When you’re a kid looking forward to Christmas, December can seem like the longest month of the year. It's 25 days of waiting, anticipation, and expectation for an event that never seems to arrive quickly enough.
These same feelings carry over into our adult experience of Advent. This season seems to be all about waiting and expectation, albeit an anticipation of the coming of Christ rather than the coming of Santa Claus. How, though, can we “anticipate” something that happened over 2000 years ago? Why are we “waiting” for the birth of the Messiah when we know he has already been born? It seems as though the church wants us to forget for a while that Christ came into the world, and then--surprise!--Christmas morning, here he is. This surely can’t be right.
Advent (the word means “coming”) is indeed filled with waiting and anticipation: not for the coming of Christ into the world for the first time, but for the continual and renewed coming of Christ into the world for all times. Jesus spoke of the “reign of God already in our midst” but he also spoke of the “reign of God yet to come.” Advent is about the tension between these two truths. Yes, Christ has already come into the world, but, yes, Christ is yet to come as well. And in between these two times, Christ is continually coming into the world. We proclaim this very mystery each time we say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” During Advent we make our prayer that he comes quickly and continually.
Of course, we cannot neglect our own part in Christ’s coming. We, as his disciples in this age, are the primary way in which Christ makes his presence known in the world. The questions we need to ask ourselves during this season are: How have I been Christ to others? How have I helped to bring about his vision of the reign of God? What parts of my life have I not allowed Christ to come into yet? What parts of my family, friends, and community around me still need Christ, and how can I bring him to them?
If Advent is a time to anticipate, work, and pray for the fullness of Christ’s presence, then Christmas is a time to celebrate Christ already present in the world through the Holy Spirit. Christmas isn’t a birthday party for Jesus. Rather, it is a celebration of God’s love made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s an opportunity to praise and thank God for all God’s many gifts to the world today. And, likewise, it is a time to celebrate the role we play in this. We exchange gifts with those who are Christ to us, to celebrate our love for them and God’s love for us. We also take care to share our gifts with those not as fortunate as us: the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the marginalized.
We celebrate counter-culturally as well. While shopping malls and radio stations are well into their Christmas season by December, we are celebrating Advent. The season of Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas and extends through December 24. Then, while the merchandisers are starting their after-Christmas sales and taking down their decorations, we’re celebrating Christmas. For Christmas isn’t just one day, but a whole season. It includes the Feast of the Holy Family (the Sunday after Christmas), the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God (January 1), Epiphany (the Sunday after January 1), and concludes with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday after January 6). Try to find a way to keep the whole season, by keeping your decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord (or at least Epiphany), singing Christmas carols, and wishing those you meet a “Merry Christmas.” If you get some strange looks, you might explain that while one day may be enough to celebrate a birthday, we need a whole season to celebrate the gift of Christ’s presence in our world.
Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation and Young Adult Ministry
Office of Religious Education
Archdiocese of Los Angeles
This reflection was first published in the YMA Advent Journal, St. Monica Catholic Church, Santa Monica, CA.