The hope of Advent gives way to the joy of Christmas
In this week’s column, communications manager David Hazen asks Archbishop George J. Lucas how to celebrate Advent and prepare for Christmas, even in difficult times. The key, says the archbishop, is to remember that Jesus comes not only to those living at the time of his birth, and not only to those who will witness his second coming, but he also comes to us in our current circumstances today.
Q: We know that the last several months have been somewhat challenging for our church here and across the nation. Has this circumstance been an occasion for you to enter Advent in a different way?
I would say yes. I have always enjoyed the liturgical seasons and tried to mine the various readings and themes for my own prayer, as I discern the Lord’s will for me. Even though at my age I have had many Advents, I am trying to pay attention to what in particular is being offered and asked of me this Advent.
As you say, our church in many places has been experiencing a time of scandal and a time of growing mistrust. And of course, here in the archdiocese, we recently released some information about past cases of abuse extending over many decades. It was hard news for me to publish, and I think it was difficult for all of us to hear.
The prophets speak to us during the Advent season. Most of them lived during very difficult times, when God’s people were questioning his promises and wondering if he had turned his back on them for some reason.
I know it is not at all the case that God has turned his back on us. At the same time, the words of the prophets have had new resonance for me these days, but mostly because they sound a message of hope. They invite God’s people to come back to his original promises, which he doesn’t revoke, and which don’t wear out even though times may be very difficult or confusing.
In the midst of some very difficult times I have heard very clearly an invitation to a renewed hope – hope not in our own efforts, but in the power of God, and in the promise that we will not be left to die in our sins. We will be given the gift of salvation, the gift of mercy, the gift of healing if we will turn to God and receive them.
Q: I heard you preach recently about the connection between this season, and the time of salvation history we live in, that is, between the first Advent and the final “Advent” of Jesus’ second coming. You said we are tempted to think we cannot really find him among us today. Could you unpack that for us?
One of the issues the fathers of the church had to wrestle with after the first or second generation of Christianity was that there had been a sense of the imminent coming again of Jesus. But, obviously, he hasn’t yet come again. Life went on and people lived, and prayed, and worshiped, and died, but where was Jesus?
When we look back and listen to the accounts of the Nativity of Jesus, we know that he was in a certain place at a certain time. He was born in Bethlehem, and the evangelist talks about the various people who were ruling at that time, locating him in history and on the map. The same is true for the public ministry of Jesus. We know where he was and people could encounter him, see him face-to-face, and hear his voice. And it’s hard not to be nostalgic a little bit for that period, to think that it would have been great if Jesus had come to my neighborhood.
Early in the season of Advent, the church draws our attention to the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. There’s always the question, “Would I want to meet him then?” The Scriptures make it sound like a fearful time. We believe that Jesus is going to set things right when he comes again. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become so disoriented, disordered in our desires and affections, then that setting right might be a fearful thing.
We don’t know when that event will happen. Jesus tells us not to try to figure it out, and not to worry about it. So, as you mentioned, we are in this middle period, and the question is, “Where is Jesus?” We talk about his coming at Christmas. Is that something for me living in 2018, or was that something for people a long time ago? Or will I only have a personal encounter with him in this world if I’m around at the end of time?
The church has been established to take care of this middle time and to make it possible for you and me to encounter Jesus in a real and personal way. That is, not in nostalgia and not in wondering about the future, but in the circumstances where we find ourselves today. That happens through the sacraments in a very explicit way, but the Lord also tells us to look for him in the poor, the imprisoned, the stranger, the marginalized. We can meet him there in a real way; we encounter him and it’s not our imagination. We can experience him really in our prayer – he is very close to us when we call on him.
That the Lord is near is the Advent message, and that he is truly present with us is the Christmas message, the message of the incarnation. Incarnation means that God becomes man and wades into the details of human existence, not only during the limited period of his public ministry, but also now in the church.
Q: It seems to me that the challenge every year is to actually pray, and to really dispose ourselves to be aware of him and meet him in the way you describe. What should we look for as we try to enter into these holy days?
Back to what we were talking about before, living in this middle time between the first coming of Jesus and the second. Jesus is not inert, and so we’re not thinking of a statue only or a memory, but a living person who desires to encounter us right where we are this Advent, this Christmas. And so, our prayer can be as the church has always prayed: “Come, Lord Jesus.” He is here with me, and he has something to share with me about the truth of the Father’s love for me this year that I might not have been able to receive before.
He’s also asking something of me and inviting me to accept this identity, to be not only his disciple, but his friend and his brother in the human family, so that I can experience the love of God for me in the community of believers. So it’s not just my God, my Jesus, my Christmas, but we’re celebrating this together, so I meet him really, this person, in the community of the church. But, he knows me, he knows each of us personally. And he has a personal gift, a personal manifestation of God’s loving plan for each of us if we’re open to it in our prayer, in our lives, in our interactions with each other.
We don’t often think of it at Christmas, but when Jesus was with his disciples and they saw that he was praying, saw that he was in communication with his Father, they asked him, “Teach us to pray.” What did he teach them? He taught them the prayer that we learned as little kids, the Our Father. We’ve kind of taken this prayer for granted, but he is really giving us the opening to be part of a family, to know God as Father, and to then begin to wonder how our Father cares for us, such that he’s given us his Son Jesus.
We never could have known that this is how God thinks of us without the coming of Jesus, and without him teaching us that, showing us that, and then really sustaining us in that, in all our joys and in our sorrows. It is true that God is our Father, it is true that we are beloved daughters and sons of God. In difficult times, in dark times, and in joyful times, that truth endures.