The Three Advents

The Three Advents December 23, 2015

Holiday_6Advent is almost over. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and the season of Christmas begin the day after that.

Even though the Christmas season is technically shorter than Advent, it always seems to me that Advent is way too short. Maybe that’s because this is a time of much secular hustle and bustle, as we strive to finish our holiday shopping, participate in various end-of-year parties, and so forth. Christmas may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but Advent seems to be the most busy time of the year.

I don’t mean (or need) to be another Grinch, complaining about how our secular customs this time of year have destroyed Christmas (and Advent). I like gift-giving and parties, so it’s hard for me to complain too much. But every Advent I resolve “this year will be more contemplative, more restful,” and then I’m off on the roller coaster again.


But maybe this is a metaphor for life as a whole. We wait for the coming of God, and yet we busy ourselves in the meantime. We await the birth of love, yet our lives get so frenzied love hardly has a place to grow. We want time for leisure and rest… but not until the work gets done. And the work keeps coming!

Johann-Baptist Metz suggested that if religion could be defined in one word, it would be “interruption.” And that’s what we are always called to do: interrupt the busy-ness with moments of Sabbath rest. Interrupt the frenzy with a loving, calming breath. Interrupt our endless mental chatter with 20 minutes or so of intentional, prayerful silence.

What’s important to remember, as we transition from Advent to Christmas, is that this dynamic of waiting/busy/interruption doesn’t just happen in Advent. It’s a year-long, ever-present reality.

St. Benedict said that a monk should conduct his or her life as if it were a continual Lent. In other words, we should always strive for greater simplicity and repentance, not just during the forty dears leading up to Easter.

I wonder if we couldn’t say the same thing about Advent? A contemplative needs to lead his or her life as if it were a continual Advent. We continually watch and pray for the coming of Christ into our hearts and the heart of the world. We pray, we watch, we rest, we hope. It’s not a bad way to organize life, when you think about it.

I recently got an email from a friend of mine who was reflecting on the theology of the Second Coming. She asked me what I thought, and I had to confess to her I didn’t think about it very much. My spirituality — and, I suppose, my theology — tends to stay focused on the present. But as I thought about her question, I realized that I often hear in the Church this idea that Advent represents not only the waiting for Christ that Mary experienced when she was pregnant, but also our longing for Christ’s return at the end of time.

That may be true, but I also think we need to think in terms of three Advents: past, present, and future. The first was Mary’s Advent; the third is our hope for the final consummation of history in Divine Love. But it’s that “second” Advent, the Advent of the present moment, that interests me the most.

Each one of us is called to be a God-bearer: to bring Divine Love and Mercy and Forgiveness to a world that so desperately needs it. Each of us is called to “birth” Christ anew, in our hearts and in our lives.

So we each are living Advents, embodied spirits of waiting and longing that knows no calendar. The Advent of the present remains with us always. Every day, no matter what season, we are invited to long for the coming of Divine Love, and to give birth to that Divine Love through the ways we cooperate with grace, offering compassion and tenderness to a world that too often seems to have forgotten that such things exist.

So my friends, Advent the liturgical season is about to come to a close. But Advent the spiritual/mystical reality remains in our hearts and our lives. I wish you joy in the longing, and grace in the many opportunities God showers on you to be love and to bring love to others.

And, of course, may you have a joyously merry Christmas!

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  • Thank You Carl! You’re a constant encouragement/companion on the contemplative path.

  • Hi Carl:

    Beautiful column. This particularly struck me: “Every Advent I resolve ‘this year will be more contemplative, more restful,’ and then I’m off on the roller coaster again.”

    I know that feeling all too well. On what may be an all-too-simplistic note, I often feel I don’t have “enough time” to take a Sabbath!! Sometimes something as simple as just scheduling the darn retreat – I mean, actually committing to a date on the calendar, is enough to put a “pause” in one’s life. Jan (my wife) and I had not gone to our usual retreat center (“Center for Spiritual Awareness” in Lakemont, GA) for over a year, because we were just “too busy.” So finally, in November we both decided that –even though we felt busier than we had all year – we just had to do it. We spent 3 days toward the end of November in Lakemont, and it was, quite literally, heaven. 11 acres, 2 other people on the grounds we never saw, just meditating, walking, reading, quiet, quiet quiet.

    We’ve already penciled in (haven’t quite committed it to the computer calendar but we’re getting there) retreats for next year. And looking for more places in Asheville (there’s a new contemplative center at one of our local Episcopal churches we’re going to try out) where we can commit to pausing more during the week.

    Finally, your opening, about “honoring Mary”, also struck me. That, together with your poignantly expressed wish for a more contemplative year, brought to mind a story about Mother Mary from many years ago.

    When I was choir director at Our Lady of Guadalupe (a Spanish Catholic church in Manhattan) back in the 1980s, I used to have rather inspiring conversations with one of the priests, Father Alphege, who had gone rather deeply into medieval contemplative practices. Father Alphege had, prior to being sent to this particular church, been teaching Greek and Latin classes at a rather posh Catholic high school near Boston. He readily admitted that he felt rather condescending toward his poor and often illiterate parishioners – at the time, mostly impoverished Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants, with many refugees from various Latin American countries, particularly from El Salvador and Nicaragua.

    He was a great lover of Mary, as he felt She had taught him to be still, to let go, to pause to simply “be” in the Presence of God. Of course, he subtly felt that it was no doubt due to his long study of the mystical classics and his great learning and dedicated practice that he had come to feel so close to Mary.

    He told me that one weekday, one of “those old ladies” who always sat in the back of the church, quietly telling her rosaries, came up to him and in some distress called out, “Padre, Padre.” “Yes?” he answered in a somewhat curt, weary tone. He then conveyed to me the story she told him.

    She said that her husband had died the year before (she was about 80, her husband a bit older when he died) and she had come to church every day since he died (Father Alphege told me that up to this point, he had not been paying much attention to what she was saying – much to his embarrassment later). She then said that every day, when she sat in the pews, her husband would appear to her, sitting right next to her. This had happened every day for a year, and just in the last few days he was no longer there, and she wanted to know what she should do.

    Father Alphege was still not paying too much attention, until she added, “And Mother Mary was sitting on the other side of me, every time my husband showed up. And I asked Her what She thought – I hope you don’t mind, Father, I asked Her before asking you – and She said She thought it was time I said goodbye to my husband.”

    Father Alphege, now giving her rapt attention, softened his expression and said to her in a gracious voice, “I think that whatever Mary says to you is probably the best thing for you to do.”

    • Carl McColman

      What a great story — and a reminder that we all have much to learn in our ongoing spiritual journey, and sometimes it is the most unlikely person who ends up being our teacher!

  • Br. Gordon James, CoS

    Christmas Contemplation

    Be Thou Me

    Sweet Child of the Crèche

    Fill me to Overflowing

    With a Prayer of Thankfulness

  • Anne Sunde

    Hi Carl, Merry Christmas to you and your family. Thank you for a beautiful Advent message. I like the idea that Advent continues in our daily lives and in our hearts. Anne