By Patrick Schmadeke
As a kid, I wasn’t too sure about Advent. Christmas was great, but I was skeptical about these weeks that anticipate our great liturgical feast. Our celebration of the newborn Jesus involved family gatherings with bottomless potatoes, ham, gifts, and hours of fun in the snow. None of this was threatening — it was thrilling. Advent, though, sounded like it wanted to shake up my curated little snow globe of a world. The harmless newborn Jesus sounded serene. The Second Coming of the risen Jesus sounded turbulent. I was less convinced that it was a good idea to pray deliberately for Jesus’ return. I remember asking God, “could the Second Coming come after my lifetime, please?”
As a kid, I was sure that no liturgical season was so potentially disruptive of our ways of life than Advent. Not that I had the language to describe it, but Advent was a time of existential crisis. It beckoned disconcerting realities into our everyday lives. I imagined that full devotion to God, such as that required of the Second Coming, would mean the taking away of the earthy goods that I had so enjoyed, like those bottomless potatoes. Reasonably, I didn’t want to lose these earthly goods. Looking back, maybe I was onto something as a kid, but maybe I was missing something too.
I was on the right track when I sensed that Advent is radically disruptive and God is totally other. Consider the role of John the Baptist from the Gospel reading on the second Sunday of Advent. “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!’” Or, the condemning words of Isaiah from the first Sunday of Advent: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” I understood the terrific inadequacy of our own individual moral efforts as they were examined under the microscope of Advent. I also understood the great distance between God’s priorities and the priorities of the world. These concerns framed my anticipation of the Second Coming. However, my picture was incomplete — this isn’t the whole story of Advent.
First, Advent does not remove the goods of the earth from our lives; it renews them. This is particularly poignant. Our cultural context is one of consumerism, which is heightened even more from Black Friday through Christmas. Advent threatens to upend this earth-focused banquet. Christmas draws us to the eternal banquet, and the task of Advent is one of preparation. The insight of Advent is that our relationship to the goods of the earth, and to creation itself, is to be one of proper order, which includes the dismantling of distractions. With some intensity, Advent bids that we keep watch (Mark 13:13). We do this when we recognize that all goods are renewed and reordered in Christ.
Second, Advent does not make our sins more real than they otherwise were, it just invites us to consider them more closely. If our sins are more apparent, it is so that we they may be washed clean. As condemning as the section from Isaiah is above, this passage ends in a reconciling prayer: “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” The awareness of our sin and the awareness of being forgiven go together. The absence of either is problematic. Advent helps us cultivate both.
Finally, the Second Coming is not merely Jesus’ long awaited re-entry into the cosmos. Jesus is also already here. If we don’t recognize Jesus in our daily lives now, then there’s a good chance that we won’t recognize him at the Second Coming either. We can see Jesus in both the mountain range and in the lilies. For both, the blinders of sin and conceit obscure our view. If we let it, Advent purifies us from sin and propels us onward in the Christian life.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a graduate of the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame.)