Today the Church begins a new liturgical year with the start of the season of Advent. The First Sunday of Advent is of course not just the Church’s “New Year’s Day” but the opening of our preparations for the celebration of the Nativity, the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ according the flesh, when God comes to make His home with us at Christmas. As we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, in this season we also recall that, as we affirm in the words of the Creed, “[Christ] will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Just as we look forward to His first coming in the manger at Bethlehem, so also our minds are also fixed on His second coming at the end of time “to achieve the definitive triumph of good over evil which, like the wheat and the tares, have grown up together in the course of history” (CCC 680). It is for this reason that the gospel for this first Sunday of the season of Advent presents to us those alarming words of the Lord to His disciples from the Gospel according to Saint Mark: “Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come” (Mk 13:33).
This attentiveness to Christ, this being ready for Him when He comes, involves a certain attitude. Like watchmen on the battlements, we must be always prepared; always ready to welcome the Lord so that He does not find us asleep, so that He does not find us with our eyes fixed on some prize other than heaven, other than the “kingdom of truth and life” which Christ our King comes to bring. This in turn requires from us an interior conversion; a conscious turning towards the Lord in what we do and how we live our lives. Saint Benedict puts it this way in his Holy Rule for monks: “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (LXXII). This is helpful for us, too: whether it be our work or hobbies, friends or even family, to live for and in Christ is our ultimate goal and the source of our joy. This does not mean that we have to neglect other things, far from it, but rather that all of our life, every area, is to be marked by our love of Christ as a sort-of golden thread that weaves its way through our activities, encounters, relationships, and work.
If this is true of the Christian life in general, it must be all the more true of Christian worship in particular. The prayer we offer in the Sacred Liturgy, those rites and ceremonies of the community of the Mystical Body of Christ the Church, must be consciously and outwardly revealing of an inward disposition, of an inward determination to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” If the way we live must always outwardly show this interior life, so the way we worship as the Body of Christ on earth must show this reality through outward forms. This means that the music, gestures, ritual, and ordering of our liturgical worship—of what we do in church—must all be signs of our preference for Christ over and above the things of this world. It is why sacred music has a character that is distinct from other forms of music. It is why the way we behave or dress in church is several degrees more reverent and dignified than in the street or even in our homes. It is why the language we use in our prayers can often seem formal, removed from the everyday language we employ; because it is the language of the court of Christ the King, a vocabulary that speaks to us of something “other,” something greater than mere conversation or chatter.
In a very important way we begin today to express this principle in our worship here at Holy Family. As we have been hearing from the pulpit for the past eight weeks or so, from today we will turn physically towards the Lord in a common orientation in our offering of the Mass. We will all, Priest and People together, face towards the Cross, towards the altar, towards Heaven, and towards the coming of Christ at the end of time. In this we are not only expressing in clear terms our preference for Christ, fixing our eyes on Him and awaiting eagerly for His coming again, but also consciously turning away from the world; turning our backs on the world, the flesh, and the Devil. In practical terms very little will change—except for our altar servers who have to remember which way to turn!—but in terms of what this signifies, something very fundamental and powerful is evoked: we are rejecting the empty and false promises of happiness and peace that this world offers, and turning to the Lord and accepting from Him the true happiness, peace, love, and blessedness, that comes from knowing Him, loving Him, serving Him, and ultimately being in His presence for eternity.
The great bishop of the fourth and fifth centuries, Saint Augustine of Hippo, ended many of his homilies with a rallying cry for his congregation to adopt exactly this physical gesture and interior disposition. As he finished and moved from the ambo to the altar he would call to the People, Conversi ad Dominum! Let us convert, let us turn to the Lord! He would call upon them to go with him, to be led by him, and to turn with him to face the Lord as he offered the bread and wine in the Eucharistic Prayer. And at the same time he would be calling them to turn to Christ, not simply by outward signs, but in their hearts.
Saint Augustine’s call, and the liturgical gesture that we will adopt in a few moments, really gets to the heart of the purpose not just of this season of Advent, this time of making ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the end of time, but in fact of the entire Christian life. As we begin this new liturgical year, as we journey deeper and deeper into the heart of the life of Christ in our preparations to meet Him in His nativity and in our preparations to meet Him at the end of time, may we live that call with our lives; in our hearts and by our actions. Let us “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” and let us turn to the Lord in all that we do, and in all that we are.