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Christmas makes more sense if you’re expecting the end of the world. That is the force of this Sunday’s readings — the first Sunday of Advent, in the newly minted liturgical Year C.
There are always two strains in Advent Masses: The slow preparation for the appearance of the Christ child, and the noisy proclamations that everything is about to suddenly change.
It can almost seem like the two are at cross purposes, as if the Church is doing a bait-and-switch, making dark promises about the end of time, and then saying, “Surprise! What the rolling tympanis and brass fanfares were really leading up to was … ‘Away in the Manger.’”
In Sunday’s readings, though, we can see very clearly the way God’s drama is related to, but differs in important ways from merely human drama.
“The days are coming, says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise I made,” says the first reading. “I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land.”
The grand fulfillment of God’s mighty promises, he says, will be — a tiny little plant: bunny food. If that seems anticlimactic, it shouldn’t. It is the same high drama God deploys to great effect each spring when, after a long winter we understand how exciting a shoot can be.
The Gospel refers to an event that hasn’t happened to this day — Christ’s second coming. But the particulars should be very familiar to us.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay,” says Christ, and we can think of the star of Bethlehem and the unrest in the Holy Land when Jesus was born.
“People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” he says, and we can think of the fury of Herod and the host of angels that appeared in the sky.
“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” he concludes. Last time that meant a baby whose power and glory was lost on all but a few shepherds and foreign astrologers.
Will the second coming be drastically different from the first? That remains to be seen. The key, says the text, is to “Be vigilant at all times.”
“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life and that day catch you by surprise like a trap,” he says, and his words intersect with what the Church calls us to do: Pray, fast and give alms.
Pray, so that you are used to talking to him. Fast, so that you are used to relinquishing the goods of the earth for him. And give alms so that you are used to seeing him in the people he made. If all goes well, you and he will recognize each other when he comes.