As we come to the end the great swathes of green Sundays of the Year, over the course of the past few weeks the Church has begun to hint at the arrival of a new liturgical season. Next Sunday she will celebrate the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the following Sunday she will be clothed in violet as she begins that majestic season of Advent; the time when those who are one with Christ in baptism celebrate his threefold coming. As Saint Bernard says: “In the first coming he comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, he comes in spirit and in power; in the third, he comes in glory and in majesty.”
Thus in our readings today we can already see the themes of that great season of Advent piercing through. In the prophecy of Malachi we read: “Lo, the day is coming … when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble … there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Mal. 3: 19-20). In the psalm appointed we have sung: “The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice … Before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth, he will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity” (Ps. 98). And in the gospel the Lord himself tells of the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem; a foretaste of his second coming, accompanied by powerful signs—“earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place”—and culminating in that final act, recalled in the words of the Nicene Creed: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
What are we to make of all of this? We know that these themes run through those four weeks of the season of Advent preceding Christmas, but why are they being introduced to us now? Why pre-empt that great season in this way? I would like to suggest that by this the Church is, in her wisdom, preparing us for the season of Advent through these texts of her common liturgical prayer; ushering her faithful toward the great time of watching and waiting for the coming of Christ, by teaching us first what it is to watch and to wait.
Advent is often seen as a mere precursor to Christmas: a time of preparation with an intended goal. In this sense it is a little like the season of Lent, which builds over the course of five weeks until we reach the events of Holy Week and, ultimately, Easter. And whilst there is some truth to this view, both of these seasons have in fact another purpose. They are not simply liturgical atria—hallways to be passed through on the way to a great feast—but are themselves places for us to dwell; times of the liturgical year that do us some spiritual good and that help us to grow in the virtues and in grace. In some small way the liturgical texts of these days and weeks preceding Advent remind us of that. Advent, in a sense, has its own Advent; its own season of preparation.
And so it is in this time that we learn how to keep the season of Advent proper. We are instructed in what it means to watch and to wait, so that when Advent comes we can get on and do it, rather than get caught up in working out how. In the Catechism—which, by the way, would make an excellent Christmas gift if you’re already thinking about such things—we find reference to today’s gospel.
[Christ] calls his hearers to conversion and faith, but also to watchfulness. In prayer the disciple keeps watch, attentive to Him Who Is and Him Who Comes, in memory of his first coming in the lowliness of the flesh, and in the hope of his second coming in glory. In communion with their Master, the disciples’ prayer is a battle; only by keeping watch in prayer can one avoid falling into temptation (CCC 2612).
So this watching much more than the watching we undertake with our favourite television drama, and this waiting more than our waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s surgery. It is an active watching; an active waiting. It is the watchfulness of a sentry on duty: alert and ready. It is the waiting of the athlete: poised for the starting pistol. The Lord himself tells us this when he warns that we must be on guard against those who seek to deceive us: “many will come in my name [says the Lord], saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!”
This may seem to be a simple message, then, but it is I think an important one. Our life in Christ must always be—in season and out—oriented toward his coming again; towards his kingdom of life and peace. This is best done in forming our lives to reflect in this world the life of the world to come. It is achieved by forming habits of virtue; chipping away at those things that keep our feet planted on earth, and living for the life of the world to come. It means having the celebration of the Mass as the true heart of our week and of our lives, making regular use of the sacrament of confession to hone our consciences, and working—really working—to undo the bonds of temptation and sin that cut us off from God and, ultimately, from the eternal life of heaven. May these days give us the chance to make a new resolution in this regard, and may God give us the grace to be ready when he comes.