Yesterday afternoon I was preparing some notes on Advent for a catechism lesson for a group of 6-9 year old boys. This is fitting, because, as my wife will attest, I am just a really tall 8 year-old. I had notes on advent wreaths and the liturgical colors of purple and rose. I was prepared to talk about Jesse trees and Gaudete Sunday. I had even researched the word advent itself, which by the way comes from the Latin, adventus, which means ‘coming’. I was going to tell the boys that advent is a time of preparation and anticipation of the coming of Christ. That’s when it hit me. Have you ever had one of those moments when you realize that you have heard a word or phrase so often that it no longer means anything or the meaning has been lost? That’s the kind of moment I had yesterday afternoon. What was I going to say when some 8 year old boy asks, and you know he will, because I was asking myself the same question, what does that mean? What does it really mean to be anticipating and preparing for the coming of Christ? I could tell them that we are anticipating not only the coming of Christ as a child in the Incarnation, but also the second coming of Christ, the parousia in the Greek. I could tell them how we are supposed to be using this time to prepare our hearts to receive Him and things we can do to prepare, but still it seemed really fuzzy to me. We eight year-old boys are notoriously concrete thinkers. Yes, we can smile approvingly when our 6 year old brother (or son, as the case may be) says that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and we are waiting for Him to be born, but we know that the Nativity is an historical event that occurred more than 2000 years ago, and we can celebrate it but we are not really anticipating it. You can’t anticipate something that has already happened. I would also bet you that come December 26, I will be at home making breakfast for my family, still waiting for the parousia.
So, what, then, are we really anticipating and preparing for? How do I convey this to a group of young boys? How do I understand this myself? Lacking anything concrete to grasp hold of, I came up with the next best thing…an analogy. Actually, I think a story is the next best thing. An analogy is probably third. Of course, a story is kind of like an analogy…but, I digress. So, I came up with an analogy, actually it just kind of came to me. And, of course, it would be a running analogy.
I am a runner because I love running, I run all year round and I run just for the enjoyment of it. In a similar way I am a Christian because I love God. I pray and I study God’s word all year round because I love Him. As a runner, there are times when I am just running for fun or to build up my base mileage, but there are other times when my running intensifies. There are times when I am training for a race and my running becomes more focused and more regimented. During these times I have to sacrifice other things in order to train. I may have to give up some treat that I might otherwise enjoy, or I might have to sacrifice an extra hour of sleep in order to get up early to run. My runs get longer and I pay more attention to what I eat.
The Church has times like this as well, Advent being one of them, where we ramp up our spiritual life. While we are always awaiting the parousia, the second coming of Christ, during this time our anticipation increases. Our focus intensifies during this time of preparation or training. As we train for a race, our focus and attention is on that race that we will run, so during Advent, our focus and attention is on Christmas. The race is the culmination of our training and running, so Christmas is the culmination of our Advent.
But this culmination is not an end, it is a celebration of another beginning. A runner trains to race and he rejoices in the race, but when the race is over, his running is not over. Talk to a runner a week after a race and ask him what he is thinking about. He’ll be thinking about his next race. So it is with us and Advent. When Advent ends and culminates in the rejoicing of Christmas, our waiting is not over. We continue to wait, but our faith, if we have had a good Advent, is strengthened. As training in running is cumulative and each training phase and race builds upon the one before making the runner stronger, so each Advent and Christmas, and Lent and Easter, are cumulative and build up our spiritual lives. And so this is how I understand the preparation and anticipation of Advent and Christmas. We are not anticipating just an event in time, like a race. We are anticipating and preparing for that, but we are also anticipating and preparing for the rest of our lives. We are building and strengthening ourselves spiritually to continue to wait and anticipate that day and hour when He will come again.
Anyway, I ended up not teaching that last night. The gathering was cancelled because of impending weather, so I’m sharing with you all instead. I hope you don’t mind the ramblings of an overgrown eight year-old!