Other times the deception is in thinking that we really want it. Are our aspirations a kind of make-believe, or do they really spring from the deepest center of our selves?

Advent can be a sorting out of the wants and needs that crisscross our spirit. It can be a time for clearing space, not so much a paring down of our desires, as traditional asceticism seems to suggest, but rather a recognition of what our desires really mean, the source from which they spring, what and who it is we really seek under false names and by ingenious detours. Advent can be a time for winding ways to be straightened and rough roads made smooth. It is the time to remember that only by seeking the Lord with all our heart will our hearts ever become whole.

The liturgy as it often does, sets our personal experience on a wider stage: the triumphant day of the Lord and the fulfillment of his kingdom. Advent is a call to faith in the meaning of human history and the meaning of each individual life. No one knows the exact day or the hour, but Christ will come again to gather his faithful from all the corners of the earth.

The course of history can seem haphazard, even as we do not recognize the hunger behind our desires; but there is a direction at work, and in this season we dare to give it a name: Emmanuel, the God who is with us and who is still to come. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The human heart has been touched by the fire of Christ, as Isaiahs lips were touched by the burning coal. It is here our restless desires catch spark. Christ, too, is the promise of who we are to be, that final blaze of glory when all make-believe is over and all hidden meaning revealed. He was and is and always will be.

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