A journey, a marathon is never easy. It grinds on the mental and physical psyche of all who endure through it. As we approach Advent this year, our journey resembles a boxer who has survived twelve rounds awaiting the final decision. While our voyage today embodies a grueling experience over the rugged terrain that is 2020, the focal point of it is the end – what the journey leads to. The two main liturgical quests we encounter are no different. Earlier this year, our Lenten expedition was jolted in the middle of it by the initial pandemic onslaught. As we begin our journey through Advent, many are experiencing emotional exhaustion from the drama of events this past year. Nevertheless, the psychological drain of this year gives a new appreciation to the meaning of Advent.
The two words that describe Advent endure like a light that never falters in the howling wind. These two words are: prepare and hope. In these two terms, we fixate our efforts towards Jesus (prepare) to lift us out of our self-imposed misery (hope) of sin.
Any prominent athlete, musician, or entrepreneur can vouch that much of their time and effort is dedicated to constantly preparing for their big event. That is, successful people instinctively hone in on the key aspects of prep work to achieve their goals.
We’ve all heard the adage, “Success is 90% preparation and only 10% perspiration.” The great scientist Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Renowned motivational speaker Zig Ziglar famously stated, “Success is when preparation meets opportunity.” Even before him, Alexander Graham Bell noted, “Preparation is the key to success.”
Conversely, if one is lax on preparation, they will inevitably experience their demise. Research published in the Harvard Business Review states that the number one reason new products fail is a lack of preparation. As the Chinese philosopher, Confucius declared, “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation, there is sure to be failure.”
In short, preparation can either make or break you. Therefore, it behooves one to not casually dismiss the significance of preparation. The same concept applies in the spiritual realm. This is why the readings at the beginning of Advent highlight a vigilance in preparation.
“Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” Matthew 24:42 (Year A)
“Be watchful! Be alert!” Mark 13:33a (Year B)
“Be vigilant at all times and pray.” Luke 21:36a (Year C)
A prominent theme in Jesus’ teaching is to constantly be on watch and be prepared with a sense of holy urgency (see Matthew 24:42-44, 25:13, 26:38-41).
The next question that logically surfaces is, what do we need to be prepared for? What Jesus is getting at is we need to be prepared for Him – God coming down in human form to rescue us.
The word “advent” means the arrival of a notable person or thing, and the season of Advent points to the coming of the most notable person of them all – Jesus Christ. What’s more, is that we put all our cards on the table for Him. Here, is where we come to the fulfillment of hope.
The Biblical definition of hope is “To trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone; or to expect something beneficial in the future.” That is, our perfection comes not from us, but from the one who is called “Emmanuel” (God with us). Of course, this theme is emphasized in the first few lines of the classic hymn Emmanuel. “Oh come, oh come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.”
While our culture has preconditioned us to achieve an auto-self-fulfillment in which the individual can save him or herself, the message of Advent stands in stark contrast. Advent declares that we are lost in exile if we attempt to pull ourselves up by our own boot-straps. However, the modern world articulates that through economic, political, social, and moral reforms, we can muster up enough human ingenuity to create a utopia on earth and reach the pinnacle of human fulfillment. Yet, Advent dramatically and emphatically announces that human beings cannot achieve perfection and rescue ourselves – only Jesus Christ can.
The meditations on the readings in Advent stress that without Jesus, a dark and debasing picture stands before us. Part of the Christian story is that we need to realize that we can’t save ourselves. The next step is to comprehend we must repetitively prepare ourselves for the one who can rescue us. Therefore, Advent reverses our self-made salvation mantra embedded in the culture. To candidly admit your helplessness is actually freeing for the individual. All the various 12-step programs seek to admit to people their helplessness from their problems. In turning yourself over to a higher power, one is wisely admitting he can’t perfect himself. Here, we come face-to-face with the concept of hope. With hope, we place our brokenness to the one who can cure man out of his addictive pattern of destruction. Yes, it is difficult to admit your failure and depravity, but it is also incredibly liberating because by doing this, you are allowing the God of the universe to save you. As the evangelist, John insinuated, “I must decrease so he can increase.”
One of the aspects of Advent is the need to clear a path for Jesus so he can come into us. The prophet Isaiah declared, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Isaiah 40:3). In clearing a path for the Lord, we necessarily have to rip out the weeds in our life precisely so he can enter into us. Here, our formula in doing the prep work in the faith remains the same as always. Prayer and Confession act as the brush mower that removes the rubbish in our soul which, in turn, creates a clean path for Christ to enter in. In this way, we are keeping our souls in a state of grace by using the tools God has given us through the Church. Much like a bride ceaselessly primes herself for her wedding day, we too must prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming. After all, if we must do a deep clean of our house for Christmas guests, how much more would we need to clean our souls in Confession before Christ comes into us quite literally in the Eucharist.
What are these “comings” that Jesus associated with? Advent points to three: (1) His first coming as a baby in Bethlehem; (2) His coming into our soul in the Sacraments; and (3) His coming as the Great Judge at the end of the world. Christ standing outside of time meets us in stage one and two in the here and now while pointing to our eventual day before Him at stage three.
St. Paul tells us that “our salvation is nearer than when we believed.” What Paul is alluded to is that every passing moment draws us closer to meeting Jesus at the end of our lives. But it also demonstrates that all of time is directed towards an end moment – a consummation. The Christian religion, unlike some religions, does not believe time is a loop which we repeat over and over again. No, all of human history is directed toward that day when Christ will return and we will hear a great voice proclaim, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3-4).
For centuries God prepared His people for the Incarnation of His Son; often the people would rebel and reject God, but God was always faithful to His promises. He would send kings, prophets, and priests to turn the Israelites back to Him. Then finally, in the fullness of time, He sent His Son, born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas day to be physically with us. And given the Eucharist, He’s never left us.
These “comings” of Christ are sacred events we need to prepare for. With every practice and workout, an aspiring football player is preparing for his grand moment. Whether this moment is the Super Bowl or not he won’t know. Regardless, an athlete never wants to be caught off guard if his name is called to make a crucial play in the big game. On a spiritual level, we can know that our moment is not a question of “if” we get called, it is a matter of “when” we get called up by Christ.
Imagine if Christmas morning came and you woke up suddenly realizing that you forgot to prepare. Imagine if you had no gifts, no food purchased and no plans were made. Of course, you wouldn’t allow that to happen, but this scenario consistently plays out in the spiritual realm – especially at the Mass. When our souls are not in a state of grace, our spiritual senses are muddied up and we often aren’t privy to the Divine reality coming to us in the Sacraments.
As Advent begins, reflect upon how ready you are for Jesus’ coming. Are you preparing for it with the same fervor that you prepare for Christmas guests coming? Are you looking forward to that day when He will return? Are you preparing for the spiritual celebration of His birth? Are you reverently focused on Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist?
If you find that you are not as prepared for Jesus as you’d like to be, make this Advent a time when you get your soul ready through prayer, spiritual exercises, reflection, and attentiveness to Him in the Mass.
Preparation and hope represent two ingredients for success. This is true both in the physical and spiritual realm.