Among the many symptoms marking the crisis of faith and culture we are going through, here’s one that happens every year after Thanksgiving, falling like dead leaves during the days before Christmas, a feast for which there is simply no way to give adequate thanks. And that is the season of Advent, which finds itself more and more shorn of its original and sacred meaning. That high and holy time has been high-jacked by the secularists. Advent now signifies in the popular mind a fixed number of shopping days before the real sales begin once the fleeting distractions of Christ’s birth are put behind us. And not only do fewer and fewer of us object, many of us seem not even to notice.
Surely the season of Advent is about something other than the “hecticities” we are forced to endure before the Feast. Yet for great numbers of people, including the baptized, there is scarcely any understanding of what the season actually means. That Advent denotes the time for renewed longing for One who having once come among us, now beckons us to a fuller and richer realization of his mysterious presence, is a fact lost or misunderstood nowadays by people for whom the Event of Christ has left hardly any impression at all.
What are the words Christ speaks to inaugurate the season? “Stay awake! Be prepared!” And why is that? Because we do not know when the Lord will come back. And when he does come it will certainly not be as a helpless child surrounded by shepherds and sheep; he will come rather as One radiant with awful majesty and power to judge the world he made. This Lord of Hosts, we are warned, will burst into our world at an hour we do not expect. “Be sure of this,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.”
So how does one stay awake? By putting on Christ, St. Paul tells us, as if he were not only the clothing we wear, but the transfigured flesh and blood he invites us to become. Because salvation has drawn so close—“nearer now than when we first believed,” he writes to the Church at Rome—it is time to throw off the works of darkness and assume the armor of light, which is Christ himself.
And Christ (this we mustn’t forget) is both already here, and yet not fully present until the final trumps when his promised return in glory will usher the world and ourselves into that definitive state of fulfillment we but dimly imagine here below. Thus Advent bears this double burden of being both an arrival—i.e., parousia which literally means presence in the Greek—of Someone who has long since stepped into the world; yet the consummation of the joy awakened by that historical eruption awaits a perfection destined to take place on the far side of history, to wit, the eternal blessedness of heaven.
All this, of course, depends on faith, of which the supply seems to have run fairly dry in our time. A terrible loss, too, since it remains the essential preparation we are called to make in order to recognize the Christ who comes to meet us. Indeed, we will be judged in the light of that very Advent faith. “When you come down to hard brass tacks,” declares Servant of God Catherine Doherty, “Advent is meant to be the time of faith.” And yet, she adds, “one of the things missing in the world is faith.” Ours is not, she laments, the faith that remains as unshakably rooted as the tree planted near running waters, to recall the cry of the Psalmist. “True faith is profound, immutable, unchangeable. That is the faith of our fathers, the faith which has been given to us by God via the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.”
Nevertheless, if the linchpin is faith, without which the meaning of Advent falls apart, there is yet another virtue to which even faith itself must learn to harness its energy, because in the absence of it the motive power of the will has nothing, absolutely nothing, on which to hang its hat. And that is the virtue of hope, which consists of a resolute turning of the will to God, who alone can satisfy the deepest longings of the heart. And what are they? What do we really want? We want God. We want the blessedness of being in his company. Always and forever. We may not know the shape or texture of this true and blessed life, but as all the mystics and saints remind us, we know there must be something we do not know, yet towards which we feel somehow driven always to move.
So while faith requires, at least in the order of execution, pride of place, it cannot survive without hope. Pope Benedict, for example, has written very beautifully of faith, calling it a liberation, no less, “of my I from its preoccupation with self … that sets me free to respond to the Father, to speak the Yes of love … a breaking out of the isolation that is the malady of my I … a breaking open of the door of my subjectivity.” But unless that faith be activated by hope, which is the very door itself that needs to be broken open from the other side, faith cannot effect the passage we require to enter into the Kingdom. Without hope, in other words, faith simply hasn’t the motive power to propel the soul into the arms of God.
And what is this hope but the sheer irrepressibility of holy desire, of desire supernaturalized by grace, for the blessed outcome of a life that was never ours to begin with. “Christ is held by the hand of hope,” writes Paschasius Radbert, a wonderful Frankish theologian of the Carolingian period whom Pieper cites. “We hold him and are held. But it is a greater good that we are held by Christ than that we hold him. For we can hold him only so long as we are held by him.” In short, we are not our own. We have all been bought at a price, a terrible price borne by the Son of God. We are not in charge of anything except maybe the sins we commit. Of these we may assume complete ownership. But mastery of our fate is not ours to confer, never mind the copybook maxims telling us in rolling Promethean periods to seize the day, take the bull by the horns, wrest control of our lives.
“I am the master of my fate,” declaimed William Ernest Henley in his famous ode to the power of the will: “I am the captain of my soul.” Rubbish. The only captains of the soul, of those who believe most in themselves, are the inmates of local lunatic asylums, as Chesterton wittily reminded his publisher while strolling amiably along a London street one day. (It was their exchange that prompted his masterpiece Orthodoxy.)
Here, then, is the whole paradox of hope, that it is aimed always at something whose possession does not finally depend on us. It is not our business to steal fire from the gods; our task is to wait with hope on the fire that falls from the Holy Ghost.
“Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer shortly before Christmas of 1943. “One waits and hopes and putters around. But in the end what we do is of little consequence. The door is shut, and it can only be opened from the outside.” Which, in the case of Pastor Bonhoeffer, took place some eighteen months later when the Nazis led him out to be hanged. Faith, you might say, was the belief that would bind him over to a life of witness, to an ideal of heroism so pure as to eventuate in his becoming a martyr. But only hope could account for that door being thrown open in the first place, allowing for that final unforeseen in-breaking of God to set the soul free from the clutches of evil and destructive men. For what distinguishes the Christian is the fact that unlike those who live without hope, we who are filled with it are quite serenely fixated on the future; we know how the story ends and that it will not leave us bereft at the last.
“The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open,” Pope Benedict tells us in Spe Salvi, his moving encyclical on hope. And because it is the aim of Advent to bring all this to mind, we need to keep this time holy, for it is a hallowed time we spend in waiting for God. Pray that when he does come he won’t find us at the shopping mall.
Editor’s note: The image above is a photograph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.