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First Sunday of Advent
November 28, 2004

"A" Readings: Isa. 2: 1-5 • Rom. 13: 11-14 • Matt 24:37-44

The Meaning of Advent: Waiting for Jesus

By Rev. Jeffrey Lawrence

When I was a kid, my friends and I used to spend countless hours playing make believe. We played school; some kids were the teachers, others were the pupils. We played house. We played cowboys and Indians. Our bicycles and wagons became long freight trains and trucks and fancy cars. We played circus. We had pretend battles, and all of us were soldiers. Some kids even played church and Mass.

Of course, we all knew that we really weren’t teachers or cowboys or soldiers or circus performers. But we had lots of fun making believe. I know kids today do too.

I think one of the reasons I love being a priest is because we still can play make believe! And we can play right here in church. In fact, it’s a kind of game that Mother Church wants us to play!

Ordinarily, we are very solemn at Mass. We know that the Sacred Mysteries are serious, and we come before God with dignity and respect and great awe.

But today, on the first Sunday of Advent, the Church invites us to play make believe. And what we pretend today is that Jesus never was born! We play that we’re living thousands of years before Christ was ever born in Bethlehem. We make believe that the world never experienced the first Christmas, and that we’re still waiting for Jesus to come into the world.
Naturally, we know that Christ really was born 2000 years ago. . . so what’s the point of this kind of game?

One purpose of Advent is to transport us back to the Christ-less, Redeemer-less days before Bethlehem. Mother Church wants to show us the contrast between then and now, and make us realize how lost and miserable man was without Christ. St. Paul suggests what it was like. In the days before Christ, man was asleep. He was in a spiritual stupor. His life was wrapped not in the armor of light, but in deeds of darkness. Man could only slog through the mud. But even in those dark days, the good people of Israel had hope. They longed and prayed for the Messiah. They remembered God’s promise, and they craved that it would be fulfilled.

Try to picture what this kind of life was like. As we play make believe and try to bring this image alive, another purpose of Advent then comes into view — one which is much more personal and immediate for us. The Church hopes to stir up our hearts and make us yearn for the Savior in our own life, as we realize a sobering truth: in the old days, Christ was absent because he had not yet come into the world — but in our day, Christ seems absent because we push him away. In other words, he’s here, but we’ve rejected him. How sad and tragic this is. Advent uses many reminders to speak to our heart: somber purple vestments, subdued church ceremonies, and many prayers of longing. As we take in these outward signs around us, we should be constantly reminded of how desperately we need Jesus in our life.

So we set ourselves a goal: Christmas! It’s just four weeks away. With God’s grace and some self-discipline on our own part, we can do our best not to get totally swept up in all the commercialism of this season. Yes, the parties, the shopping, the excitement are joyful — but we can’t let these eclipse the real meaning and infinite value of Christmas.

As the prophet Isaiah prompts us, we must instead let God instruct us in His ways so we can walk in his paths. Advent is a time for ridding our souls and our lives of sin — and a time for penance to atone for our past sins. Advent is a season for intense prayer, especially a time to beg Christ to come into our lives, our families, our church, our world . . . because we need him so very much.

All this leads us to still a third purpose of Advent: to prepare us for Jesus’ coming again at the end of the world. For those in a state of grace, what a wonderful time this will be! But for those trapped in the vice of mortal sin, it’s hard to imagine a more fearsome day. Again and again, Our Lord pleads with us to stay awake and be prepared, because we do not know the day or the hour. Just as Jesus slipped into the world quietly and without advance notice on the very first Christmas Day, so will it be when the world grinds to an end. Isn’t it ironic that so many people think Our Lord’s Second Coming falls into the "let’s pretend" category. . . when, of course, nothing could be more real.

Dear children of the Lord, as we begin a new church year, now is the time to prepare for all three of these advents: Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem… his coming into our hearts by grace in just a few weeks at Christmas… and his final coming at the end of the world. Let us beg God for his special blessings to make this season a holy and blessed time. Amen.

Suggested reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2742-2745.

Reverend Jeffrey Lawrence is a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. serving at St. Stephen’s Parish in Streator, Ill. A convert from Judaism, Fr. Lawrence practiced law, was creative director and a principal in an advertising agency, and was a consumer magazine publisher before his ordination to the priesthood as a "late vocation."

This homily originally appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, America's leading pastoral magazine

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