Advent wants to challenge us on all possible fronts. Today, let us try to answer the paradox echoing in our readings. John Henry Newman, in his 4th Sermon on Advent (‘Shrinking from Christ’s Coming’) brought attention to serious tensions regarding our Advent preparation. There is a mixture of fear and comfort. ‘We are looking out for Christ’s coming, we are bid pray for it; and yet it is to be a time of judgement….How can [we] look forward to it with joy, and not knowing the certainty of [our] own salvation?’ How is it that in our prayers we hasten the Lord’s coming, and at the same time, we are not ready at all? Or to sharpen this paradox further, how can we quicken the arrival of our Judge in parallel with the fact that His arrival would be ‘shortening the the time of our present life, and cut off those precious years given us for conversion, amendment, repentance and sanctification? Is there not an inconsistency in professing to wish our Judge already come when we do not feel ready for Him?’ Why do we need to pray for Christ’s coming?
I would like to highlight two directions in answering this paradox. One is theological, the other is practical.
First let us focus on one of Newman’s historical homily, what he says about the importance of our prayer. It is true that it is a discomforting thought to be ‘judged for all our doings by an unerring Judge.’ ‘Try to trace back the history of your life in memory, and fancy every part of it confessed by you in words, put into words before some intimate friend, how great would be your shame!... But how gladly would you in that day [disclose it] to a fellow-sinner, to a world of sinners, compared with the presence of an All-hoy, All-seeing creator. Think of all this, and you will not deny that the thought of standing before Christ is enough to make us tremble.’
But Newman continues with an encouragement. We have reasons to pray to Him, and hasten his coming. God’s presence is hold out to us as our greatest good! Even if we are afraid of this coming meeting, it is our duty to obey on faith. ‘Let us do what He bids, and leave the rest to Him.’ And Newman’s answer gets really exciting on this point. ‘We do not pray that He would simply cult short the world, but that He would make time go quicker… Before He comes all the Saints [his elect] must be gathered in; and each saint must be matured. All we pray is, that He would please to crowd all this into a short space of time, that He would accomplish - not curtail, but fulfil - the circle of his Saints.
When then we pray that He would come, we pray also that we may be ready; […] and make us the holier the closer He comes… That when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him.’
We need to take seriously that task of prayer as it is our only way of preparation. Why? Because, as Newman highlights, we can never be fully prepared: ‘you can never be profitable to Him even with the longest life.’ Yet, ‘you can show faith and love in an hour!’
And this is where Newman’s final answer comes. How can we stand before the Lord and God? ‘How do you bring yourself to come before Him now day by day? Consider what it is you mean by praying, and you will see that, at that very time that you are asking for the coming of His kingdom you are anticipating that coming, and accomplishing the thing you fear. When you pray, you come into His presence.’ And though we know that we are of ‘unclean lips and earthly heart’, we also know ‘that He is All-merciful, and that he so sincerely desires my salvation that He has died for me.’ ‘If we have lived, however imperfectly, yet habitually, in His fear, if we trust that His Spirit is in us, then we need not be ashamed before Him.’ That is why our prayer life in the Church is so, so important.
In view of this, Newman emphasises the importance of receiving the Holy Communion. ‘For this is in very form an anticipation of His coming, an near presence of Him in earnest of it.’ Jesus offers his friendship through the Communion, he teaches us to look upon him with trust. In the Eucharist we receive we anticipate the future day to come.
The second answer to our paradox is thoroughly practical. ‘Prepare a way for the Lord!’ Advent is about reawakening to do and live what Christ teaches. So our advent preparation is about ‘getting real’. Let us make our prayers be substantial and efficient…
‘Think about when you’re working on your weekly schedule. For those of you who don’t have weekly planners or a good app on your phone, opting to juggle it all inside your head instead, you’ll know what I’m talking about: When you consider your work hours, the outing with your friend, your “me-time” watching television and the errand you have to run, somehow it all seems to work. “Yeah, I got this. I’ll squeeze it all in, and have time to take my oldest kid out for ice cream, too.”
But then reality happens, and whoops! There’s not enough time. The work hours pile up, something goes on too long, an unexpected emergency comes up, and the ice cream outing is a long-forgotten promise.
But if you take the time to speak it out, to put a pen to paper, to use a good working app, and actually go through the week and map out your schedule, you have a good chance at succeeding. Sure, you may have to knock off a few things you were planning to do, but whatever remains on your schedule is now a good bet.’ (Aharon Loschak)
Advent also runs the risk of living in our ‘Advent-imagination’. However creative and fertile our ideas of our possible preparation are, these are not year real. All what we dream about are only our ‘thought-kids’. Let us put down real targets and tasks to be done. Let our Advent preparation produce not mere ‘thought-deeds’, but real ones. ‘A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low!”’
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..