Advent Is Not Christmas, but Christ’s Arrival Is at Its Center

November 29, 2021

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The first foundational principle of the Word on Fire movement is “unwavering Christocentrism”: that is, to have our Lord Jesus Christ at the center of our lives, of everything that we do. As St. Paul said to the Colossians, “As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him” (Col. 2:7).

Jesus Christ is Lord, which means he’s Lord of every aspect of our lives. That includes every part of our selves: body, mind, and soul. Every relationship: marriages, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, strangers, people we interact with online. Every activity: finances, entertainment, leisure activities. Our whole life: from beginning to end. And the more completely and wholeheartedly we acknowledge Christ as Lord in each and every part of our lives, the more fully we will be conformed to his image—which means that we will grow in holiness, we will grow in love, and we will partake ever more fully in the peace that passes all understanding, that is ours in Christ Jesus.

But one of the challenges of living in our modern culture is that we’re constantly being drawn into having other things be at the center of our lives—or, very often, to be completely unfocused, scattered, pulled here and there by the distractions and demands of daily life. Even when we know that Christ ought to be at the center of our lives, it’s hard to keep the right focus. Sometimes it’s hard even to know whether we do have Christ at the center, or what it would mean to maintain that Christocentrism.

And in any case, we human beings are always in a state of ebb and flow. It’s what C.S. Lewis called the “law of undulation.” We’re going to have our ups and our downs, times when we feel stronger or weaker in our faith. This is part of being human, and it’s an invitation to growth in our spiritual lives: to take time to do self-examination, and intentionally stretch ourselves to grow in faith.  

The Church’s season of Advent is a particularly good time to develop and strengthen the Christocentrism in our lives. The word “advent” means “arrival”: we await the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ—both past and future. It’s a time intended for an intensification of prayer and reflection, in anticipation of Christmas. Unfortunately, in our culture today, Advent has been almost swallowed up by Christmas. We have a marathon stretch that’s all about buying, and doing, and buying more, so that by Christmas, everybody is exhausted and probably a bit dazed. Then there’s one big day on Christmas, and then all the decorations get packed up—maybe if we’re lucky, they stay up till New Year’s.

But the Church knows better. Advent is not Christmas. We wait; we prepare; we reflect. On Christmas day, we begin to celebrate Christmas, and we keep on celebrating Christmas for twelve days, till the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. And in fact, in the ancient tradition of the Church, the season continues until February 2, Candlemas—exactly 40 days after Christmas. So with Advent, Christmas, and Candlemas, we have a mirror image of Lent and Easter.

During Lent, we prepare for the celebration at Easter of the Resurrection of Christ (a past event) and look forward to the Resurrection that we will share in, if we are united with Christ.

During Advent, we prepare for the celebration, at Christmas, of the Nativity of Christ (a past event), and look forward to Our Lord’s second coming, on the Last Day.

We don’t hear a lot about that, do we? But we should.

The world will come to an end; we don’t know when, but we know that it will. Christ will come in judgment; the dead will be resurrected, either to eternal resurrected life or to eternal resurrected punishment. That’s why the traditional themes of Advent are death, judgment, heaven, and hell —which sounds terrifying; but we’re looking at reality, not saccharine Hallmark Christmas cards on the one hand, or gory Hollywood apocalypse films on the other. If we are prepared, then we will welcome Christ’s second coming, when he will bring justice, as well as mercy!

If we are prepared. And that’s why Advent is a partially penitential season—that’s why the colors of the vestments and candles are purple, just as in Lent, for three out of four weeks. On the third Sunday in Advent, the candle and the priest’s vestments are rose-colored instead. This is called “Gaudete Sunday”: Gaudete means “rejoice.” We have a Sunday for joy partway through Advent precisely because Advent is supposed to be a time to think about serious topics. Death, judgment, heaven, and hell. (May I suggest that if you want to start resisting the Christmas-encroachment on Advent but aren’t yet prepared to wait till Christmas Eve to put up the Christmas tree, Gaudete Sunday may be your liturgically reasonable time to put up the decorations?)

And so, during Advent, we should be reflecting that our earthly life will come to an end—either in our own death, or in the coming of the Lord. Are we like the wise virgins in the parable, who had their lamps full of oil, ready to meet the bridegroom, or are we like the foolish virgins, who didn’t give it a thought, and were unprepared and left outside when the bridegroom came? Are we ready for Christ, the Bridegroom?

To maintain Christocentrism means being part of the Body—and every body, natural or supernatural, has rhythms. Heartbeat, breathing; mealtimes, bedtimes. Biologically, we can’t be healthy or even survive if our systems are totally irregular and disrupted. Spiritually, it’s the same principle. As Catholics, we have a rich and deep tradition of devotional practices that draw in every part of our lives to the Faith: most notably, the liturgical year—and, until the last century or so, there were many more aspects of the Faith that rooted us. Feast days, fasting, saints’ days, traditions for the different liturgical seasons, blessing of candles on Candlemas, processions on Corpus Christi, veneration of the Cross on the Feast of the Holy Cross . . . communal liturgies that still go on, praise God, in some parishes more, some less. But something has changed in the twenty-first century.

Our modern culture obstructs Christocentrism and instead tends to fragment us, pull us apart, isolate us.

Television, social media, advertising: we are bombarded with images and sounds and demands on us: buy this, buy that, do this, see that, click here. News programs jump from one thing to the next: fires in California, storms in Houston, a murder here, a sad story there. Smartphones are buzzing with notifications. Pictures of other people’s vacations on Facebook or Instagram make us jealous; people saying stupid things on Twitter make us angry. Music always playing on the radio, in stores, at home, means that we always have background noise. How can Christocentrism be possible? We’ve been conditioned to pay partial attention to a constantly changing flow of images and sounds and stories, so that we don’t know how to be quiet any more. We don’t know how to listen to our own heart, or we’re scared to do so for fear of what we might hear if we did.

We are, as T.S. Eliot put it, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” But what we need is to be rooted—and only if we are deeply rooted in Christ can we be truly healthy, to have the heartbeat of the Church, to be nourished and restored.

This Advent, let’s maintain firm Christocentrism and invite Christ to be at the center of our lives; to come more fully and deeply into our very being. And especially as we receive the Eucharist: for here, Wisdom from on high comes to us hidden under the appearances of bread and wine, but truly the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.