Waiting in Joyful Hope –
A Reflection on the Season of Advent by Fr. Enda Murphy, priest of the Diocese of Kilmore currently working in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome –
“Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight” (Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar n.39). In these few lines the breadth and importance of the Advent season is captured and shared. Yes, we are preparing for Christmas and the birth of the Christ child; we can probably still look forward to full churches at our Christmas Masses. But at this moment we are called to prepare well during this hope-filled season so that it truly does become a period marked by “devout and expectant delight”.
Advent is one of the ‘strong’ times of the liturgical year that helps to teach us the true meaning of Christian hope while preparing us for the manifestation of the Lord. A tendency to see it as a mini-Lent or a sort of pre-Christmas trial period would only dilute the joy at the very time when it is most needed. Thus Advent is a challenging season because we live in the midst of tragedy and despair, of broken promises and betrayed trust. Reflecting on this season Thomas Merton, the renowned American Trappist Monk and writer, said, “we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance”. Yet it is within the tension of this time of joyful waiting that the wonder of God becoming one of us is gradually revealed and we are invited to enter more fully into the mystery by running forth to meet the returning Christ with lives set aflame with good deeds (cf. Collect, First Sunday of Advent). It is in this period of waiting that we begin to experience a taste for living, in that we can savour and reflect on who we are in the light of the Lord’s coming and moreover on who the Lord is calling us to be.
In the poem “Advent” Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder”. He was pointing to the necessity of a gradual revelation of the mystery which in some way echoes what Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say about the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in revelation, “Through her may we see him made sweeter, not made dim, and her hand leaves his light sifted to suit our sight”. There is no need for us to be afraid to leave the space to let Advent be Advent, to be content with the familiar markers of the season such as the Advent wreath, the Jesse Tree, the violet vestments and banners. The non-verbal language of the liturgy needs space to be able to do its job unencumbered by the early encroachments of Christmas, and we need to give ourselves the space to prepare so that we can understand and appreciate this powerful but understated language. In doing so we will truly taste that hope which the coming of our King brought to Bethlehem, that he will bring when he returns in glory, and that he now shares with us in his body, the Church. Merton went on to say “It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonise with our tendency to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy”. Certainly, as you read these words the Christmas advertisements will have seemed to be going on for an eternity and there is the possibility that even the inside of our churches are allowed to succumb to these “mendacious celebrations”, thus robbing Advent of its force and ultimately stealing away its hope-filled message. Our churches can truly be oases of silent hope in the midst of all the tinsel and noise, places where we allow the chink to be just wide enough for people to experience the wonder and mystery of God’s presence.
Of course one of the principal ways we are spoken to during this season is through God’s Word proclaimed in the liturgy. The Church offers us rich fare to satisfy our hungry and restless hearts in this season of waiting. One of the things clergy and liturgy groups might well consider is lectio divina based on the readings from Advent cycle C. Such prayerful reflection, either individually or as part of a group, should bear fruit in preaching. Another resource is the Homiletic Directory published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014. It gives a good overview of the theological master themes contained in the Advent lectionary, showing how they coherently and progressively develop over the four Sundays of the season. Preachers are also given pointers on how these themes can be employed in the construction of a homily.
This season of hope, of “devout and expectant delight”, is more necessary than ever for our Church. As we begin our liturgical year in hope-filled tension, the civil year now ending once more contained many challenges for the Christian Community in Ireland. Yes, Advent is a season that leads to a baby in a manger to be sure, but it also leads to the King of kings, the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God and Prince of Peace. With hope such as this we will not be deluded into comforting nostalgia, nor will we ultimately make of Christmas a “mendacious celebration”. Advent is the time when, as Merton said “the Church herself may perhaps be called upon … to point out the Victorious Redeemer and King of the Ages amid the collapse of all that has been laboriously built up by the devotion of centuries and cultures that sincerely intended to be Christian”. As the final prayer of the season says, “Come quickly Lord Jesus, and do not delay.”
 The quotations from Merton are taken from his Essay “Advent: Hope or Delusion?” in Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts, Ave Maria Press Notre Dame, IN, pp. 71-80.
 This document can be accessed at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20140629_direttorio-omiletico_en.html
[This article was originally published in a slightly abridged form in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of Intercom magazine and is republished on this website and diocesan social media platforms by kind permission of the Editor.]