Our Blessed Lady in the Cathedral Church of Mary our Queen, Baltimore, MD
The second reading for the Office of Readings on the Saturday before Advent may seem a little out of place. From a sermon of Saint Augustine of Hippo, it contains these words: “Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security”.
The season of Advent is often seen in parallel with that of Lent. Certainly, both are marked by a sombre and somewhat penitential tone. They are both times of preparation; both periods of self-denial; both marked by a certain restraint in the liturgical life of the Church, in her outward vesture and sacred texts. Both Advent and Lent draw heavily on the prophecy of Isaiah, seeing in that Old Testament book a foretaste of what is to come at the coming feast, be it Christmas or Easter. In this sense they are times of shadows and images, which are only dispelled and fully realized by the light of the Christ whose Radiant Dawn we see in the ‘dayspring from on high’ (Lk. 1:78) of his Nativity and the ‘morning star that never sets’ of his Paschal triumph (cf. Exsultet).
Be that as it may, Advent is not Lent. Despite the restraint that this the season shows it retains a character which is altogether more hopeful; more readily expectant of the good news that is to come. For this reason the advice of Saint Augustine is perhaps not as peculiar as first it seems. The joy of knowing that Christ will come spurs us on to sing ‘Alleluia’, despite our anxiety. Indeed the sacred liturgy through these days of Advent has traditionally been littered—or, as one friend had it, ‘festooned’—with the word. The antiphons at Vespers in the ancient Roman rite, for example, each end with an alleluia which is usually reserved for feasts and Eastertide. In the Ordinary Form, too, the alleluia is not omitted as it is in Lent. So, if this is a season marked at least by a certain sparsity, what is the cause of our joy?
Often Christmas is referred to as the feast of the incarnation. For sure, it is the day that most clearly marks the coming into the world of the new born Christ, the Messiah who comes to save his people. Nevertheless, the act of the incarnation—the taking-on of man’s nature by the Lord, the God-man of the Fathers, has already taken place. Saint John the Baptist, himself unborn, leaps in his mother’s womb when Our Blessed Lady makes her visitation; he knows what we in Advent must acknowledge—that Christ is already in our midst in the pregnancy of his immaculate mother.
So the Church rejoices in this season, conscious that the incarnation is not a future event, but rather one which has already taken place; now we know what is to come our hearts are filled with joy and ‘Alleluia’ is our most natural response! The gift of life is itself a cause for our joy; how much more the life of the one who comes to give the fullness of life to ‘the people that walked in darkness […] they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death’ (Is. 9: 2).
May we prepare well for the Nativity of the Lord by fasting, penance, and a new-found intensity of prayer in this holy season; but may we also allow the joy of the coming Christ to manifest itself in us, that we may become radiant with the expectancy of the Blessed Virgin, and so begin already to allow that ‘great light’ of Christ to radiate throughout to the dark places of our world.