“Advent” does not mean “expectation” as some may think. It is a translation of the Greek word parousia, which means “presence” or, more accurately, “arrival” — that is, the beginning of a presence. In antiquity the word was a technical term for the presence of a king or ruler, and also of the god being worshipped, who bestows his parousia upon his devotees for a time. “Advent,” then, means a presence begun, the presence being that of God. — From “Dogma and Preaching,” by Pope Benedict XVI
Like many Catholics, I have been queried more than once by evangelical friends wondering why Catholics put so much stock in “ritualistic” things not explicitly spelled out in Scripture — things like Advent and its purple vestments; the candles marking the weeks; the O Antiphons, whose beautiful images so intensify our longing, even as they paradoxically deepen our sense of assured contentment.
“Jesus came once for all; He doesn’t keep coming,” one such friend reminded me. “Christmas is a great season, but why do you need a whole advance season, too? What’s the point?”
“But, surely, Jesus does keep coming to us, no matter where we are in our lives,” I answered. I reminded her of where she had been a year earlier, and the weighty concerns that had lain on her heart — and of the difficult but beautiful Advent my own family had endured a few years previous, at the bedside of a dying brother. “Christ is constant,” I said, “but we are not; our lives are not. We can get so caught up in things, in working, paying bills, making deadlines, tending to our families — and then, suddenly, we hear a prophet saying, ‘make straight a path in the wilderness,’ and it resets our priorities. It’s not just a story we’re meant to remember; it’s an action we are meant to undertake, so Christ can alight anew within us.”
Advent coaxes us out. We look up and there is a darker sky than before. The stars show more clearly, and they inspire us to hack through the things we have allowed to imprison us, so that we may walk a freer path and ponder what transpired in a lonely cave in Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago — what it meant then, and what it still means for all of us today.
Because it is monumental, this parousia is an encounter with Love as it had never before existed, and as it will never end.
And, yes, it has “already happened.” But if God is outside of time, and we know He is, then that momentous event “is happening” even as you read this. Right now, a star is shining brightly; a people are moving toward the places from whence they came; a young woman is great with child; wise men are lifting their eyes to heaven and wondering. The place of our own origin, from whence we came, beckons; it sends a flare as a guide! And the One who is All in All is moving toward us — in breathtaking humility — to show us the way back.
Like Mary, we are great with expectation, and wonder how can this be? Heaven reaching down in song and succor, to cradle the earth; Creator, come down among us, not to observe or direct, but to inhabit and serve. In his lowly, vulnerable birth, God comes as bridegroom, wedding himself to us — divinity to humanity — and shares with us that most intimate privilege of marriage, the joining of two into one, the mutual dependence, the mutual commitment — and nothing can ever be the same. But every marriage, even the best, needs constant attention, and recollection.
Call the repetitious seasons of Advent, then, year after year, a renewal of our wedding vows, complete with love words, as we make straight our paths, light our candles and beckon our beloved to us, again, with the sweet and beautiful pleadings of our Antiphons. You consent to come to us in all vulnerability; we consent to be vulnerable in return. This is forever.
Elizabeth Scalia is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.