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Advent’s twofold character

By Tish Thornton

Liturgy Matters

“Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time” (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, no. 39). Christ is with us, and Christ is still yet to come; this is the Christian reality and the locus of our hope as Christians. It is also the source of our doubt and mis-givings, for we know we are not ready to receive the Lord, and we know that we were created to do so.

The tension inherent in this reality is illustrated in subtle and direct ways in the liturgical texts of the four Sundays of Advent, in the Lectionary readings, the collects and other prayers in the Missal, and the blessings that pertain to the season. Even a cursory review of the texts for the first Sunday of Advent reveals our ambivalence, our recognition that we are not in the right state, but we long for His coming. In the first reading for that Sunday, notice:

He comes, and we tremble to see him. Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags. (Is. 64:4-5)

The collect prayer for the same Sunday implores, “Grant your faithful the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.” We know our unworthiness, and so we ask for the fortitude to run toward that for which humanity has waited since our creation, simultaneously in joy and, quite possibly, with the desire to get it over with—we know what we merit, and it isn’t pretty.

Meanwhile, the blessing for the Advent wreath, which also takes place on that first Sunday, pleads with God that Christ may “come quickly and not delay” (Book of Blessings, no. 1520).

We fear, but we desire; we tremble with shame, but we are determined to run toward Him. How do we resolve these tensions? We can look to another reading for a different Sunday this season, the first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, for a partial answer:

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.

Here comes with powerthe Lord GOD,

who rules by his strong arm;

here is his reward with him,

his recompense before him.

Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;

in his arms he gathers the lambs,

carrying them in his bosom,

and leading the ewes with care.

(Is 40:1, 10-11)

God’s power, strength and authority are found not in weapons and domination, but in the care and comfort He gives to His people. The strong, outstretched arm by which He rules holds within it the smallest and weakest of the flock. The power of God is His outstretched arm on which He offers the Lamb, the sacrifice for the salvation of his people. Christ the Lamb is God’s outstretched arm — that which we fear is also our salvation.

Tish Thornton

The hidden is made manifest; we resolve to run toward Him, who is always and forever running toward us.

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