Hearing this Sunday’s Gospel, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a mistake.
It is all gloom and doom, fire and brimstone. It is apocalyptic: there signs in the heavens…roaring seas…people dying of fright. You might be thinking: that doesn’t sound very Christmas-y.
Yet there is more at work here — and this season we are starting makes it clear.
As we begin Advent, we look to the coming of Christ in two obvious ways —as child in Bethlehem, of course. We also await his coming as a king at the end of time.
But there is a third coming of Christ that we need to bear in mind. And this is crucial to what we are planning for and what we are living for.
The third coming of Christ is how he comes to us every day.
The Incarnation didn’t just happen once in a humble stable, 20 centuries ago.
It is continuing. He is among us.
Remember: the Messiah’s very name, Emmanuel, means “God with us.” And part of this blessed time of year is recalling that he is with us. He didn’t enter into history for 33 years, and then leave.
We have Jesus with us in the Eucharist. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling with us from Pentecost.
But we also have Christ our brother living among us.
Do we see him?
Do we even look for him?
Use these weeks of Advent to do that. Look for him on Austin Street. Seek him on the subway. Listen for him in the people you work with or live with or eat with.
Look for his face in those who are lost, or lonely. Especially the poor. A friend of mine put it beautifully a few days ago: she said, we don’t help the poor to change their lives…but to change ours.
And if you need extra inspiration, look no further than this: the Advent wreath.
I work at the New York Catholic Center on First Avenue. Friday, they were setting up in our lobby a big Advent wreath, complete with candles waiting to be lit. Next to it there’s a sign explaining its symbolism and significance.
The sign says:
“The four unlit candles remind us of the four thousand years before Christ’s birth, a time of spiritual ‘cold and darkness.’ They also represent the four weeks of Advent.”
It went on:
“The color purple reminds us of the need for sorrow for our sins. The pink candle “— which we light on Gaudete Sunday — “reminds us of the joy and hope we share in Jesus, ‘the light of the World,’ whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. The increasing light of each week reminds us that Christ is closer and his presence continues to grow and brighten in our lives.”
It’s a wonderfully clear and simple explanation.
But there is something else about these flickering candles we need to remember.
It is this:
They need us. We have to strike the match.
It doesn’t come from nowhere.
We need to be the ones to spread the light.
In a world of so much darkness and despair, we need to be the light.
I’ve been reading today some of the tributes to George H.W. Bush, and nearly all of them mention that famous phrase from his convention speech, when he told us he saw America as “a thousand points of light.” He repeated it again in his inaugural speech in 1989.
But in his inaugural, he also spoke beautifully of who we are and who we are called to be. It’s a sentiment that I think is worth remembering at the start of this Advent.
President Bush said: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. We have work to do.”
And he explained: “There are the homeless, lost and roaming. There are the children who have nothing, no love and no normalcy. There are those who cannot free themselves of enslavement to whatever addiction — drugs, welfare, the demoralization that rules the slums. There is crime to be conquered, the rough crime of the streets. There are young women to be helped who are about to become mothers of children they can’t care for and might not love. They need our care, our guidance, and our education, though we bless them for choosing life.”
The message was clear—and one we need to hear this day.
There are places where the light has burned out. We need to bring it back. In others. And in ourselves.
And over the next four weeks, Advent tells us:
Strike a match.
Start the flame.
Spread the light.
A dark world needs all we can give it—with our prayers, with our sacrifice, with our generosity and our faith.
Let this Advent wreath be a visible reminder of our call as people who are followers of the Light of the World.
Let it challenge us to become beacons of hope.
There will be opportunities in the weeks ahead to attend confession, and many churches will be saying, “The light is on for you.” Accept that invitation! It is not just an invitation to light, but an invitation to be bearers of light — to be tabernacles of grace.
I’m reminded of The Christophers. St. Christopher’s name means “light bearer,” and the organization that carries his name uses as its motto a famous proverb: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
In the weeks ahead, then, let this wreath stand as a silent challenge.
It says to us: Light the candle.
Pray more deeply. Love more generously. Give more freely.
Christ is coming — as an infant, yes, but also as a king.
But he is here now, too.
Time is short. We need to be ready.
So light just one candle.
Let it be a spark of faith, hope and love.
And then watch the world catch fire.