For Christians, the liturgical season of Advent is a very significant one. In the following pages I wish to share with you some thoughts on the meaning and relevance of Advent not only during the season of Advent but through our lives.
I plan to focus my simple meditation first on Advent as hope; second, on hope as fidelity to the present, and third on the usefulness of examining our hope today.
What is the meaning of Advent?
THE MEANING AND RELEVANCE OF ADVENT AS HOPE
Through the liturgical year, we Christians celebrate the mysteries of our faith, of our redemption. Through the liturgy, we re-live the life, passion, death and resurrection of Christ. In particular through the Sunday Eucharistic celebration we commemorate joyfully the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Sunday Eucharist is the center of our Christian life. It was so essential in the lives of the first Christians that, they tell us, “They could not live without the Eucharist.”
The liturgical year begins with Advent and ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe. We journey with our Mother Church through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, the weeks of Ordinary Time, the Feasts of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Eucharist, etc., and through the feasts of our Mother Mary and the saints. The most important seasons of the liturgical year are Advent/Christmas, and Lent/Easter.
Advent means “coming,” “arriving.” Who is coming? Our Lord Jesus Christ! He came twenty one centuries ago in history; He will come at the end of time, and He continues coming to our lives in different ways. Historically He came the first time when He was born at Bethlehem. Hopefully, we long for his Coming at the end of time – and of our individual time. And lovingly and prayerfully, we hope in his daily coming to our lives.
Advent then means hope. It is the season of hope, in a true sense the season of our whole life, for life is a journey and the human person, a pilgrim with a thousand hopes always on the way to different destinations. Above all, and consciously or unconsciously, every human being hopes in a good final destination – happiness, heaven. Indeed, “You, Lord, have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (St. Augustine).
Hope is a theological virtue which inclines us to expect full happiness after the end of this life, that is, we expect God as the object of our happiness. Christian hope is faithful, that is founded on faith in God and practiced in charity or love, which is the form of all virtues and makes our hope walk towards heaven. Hope in heaven, however, does not take away our human hopes but with love nourishes them and transform them in true hopes on the journey of our life. Human hopes which unduly attach us to a person, or a position, or a possession, or a place cannot be authentic human hopes for they are not permeated by faithful and loving hope.
We come from God. We are on the way to God. With the end in view, we journey by steps of hopeful love. We know the lovely story of the old man trying to climb the Himalayan Mountains. It was winter, a cold and rainy day of winter. The old man took refuge for a while in an inn along the way up to the peak. The innkeeper asked him: “Dear old man, how will you ever get there in this kind of weather?” The old man answered him: “My heart got there first, so it is easy for the rest of me to follow.”
Where is our heart? What does our hope – and hopes – have to do with our present life?
HOPE IS FIDELITY TO THE PRESENT
Christian hope – and hopes – is not “a pie in the sky,” but a commitment to change the present – our present. Rooted in the past, looking towards the future, Christian hope concentrates on the present, on the “now”: God, the object of our hope is “the eternal now” (Hebr 3:7-8). The only thing in our hands is not the past or the future but the present. Hence, to be truly hopeful a Christian – and all people of good will – is faithful to the present. “I just keep concentrating on the present moment… Let us see each instant as if there were no other. An instant is a treasure” (St. Therese of the Child Jesus). This is also a Zen teaching: “The past is unreal. The future is unreal. Only the moment is real. Life is a series of moments either lived or lost.”
What does it mean to live the present, this moment as if there were no other? It means to do what we have to do every moment, every “now” with love. To put love in our daily chores is to do good in every moment and to share it with others. After all, “only the love that we have accumulated throughout our lives stands out, and is the only good that will accompany us” (S. Galilea). “What are your plans for the future?” a journalist asked Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Her answer: “I just take one day at a time. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today to love Jesus.”
Fidelity to the “now” implies saying ‘yes’ to love and, therefore, ‘no’ to sin, which is a betrayal of love. It also implies to keep walking towards the future, towards God. In his moving Beloved Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes:
The physical consciousness of a plant in midwinter is not directed towards the past summer, but towards the coming spring. The physical memory of a plant is not that of days that are no more, but of days that will be. If plants are certain of a coming spring, through which they will come out of themselves, why can’t I, a human plant, be certain of a spring to come in which I will be able to fulfill myself? Perhaps our spring is not in this life.
Certainly, for those who believe – like the Christians -, the full spring is in the other life, in heaven. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard nor has it so much as dawned what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
Advent, then, is the proper season to examine our hope. How is our hope – and hopes?
EXAMINING OUR HOPE – AND HOPES
How is my hope? I have this habit. Every Advent season I examine my human hopes and, particularly, my Christian hope. This meditation helps me animate and revive my hopes.
