Today marks the beginning of another liturgical year. It’s Advent, that time of joyful preparation. But so often, rather than marking a period of peaceful preparation, Advent marks the beginning of the season of stress and worry.
Will I survive Black Friday? Will the gift arrive in time? Where do we spend Christmas? Will the flight be delayed? Will the pass be snowed in? Will I get what I want? What do I wear to the Christmas party?
At the very time of year we are invited to be joyful, we are often at our most stressed out, frustrated, and angry.
If the Advent season causes heartburn, or panic attacks, then we’ve lost our way.
This is not the way of the gospel. The way of the gospel is peace. The way of the gospel is joy.
Today’s readings from Scripture give us three ways to fully enter into that joy: first wake up, then walk in the light, and finally climb the mountain of the Lord.
“You know the time,” Paul says. “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
This is the first message of the new year: wake up, salvation is near!
This past week Pope Francis issued a call for us to wake up by publishing The Joy of the Gospel his first Apostolic Exhortation. To exhort someone is to urge them to do something. An Apostolic Exhortation is a wake-up call from the Holy Father, a document that aims to wake up the Church. Pope Francis’ exhortation is called The Joy of the Gospel because joy is what we experience when we wake up to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis begins with this:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew….
“With Christ joy is constantly born anew….”
Joy is the hallmark of Advent, not stress. If we are in the grip of sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness, then today is the day to recommit ourselves to encountering Jesus.
There are so many temptations to remain asleep and unconscious to the needs of those around us: movies, shopping, video games—we can fill every moment of our lives with distractions that leave us empty and lonely.
The wake-up call of Advent is all about will power, determination, dedication. If I have the determination to brave Black Friday, do I have as much determination to encounter Jesus? If I have the dedication to a sports team whether they are winning or losing, do I have as much dedication to Christ whether life is easy or challenging?
This First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of a brand new year, a new opportunity for us to open our hearts to the one who offers us salvation.
It is another chance to wake up.
Once we’re awake to Christ and have set our will on following him, the second way to fully enter into Advent is to walk in the light. With Christ as our light, we examine our lives, looking for places of selfishness and also looking for times of grace. Walking in the light exposes our faults, failings, and shortcomings, but it also means we can see where we’re going.
Just as there are many temptations to stay asleep, there are also many temptations to live in darkness. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” as the commercial goes. We’re told to keep our sins hidden, to bury them in a dark corner where we can’t see them. To leave the light off. But when we leave the light off, it’s much easier to go back to sleep, to slip into our old habit of sleepwalking through life.
Advent is a time to be honest with God, to “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Pope Francis expresses this beautifully in The Joy of the Gospel:
Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.” How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy…With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.
Walking in the light is about being restored to joy by the God who loves us. We feel God’s healing touch in the Sacrament of Confession where we shine the light on our sins and God offers us his loving embrace. What better way to start the new year than by returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation this Advent and renewing our relationship with Christ?
And once we’re awake, once we’re walking in the light, the third way to enter fully into Advent is to climb the mountain of the Lord.
So often the years go by one after another and nothing seems to change. Advent to Christmas, Christmas to Lent, Lent to Easter, Easter to Ordinary Time, and then back to Advent again. Are we running in circles, constantly moving but going nowhere?
The liturgical year is more like a spiral, a circular staircase, so that each year as we circle around, we are closer to salvation than the year before. We “climb the Lord’s mountain…, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”
If waking up is about the will, and walking in the light is about the truth, then climbing the Lord’s mountain is about encounter. Where does Moses encounter the Lord? On Mount Sinai. Where does Elijah encounter the still small voice of God? On Mount Horeb.
The mountain of the Lord is where we encounter God. The mountain-top is not just for a select few, but “all nations shall stream toward it. Many peoples shall come…”
Pope Francis writes about this, too, in The Joy of the Gospel:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!
Personal encounter each day. Not just on Sunday. Not just for a select few. Each day. Every day. You and me.
What will we do this Advent to open ourselves to a personal encounter with Christ? How will we begin this year’s climb up the Lord’s mountain?
Will we set aside fifteen minutes a day for silent prayer? We could read the gospel of Matthew each day, or gather the family together each night for prayer. Maybe we could delete a few games from our smart phones to make room for a rosary app. Can we attend morning Mass during the week or volunteer at the House of Charity? Maybe we can look for Christ in a coworker? We could even search online for Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel and read it slowly over the course of the next four weeks.
These are all opportunities for a personal encounter with Christ who gives us the joy of the Gospel.
This is a new year, a chance to start again, a chance to walk up another step on the climb to the top of Lord’s mountain.
On this First Sunday of Advent, on the threshold of a new year, the choice is before us. Run in circles until we’re exhausted, and turn off the light, and go to sleep, day after day, year after year.
Or wake up, walk in the light, and climb the mountain of the Lord to encounter joy and peace.