As the Church sets out on a new liturgical year with the celebration of this season of Advent, it is easy for us to allow our gaze to fall only a short distance before ourselves. Surrounded as we are already by the lights and music of the Christmas festivities, and yet some way from the feast itself, we can all-too-easily be caught thinking that the sole purpose of this holy season is our preparation to celebrate the birth of the Lord in a few weeks’ time. Instead, the readings and prayers at this Mass and throughout Advent, point us not simply toward the coming of Christ as the babe in a manger – though of course they do – but also to his second coming when, as we profess in the Creed, he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Traditionally the four Sundays of Advent reflect this by the themes of death, judgement, heaven, and hell – the four last things. As we emerge from the month of the Holy Souls, we might reflect that the great sequence of the liturgy for the dead, the Dies iræ, was formerly sung on this day – the first Sunday of Advent – as the sequence at Mass, and it is used in the modern Liturgy of the Hours during the last week of the Church’s year, as a reminder and preparation for the season which begins today, and of this Advent motif.
In the Collect at Mass today we pray, Bestir thy power, Lord, we pray thee, and come! […] So may we be found worthy to be rescued from the judgement that threatens us by reason of our sins. In the epistle, Saint Paul tells the Church in Rome to, abandon the ways of darkness, and put on the armour of light. And in the gospel, the Lord himself speaks of his coming again: they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with full power and majesty. Over and over again the Advent liturgy draws our hearts and our minds beyond the coming celebration of the Lord’s incarnation alone, and on toward his coming again at the end of time. This season has, then, what we might call an eschatological essence.
What do we mean by this? Eschatology – the means by which the Church understands those four last things – comes in two forms: individual and universal. We can talk about death, judgement and purgatory, heaven, and hell, in relation to ourselves or another individual, and we can talk about the end of the world, the resurrection of the body, the coming of Christ as judge, and the consummation of all things. The two (particular and universal) can be distinguished, in the sense that we can discuss particular and not the universal, or vice versa – but they can never be separated. And so whilst this season is often understandably used to reflect on the four last things in a particular sense, we must never lose sight of the universal, even cosmic, sense that appears in parallel.
That cosmic or universal view of the last things is important as we seek to understand the full meaning of Advent. As we ponder the completion of all things in Christ – when heaven and earth should pass away as the gospel put it – our acknowledgement of this idea guides us into a more profound understanding of the heavenly inheritance which we hope one day to obtain, and so helps us understand more fully the coming of the Lord at the end of time.
In the sacred liturgy, particularly, we see beyond the things of this world, and even beyond our own individual death and salvation, to that universal, cosmic fulfillment and culmination. In the Eucharist, we on earth participate already in the heavenly liturgy. The sacraments of the Church, the Catechism tells us, prefigure and anticipate the glory of heaven. In the Mass, we might say, the veil between heaven and earth is so thin that we mortals can glimpse the full splendour of the eternal worship of heaven, and not as mere spectators, but as active participants in the high priestly prayer of God the Son to God the Father in the power of God the Holy Spirit. This is no more so than when we kneel to receive the panis angelorum – the bread of angels – that is the awesome gift of Holy Communion. In that moment, heaven and earth are no longer distinct places, but are fused together in our very souls and bodies!
This eschatological vision of the liturgy finds a particular expression in the orientation we adopt in our prayer. In keeping with immemorial Christian tradition, we offer our worship in a common turning towards the Lord; toward the cross on the altar, in order that through it we might glimpse the victory won by its merits. We face the east, the place of the rising sun, from where, as the gospel of Saint Luke tells us, the dayspring from on high will come to visit us. This posture – more than that, this sacramental sign – reminds us of the ‘cosmic sign of the rising sun which symbolizes the universality of God’. In every celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice we find again the call of the Lord: conversi ad Dominum – turn to the Lord, convert to him – as we prepare for his coming again and his righteous judgement on us and on the whole of mankind.
This season of Advent reminds of the importance of this Godward orientation with a special force, in order that our liturgical worship might be renewed and restored once more as we begin this new liturgical year. Our Eucharistic offering is made in union with the whole Church, in heaven and earth, and so spurs us on to live lives orientated towards the Lord in the here and now, in order that we might be made ready for the fullness of worship in eternity. As Pope Benedict reminded us, ‘it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centered on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity’. Advent brings us back to that very ‘image of eternity’, correcting our wayward gaze, and drawing us once more to the perfect alignment which is union with God. Again, Pope Benedict said, ‘A liturgy which no longer looks to God is already in its death throes’. In our thoughts and meditations this Advent, we might apply this same logic to our spiritual lives and ask how we might refocus ourselves on God, and on his saving sacrifice.
So may this rich and beautiful season of Advent be a time of fervent personal conversion to God, and to his laws and precepts, that we may truly journey out of the shadows and dark imaginings of this world of sin, and into the light of truth. May it be a sound and thorough preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s nativity, and may it reawaken in us a true desire for heaven, our rightful home, and encourage us to strive – in all that we do – to keep our eyes fixed on the one from whom comes that eternal reward.