From as long as I can remember, Advent has been my favorite liturgical season. I love everything about it: the Old Testament Roots, the idea of Momma Mary journeying through the final weeks of her pregnancy with Our Lord, the colors, the imagery, the anticipation of it all as Christmas draws near. I love lighting my home Advent wreath. O Come, O Come Emmanuel is my favorite song of all time. My house is full of different nativity scenes with empty mangers, infant-Christs tucked into desk drawers, and different sets of Magi making their way across countertops and night tables following glitter-glued stars of Bethlehem. Advent is my favorite warm winter sweater, tucked away in a closet and pulled out with relish when the weather gets cold, year after year after year.
And this year, in particular, has been a bit of a struggle, a “dry-bones” season of life for me (see Ezekiel 37 if you need context). I’m worn down and weary, waiting for the breath of the Lord to give me life again. So it was with particular relish that I picked up the readings for the first Sunday of Advent this year, seeking the warmth and comfort and security to restore me to life again.
“In those days Judah will be safe and Jerusalem will dwell secure” says the prophet Jeremiah in the first reading. Yes, I think, that’s exactly what my heart is seeking. I keep on reading. “All the paths of the Lord are kindness and constancy,” says the Psalm. Good, good. Balm for the soul. “We earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God and as you are conducting yourselves, you do so even more,” requests St. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians, our second reading. Great, I can do that. I’m super pumped for it, actually. On to the Gospel!
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” says Jesus to His disciples in Luke 21. “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Oh. Um. Has that always been there? Who made an apocalypse-sized hole in my warm winter sweater?
Perhaps this is your battle cry, and your heart leaps at a call to action, and you read onward with gusto. I commend you! Your heart is already in the right place.
But perhaps you are like me, and your heart is weary and your bones are dry and you have seen quite enough nations in dismay for one century, thank you very much. And if that’s the case, perhaps you read onward with a little bit of trepidation.
“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
Trepidation, be gone. Your redemption. Yours. Mine. Dry bones, weary heart, doubting mind, all of it, worthy of redemption. And not just the generic “you;” not a faceless blob of humanity at the mercy of a distant god who has grown tired of our collective nonsense and wipes it away so he doesn’t have to look at it anymore. Rather, you, individually: a soul uniquely and repeatedly loved by a personal God who knows you and calls you by name - you are being redeemed, from the Latin redemptio: ransomed, reclaimed, bought back. “Your redemption” isn’t just a vague biblical term with an end-times vibe that we trot out each November before advertising the parish reconciliation service. Jesus’s intense warning to his disciples is not just the oft-repeated threats of a tired parent, nor is it the doomsday ranting of the 24-hour news cycle. This is a personal promise, the fulfillment of the one made back in our first reading, from Jeremiah: “I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure.”
And why are we afraid? Why might I die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world? For me, at least, it’s because my redemption, in my head, was going to be easy, quick and painless. I was going to be a mere observer of a powerful God hard at work for me while I curled up with a hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire. (The God of the Universe and the one I created in my head should really talk, I like to think to myself.) And here comes God’s plan for my redemption, and it sounds like it’s going to cost me something, too: my worldly attachments, my lazy comforts, my well-worn excuses have all got to go, says the Lord, if I am to be prepared for my redemption. I must keep vigilant at all times, He says, and be aware not only of carousing and drunkenness, but also of the anxieties of daily life.
It is in passages like this that I am reminded of how deeply the Lord knows our nature and desires our good. We all know that the spiritual life demands our attention over carousing and drunkenness, yes? And we can get behind this call fairly quickly, especially during the Advent season, when we are cognizant of the need to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. But listed right alongside those things is the “anxieties of daily life,” and that’s the callout that I need, amongst Christmas shopping and end-of-semester events and holiday travel and spring goal setting and the 26 different Advent crafts I have set up for my three-year-old. The hustle and bustle of November and December will be the death of my spiritual life if I’m not careful, not because I’m particularly prone to carousing and drunkenness anymore (hello, middle age), but instead because I’m so tempted to get caught up in the smaller things, the details and the stress and the anxiety, that I don’t have the energy to “stand erect and raise my head” and “be vigilant” for what is to come.
So what do we do, then, if we shouldn’t be afraid, but we shouldn’t be drowsy either? Perhaps this Advent we can lean into the scriptures and the Tradition of the Church. Set up an Advent wreath at home. Blast an Advent playlist. Delve into Salvation History with your roommates or your family. Take time for silence and stillness in your heart. Meditate upon the promises of a God who loves us and will carry us through terror and trepidation, penance and pain, and redeem us from our brokenness and sin, time and time and time again.