Some books and texts continue inspiring me as a pilgrim to eternal beatitude. I still remember – and go back to them from time to time – some books from my youth. In the first place, I recall The Little Prince by A. Saint-Exupery. Every time I read the dialogue between the Little Prince and the Fox I am moved. The Little Prince tells the fox that there are no hunters in his little planet; unfortunately for the fox, there are no chickens either: “Nothing is perfect” the fox comments before giving to the Little Prince his simple secret of life: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” On the pilgrimage of life, theological hope is essential!
I also keep treasuring the book The Parables of Peanuts (well, above all, the Peanuts comic strip) by Robert L. Short that helped me understand the good humor and the theology of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Family of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and other wonderful kids (adults). I continue enjoying The Way of a Pilgrim and the Russian Pilgrim’s continued mantra: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.” Continuing conversion from sin renews our hope in God. Another traveling companion is The Prophet, by K. Gibran. I love Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (by R. Bach), the winged symbol of my hope. For Jonathan, “It was not eating that mattered but flight – more than anything else, he loved to fly! He was always on the way to a more perfect flight.” During his novitiate in flying, Jonathan was hungry but happy, because he was hopeful. ‘The trick,” he said, “is that we are trying to overcome our limitations in order, patiently.” Once, his mob of birds, interested only in eating, tried to kill him. Jonathan tried to help those hopeless seagulls by loving them! “You have to practice and see the real seagull, the good in everyone, and to help them see it in themselves.” This is love, or better, loving hope.
In a deeper sense, the Sacred Scriptures continue to be the best word on hope for Christians. One of my favorite texts on hope is from Isaiah: “Those who hope in Yahweh will renew their strength. They will soar as with eagle’s wings; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and never tire” (Is 40:31). The Gospels in particular continue consoling us in the midst of the evil in the world and personal weakness and suffering. They present a portrait of Jesus Christ as our hope, and of his resurrection as the foundation of our hope. Indeed, what better inspiring words than these: In Christ we live; in Christ we shall die, and in Christ we hope to live forever (cf. I Cor 15:20-22).
The saints, particularly Mary the Mother of Jesus and our Mother, are excellent traveling companions. Their lives and works strengthen our Christian hope. Like any saint, Saint Augustine was a hopeful Christian – and writes powerfully and elegantly on life as a pilgrimage. St. Augustine’s Confessions is every time I meditate on it a renewed journey to deeper conversion – and hope! “Happiness does not consist in having more, but in needing less.”
As a Dominican, St. Dominic, the apostolic and evangelical man, inspires my preaching and my life: the great Dominic, “never asking for reward, he just talks about the Lord.” Reading St Francis of Assisi who went through his journey of life giving thanks with hopeful love. St. Thomas Aquinas, the apostle of truth (Blessed John Paul II), one always learns something new: Every truth, he writes, “regardless who said it, comes from the Holy Spirit.” I continue feeding my roots – and my Christian life – with the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Teresa is a perennial teacher on prayer. She advises us all: “Never leave prayer. There is always remedy for those who pray.” She consoles me: “Let nothing disturb you. / Let nothing frighten you. / All things pass away. / … God alone suffices” – Solo Dios basta! St. John of the Cross is a guide on the dark night of life: “Oh noche que guiaste./ Oh guiding night!/ O night more lovely than the dawn!/ Oh night that has united/ the Lover with His beloved,/ transforming the beloved in her Lover!”
Among other helpful modern authors – also messengers of hope for me -, I wish to mention Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Anthony de Mello, Paolo Coelho, etc.
Sometimes, I feel I am in the desert, alone facing the aridity and the loneliness of life. I try to realize then that my hope is a hope on the way – on the way of Christ, on the way of the cross! My Christian hope tries hard to be a prayerful, patient and persevering hope, to hope with others and for others – particularly with and for the poor. I pray to God – and ask others to pray for me – to help me hope against hope like Abraham (Rom 4:18), to keep my hope in gray days (Zc 4:10).
Facing injustice, violence, the death of innocent children – born and unborn -, the terrible sufferings of a loved person, one is tempted to lose hope. Why God’s apparent silence? I do not know, but I do know – and strongly believe – that He cares, because He loves us and his Son died for us! And I believe and hope in him and in his grace and love for me – for us. And I know that we march to the future – to happiness, to God, to Love, to heaven – with steps of love.
Will Jesus be born in our hearts this Christmas – and through life? The first time He came, there was no room for him in the inn. There will be no room for him this Christmas in the hearts that do not love. May we be ready to say: “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” (See Rev 22:17, 20).
May we all have a hopeful Advent and a peaceful journey of life!
FAUSTO GOMEZ BERLANA, O. P.
St. Dominic’s Priory,
Macau, Advent 2011