A Meditation for Advent

By Cardinal Mauro Piacenza

“Grant your faithful, we pray, Almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming” (Collect, 1st Sunday of Advent).

Perhaps some of you have had the experience of walking for miles through the dark night, with your gaze fixed on a distant light, which in some sense represents our home. How difficult it is in the dark to gauge the distance! Our destination may be several miles away, or perhaps just a few hundred feet.

This was the situation the prophets found themselves in when looking to the future, awaiting the redemption of their people. They could not tell, not even within an approximate range of one hundred or five hundred years, when the Messiah would come.

And when the Messiah did come, there were few who truly expected him. “He came to his own, but his own did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). They knew only that one day the stock of David would flourish once more, that in an age to come a ‘key’ would be found to open the door of their prison, that the light which they then saw as a faint glimmer on the horizon would one day burst forth and become full day. The people of God had to simply persevere while waiting.

But there were so many who allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by sleep, precisely when the most important event in their lives and the life of the world was about to happen. “Stay awake,” the Lord tells us. “The hour has come for you to awake from sleep,” Saint Paul repeats (Rm 13: 11). For we too can sometimes forget the fundamental truth of our existence. “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go to the Lord’s house! And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem.’” Our Holy Mother Church reminds us, four weeks in advance, to prepare once again for the Holy Feast of Christmas, for in remembering the first Advent in the world of the God-made-man, we are also preparing for the other comings of God – at the end of our lives, for each one of us, and at the end of time.

And so Advent is a time of preparation and of hope. “Come, Lord, and do not delay.” Let us prepare the way for the Lord who is to come – and if we perceive that our own life is clouded over and we do not clearly see the light that shines forth from Bethlehem, from Jesus, then now is the time to remove the obstacles.

If, during this present time, we truly desire to draw closer to God, then we will rigorously examine our soul. For it is here that we will find the real enemies, who fight tirelessly to keep us away from the Lord. It is here, somehow, that the major obstacles to our Christian life are to be found, namely: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1Jn 2:16). The lust of the flesh is not merely the disordered tendency of the senses.  It is not limited purely to the sphere of sensuality but includes also the sense of comfort and the lack of rigor that inclines us to seek the easiest and most pleasant path, to take seeming shortcuts, even at the cost of downplaying our fidelity to God.

Grotto in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Since the Lord is coming to us, we must prepare. When that Holy Night arrives, the Lord must find us waiting, with our hearts ready to receive Him. And this is also how He must find us when we come to meet Him at the end of our earthly pilgrimage. We need to redirect the course of our lives, turn back toward this God who is coming to meet us. The whole of our human existence is a constant preparation for this encounter with the Lord, who is ever closer to us. But during Advent, the Church helps us in a special way to ask: “Lord, let me know your ways, teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation” (Ps 4).

Jesus says to his disciples: “Take heed, watch, and pray, for you do not know when the time will come… Watch, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.” (Mk 13:33-37). To maintain this attitude of watchfulness in our everyday lives, we have to be able to fight, because all of us tend to live with our eyes fixed on earthly things. Sobriety as a way of life will help us never to lose sight of the supernatural dimension, which should characterize all our actions. Saint Paul compares this watchfulness over us to that of the well-armed soldier, who does not allow himself to be surprised (cf Eph 6:14). We too will be alert if we take care to diligently observe personal prayer, which prevents tepidity and, in turn, the death of our healthy striving for holiness. We will be vigilant if we do not neglect those little mortifications which keep us open to the things of God.

The great Saint Bernard tells us: “Consider who He is that comes, whence He comes, to whom He comes, for what end He comes, when He comes, and in what manner He comes. This is undoubtedly a most useful and praiseworthy curiosity, for the Church would not so devoutly celebrate the season of Advent if there were not some great mystery hidden therein” (Saint Bernard, Sermon on the six circumstances of Advent, 1).

The Blessed Virgin Mary, our Hope, who bears in her womb the Child Jesus, will help us during this sacred time to improve the state of our souls. Serene and recollected, she awaits the birth of her Son, who is the Messiah. All her thoughts are centered on Jesus, who will soon be born in Bethlehem. By staying close to her, we will be able to dispose our minds and hearts in such a way that the coming of the Lord does not find us drowsy or distracted, but just as we would hope to be if this were our very last Advent.

Cardinal Piacenza is president of Aid to the Church in Need.