And this is the first Sunday of Advent; a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ—to His second coming at the end of time, of which today’s Holy Gospel speaks, to His coming to us personally (or to our going to Him) at the end of our lives, and to the celebration of His wondrous Incarnation in the forthcoming feast of Christmas.
The Church has traditionally taken time in Advent to recall the reality of what we call the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell—and rightly, for even if to speak of these matters seems a very long way indeed from what the world would call “the Christmas spirit”, they are in fact at the very heart of it. For Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, did not take on human flesh in order to make us ‘feel good’ in late December. He was not born of the Blessed Virgin Mary in order to provide us with “happy holidays” or “joyful feasts”. No: God became man in Jesus Christ because death and judgement are realities. He came to open for us the possibility of everlasting life in heaven and to save us from eternal damnation in hell.
Advent, the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year, is when we are called to consider these truths anew. Thus our Holy Mother, the Church, puts last things first, as it were, because they are the most important. For, as St Thomas More declares during his sham trial in the renowned play, A Man for All Seasons:
“Death . . . comes for us all, my lords. Yes, even for Kings he comes, to whom amidst all their Royalty and brute strength he will neither kneel nor make them any reverence nor pleasantly desire them to come forth, but roughly grasp them by the very breast and rattle them until they be stark dead . . . so causing their bodies to be buried in a pit and sending them to a judgment . . . whereof at their death their success is uncertain.” (Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons)
Princes and Presidents, Popes and paupers will all die. So shall we all. Such is the reality of the human condition after original sin. In the end, there is no avoiding this stark reality.
St Benedict teaches his monks “to keep death daily before one’s eyes”. (Rule, ch, 4) This is not so that monks can be kept in a state of paranoia or debilitative fear, but so that we shall live each day in conspectu æternitatis—with the reality of eternity before us. This, surely, is a joyful reality, filled with hope, and not something of which one should be afraid—if we are faithful to Christ, to His Church and to her teaching.
This, surely, is the import of Advent. This, surely is the point of St Luke’s cry “Levate capita vestra: quoniam appropinquat redemptio vestra.” (Lift up your heads, for your redemption is at hand.)
Our redemption by God made man is at hand. It is time, this Advent, whether our own particular judgment or the end of the world is soon, or whether it may yet be a little while, to lift up our heads and attend to the eternal realities of death, judgment, heaven and hell. For we shall each face them: their existence is not a matter of personal opinion or preference.
But we can face them with hope and anticipation: the hope made possible by Hope Himself in His Incarnation which clear and distinct reality we celebrate at Christmas. If holidays and feasts are to be celebrated, if we are to have happy times with family and friends in a few weeks’ time, they will have meaning if each one of us has devoted the necessary time and effort this Advent to prepare ourselves spiritually. For then we shall truly have something about which to celebrate. If Christmas 2021 finds me advanced in virtue and more determined to conquer vice, if it sees me having made reparation for the damage I have caused, if I have reconciled with God and with others in areas where I have been estranged—most certainly through the making of a good confession, but in other ways, as necessary, as well—then, if I have done all of these things, I need not fear death or judgment or the everlasting torments of hell. I can live and rejoice in the hope of the unending communion with God and all who are faithful to Christ in heaven.
My brothers and sisters, Advent can be a very busy time in which the world can engulf us in the trappings of the coming feast. Let us resolve to begin Advent well today, and to continue it with clarity and resolution. In this first Mass of Advent let us ask for the grace to lift up our heads and to see clearly and with humility that which each of us must do at this moment so as to be able truly to rejoice in the coming feast of Christmas. +