Advent: Don't wait too long
It was January 6 and we were at St. Peter’s Square, waiting for Pope John Paul II to celebrate the Mass concluding the Jubilee Year of the New Millennium. The square was packed. People were milling around, looking for the best view of the altar. Suddenly, we noticed a man who was arguing with one of the guards. They were arguing in Italian and at that time I could still not understand very much. Later, I understood that he was trying to pass through the Holy Door. That year, Pope John Paul II had declared a jubilee and opened a special door to St. Peter’s Basilica at midnight at the dawn of the Year 2000. The tradition of the Holy Door is ancient in the Church and the basic gist of things is that if one comes in pilgrimage and passes through the Holy Door, he receives a plenary indulgence. A plenary indulgence is a grace that the Church gives, meaning that one soul is released from the suffering of Purgatory. There are some prayers and other activities required, but the most visible thing is going through the Holy Door. One year later, this man was trying to get through, but it was simply too late. The guards could not let him in, as the ceremony was about to begin.
The ironic twist of the story is that the man was from Rome. He had lived in the Eternal City the entire 365 days (actually a few more) of the Holy Year but had never made the drive across town in order to pass through the Holy Door and receive the plenary indulgence. He had been too busy, with life, with friends, with parties, with whatever. He had been too busy and now he was too late.
In the Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent, Christ warns us so that the same thing may not happen to us. “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” In our modern world, it is so easy to get caught up in other activities that distract us from this time which is supposed to serve as a preparation for the coming of the Christ Child. A Child is born! This is the great news. But don’t say it yet, as we are still getting ready.
We have been aware of the coming of Christmas for months now. I think even in July I saw the first countdown calendar. For so many people, Christmas is a time of emotional consolation that pulls them out of depression or merely the doldrums. They grasp at any hope they can receive and thus wish constantly for Christmas. But as Christians we desire much more: the coming of Christ.
Advent has a double waiting. In a first moment, we think of the waiting for the Christ Child. The various stories that surround the coming of the Christ Child fill our imagination. In our mind’s eye, we see how Joseph leads Mary on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We imagine the three Kings and their retinue trekking across the desert, following the celestial sign, that is a star. We see the busy preparations in the various towns and cities, not for the coming of the heavenly King, but of preparation of the census that will measure the power of the empire of Caesar Augustus, the greatest ruler they dare to think of.
But in the liturgy of the First Sunday of Advent, we are reminded of another waiting, the waiting for the long-expected Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is true that we wait for the liturgical feast where we live once again the birth of Our Savior. But we wait much more for the final and definitive coming of Christ as Lord and King as we celebrated so recently on the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time.
We are tempted to fall asleep. Jesus tells us to “stay awake!” The temptation to fall asleep to this waiting for both comings of Christ wakes up each time we walk into a shopping mall and seem soon to slip into the commercialism of the season. We are tempted to fall asleep when this time is consumed more by Christmas parties and champagne than it is of prayerful silence and interior preparation for the King of Kings. We are tempted to fall asleep each time the worries of getting out our Christmas cards and buying presents weighs upon us more than the quiet contemplation of the Virgin Mary who moves towards Bethlehem, taking everything in and “holding these things in her heart.”
Jesus tells us to “stay awake!” We do this each time that we dedicate a time of adoration to preparing our hearts for the great gift of Jesus that is coming. As children, we dreamt of the gifts that Santa might bring, but now as adults in the faith, we must rejoice at the gift of gifts which we are about to receive. It is Christ the Lord. The best way to receive our Lord is in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Let us take this time to prepare our souls to receive our Lord. Let us repent and let us open our hearts to the great gift of the Eucharist.
That man we saw at St. Peter’s square so many years ago was not able to walk through the Holy Door. But hopefully he learned from his mistake and began to live his life with Christ more at the center. Hopefully Christ found his own way to pour into his heart the graces that had been reserved for the moment of crossing the threshold of hope. We have all spent Advents in which we have stayed outside, sad and depressed, without the energy to enter the love of the Father’s house. This year let us prepare our hearts so that we can enter in and contemplate the beauty of the Lord.