I always like the fact that we celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter when the evenings are short and it is usually cold (unless you live in Florida!). Then we begin to light candles and put up coloured lights and decorations to remind us of the coming of our King. It is a time of great hope and hopefully also a time that will bring joy. ‘Advent’—which simply means ‘coming’—is meant to be a time of preparing for two things: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and we are also remembering that Christ will come again at the end of time.
Each Sunday in the Creed we say that, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ We don’t know when that will be, but we know that it will happen, because it is Jesus himself who said so. The Lord tells us to ‘stay awake’ and not to forget him, because none of us know when we will die. We generally presume we will have a long life and then die, but none of us know. The important thing is that we do not forget the Lord, who loves us and who created us. And so each Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us, for us, to help us, to teach us about God, about the world to come and above all to die for us, so that we can join in the happiness of God when we die ourselves.
Normally we think of Advent as preparing for the event of Christmas, but that is just part of it. Christmas and Easter are two halves of the same event and they cannot be separated. So we are really preparing for the event that began at Christmas and finished at Easter 33 years later. It was what you might call a rescue mission.
God created us for happiness and gave our first parents, who we call Adam and Eve, every delight they could ask for. He told them exactly what to do in order for them to be able to continue to enjoy that freedom and happiness. He also told them to respect their limits and remember that they are humans and not God. This is symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in the story of creation. ‘Don’t eat of this fruit, don’t think that you are God and do what only God can do,’ but they didn’t listen. Instead they believed the lie that they could be like God and they rejected what God told them. As a result sin entered the world and because of sin, suffering.
The problem was that they had no way of undoing the damage they had done. But because God loves his creation, He would not let it remain damaged in this way. And so, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God reopened that possibility of eternal happiness with him, which is what God originally intended for us. God now offers us that possibility once again and we can choose it or reject it. We choose it by being baptized and we also choose it by the way we live.
Christmas is the beginning of that whole event, or rescue mission, when the Son of God took on human flesh and walked among us. The culmination of that rescue mission is what happened at Easter. Through his death Jesus atoned for the sin of our first parents, thereby regaining what God originally created for us. So what we are preparing for at Christmas is the beginning of that whole event of our being rescued from eternal death. No wonder it is such a huge celebration.
The best way that we can prepare ourselves is in the heart, by trying to give time to God and being open to what He wants to say to us. The Lord is constantly speaking to us, but often we are not listening because we are too busy or distracted. People sometimes ask me if God speaks to me. Yes, God speaks to me all the time, but not through visions or voices. It is usually through other people, or through the Scriptures. It took me a while to learn how to listen, so that I might hear what God is saying to me. Advent is a good time to stop and listen again and hear what the Lord has to say to us. That is why the readings are about getting ready for the one who is coming, and not being so distracted by the world around us that we forget him.
Jesus reminds us that while we get on with the ordinary things of everyday life—eating, drinking, marrying, working—we must not forget the eternal things. It is a warning to us never to become so immersed in time and the things of the world, that we forget eternity. Even though the worldly affairs have their place, we must not let them distract us from the reality of God, the reality that we will die, maybe much sooner than we expect and that life and death are in his hands. So many times in the Gospels Jesus tells us to make sure we are not caught off guard. Whenever He does come for us, He must find us ready.
If you found out today that you had only one more week to live, would you continue as before, or would your priorities change? Of course they would. Worldly things would become totally insignificant. Jesus keeps reminding us that we do not know when our time on earth will be over. ‘So stay awake, for you do not know the day or the hour’ (Mat 25:13). I often think of that when we have the death of a young person. It shocks everyone into thinking differently. What was important suddenly changes.
In one sense we can never be ready enough for God. How do you prepare to come before the living God? And yet this is what God has created us for and we believe it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams. As long as we have make some effort to be ready, we have nothing to be afraid of. Jesus keeps telling us not to be afraid. If God went to that much trouble to rescue us, why would we be afraid of him?
Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, of two people doing the same thing, one will be taken the other left. What does this mean? It means that although both people were doing the same ordinary things that we all have to do, one of them had not forgotten about God, but the other had; the one who had forgotten got left behind.
If we get totally immersed in the world, or in our families, or in our work, then we have missed what it is about, because there is much more to our life than this.
Imagine a great event in your life that was coming up: a wedding, or the return of a loved one who had been gone for years. We want everything to be exactly right, but then we start getting distracted with our phone and other things. We end up so distracted that we completely miss the event. How foolish would we feel? That is what Jesus keeps telling us. Don’t get so distracted with things that aren’t important that you completely miss why you are here on earth, because sooner or later it will come to an end.
I think one of the best ways to prepare for Christmas, is to keep it simple and spend some time remembering what it is about. Go to mass once a week, or spend a few minutes in a church every few days. Read an account of the events of Christmas in the Gospels. When you come into the church, leave your phone in the car, so that you are not going to be distracted. That way we will remember what we are celebrating.