We find ourselves in the midst of another autumn. Leaves fall, plants wither, days get shorter as darkness seems to be victorious, and the chill in the air tells us that winter is near. Long ago the Church accommodated these yearly seasonal changes to its own pattern of worship and belief. The growing darkness and increasing cold tell us in parable about the darkness and cold of sin and death. The starkness of the season tells us about the need to be prepared for the winter; to have provisions for our spiritual households. Just as we yearn for spring, so the Church yearns for the Light that is Christ and for the Easter of Springtime that brings us hope of eternal life. And over-arching all of this is the promise of Jesus that he will return again.
The scriptures of our Sunday liturgies appropriately tell us, often in the form of warnings, that we ought to be prepared for the second coming. On the thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time the prophet Malachi shouts, “Lo, the day of the Lord is coming, blazing like an oven...” On the following Sunday the Church fittingly celebrates the end of the Church year with the feast of Christ the King. At that liturgy Paul writes that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The same sentiments overflow into the new liturgical year that begins the following week with the first Sunday of Advent, although with more emphasis on hope and light. The prophet Isaiah calls us to “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord,” and Jesus warns that “the Son of Man will come at the time you least expect.”
We know about the changes of the seasons, their power and their predictability. Thus it is no surprise to Christians to learn that the origins of the Advent weeks and the Christmas festival are anchored in nature’s cycle of darkness and light. Indeed, the winter solstice (the moment when suddenly the days begin to get longer) sets the stage for the feast of Christmas. After all, the solstice tells that we are not overcome with darkness, and that the cold, gray and bleakness that seem to have captured all of nature will most certainly be overcome with light and warmth. In other words, the sun will be victorious. It was easy enough in history to make the fully appropriate analogy to our spiritual lives and the life of the Church. The darkness of sin and death can never be victorious. In the end, the Son conquers. In the end, sin and darkness and death are vanquished by Christ who is the light of the world.
The coming Advent season attempts to help the Christian community set aside preoccupations in order to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. It also calls us to a deeper awareness of the Lord’s second coming at the end of time, the Lord whose presence among us we continue to recognize and ritualize each time we gather for the celebration of the Eucharist. Following Advent, the liturgical spirituality of the Christmas season once again calls the Christian to remember the birth of the Savior, and transformed by the power of that memory and by the many ways the Lord is manifest to us in history, to look forward with joy to his return in glory.