We spend a great deal of our lives preparing for one thing or another: preparing for examinations or a career; preparing for parties or holidays; preparing for conferences and meetings. We spend a great deal of money too in preparation for things that may never happen--the vast business of modern insurance is built on that. A prudent person is prepared for any emergency. How strange then would it be if as Christians we did not prepare for things which will most certainly happen. Advent might be called the Church's "preparation season" par excellence. It prepares, in the first instance, for Christmas, but much more than that, it teaches us to prepare for death, for judgment, and for the Last Day: all things which will most certainly happen, and from which there is no escape.
Advent grew out of the natural desire to prepare for Holy Communion at Christmas. At the beginning of the sixth century, there is a record of a French Bishop urging his people to prepare for their Christmas Communion for some days beforehand, and "Advent", as a special season of the Church seems to have originated in France. Lent was an obvious parallel, and Advent was soon extended in imitation of the great fast. In France it was called at one time the "Lent of St. Martin" and lasted from November 11th until Christmas. There have been at different times six, five and four Sundays in Advent. In the old Spanish (Mozarabic) and Milanese (Ambrosian) rites, which are in use in some places, it still has six Sundays. There is no special liturgical observance of the pre-Christmas season in the Eastern Church, but there is a period of fasting. In the English Prayer Book, as in the Western rite, we keep an Advent of four Sundays, but the last Sunday after Trinity (or Pentecost) has a special [3/4] Advent flavour. The lesson at Mass comes from the Prophet Jeremiah: "I will raise unto David a righteous branch", and the Western rite has the gospel from St. Matthew telling of the tribulation of the last days: "then shall appear the sign of the son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn and they shall see the son of man coming in the clouds of heaven".
The great theme of Advent then, is the Coming of Christ, and the importance of preparation for it. He came in the flesh at Bethlehem; he comes in his sacrament at Christmas. From the thought of these comings, men passed naturally to think of his coming at the last day and at the moment of death. We will consider these first, for naturally they tend to occupy our thoughts at the beginning of the season. As the weeks pass, and Christmas draws nearer, our minds turn more towards the thought of the coming of Christ at Bethlehem.
He shall come again
Each generation of Christians emphasises some different aspect of our Lord's work and teaching and of the Christian Faith. Sometimes these emphases make a startling contrast. The devotional and religious literature of fifty years ago seems to us very old-fashioned. Yet we must beware, for sometimes a past generation has grasped some aspect of Christian truth which we tend to forget, and do so at our peril. There is one very clear contrast between the atmosphere of early Christianity as it is reflected in the New Testament and that of our own day. This is in the place which the second coming has in our thoughts and our devotion. Our Lord clearly promised to come again, and was so emphatic that many of his hearers expected him to come in their own lifetime. They remembered the promise of the angels at the Ascension: "This same [4/5] Jesus shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven". As years passed, and our Lord still delayed, they remembered more clearly his own warnings: "The day and the hour knoweth no man". Yet the expectation of the second coming continued, and the New Testament ends with the thought of it: "Even so, come Lord Jesus".
The expectation of the Lord's return must always have a place in a Christianity which is based on his words, and the fact that it has been neglected has probably helped the many strange sects which give it a disproportionate place in their teaching. If at one time it was the fashion to explain away or play down the prophecies of the last days, it certainly should not be so today. We live in the days of nuclear research, of hydrogen and atomic bombs; and the thought of some vast cataclysm which might destroy the whole world is familiar to us. The "end of the world", the dissolution of all material things, so vividly described in the New Testament, and "men's hearts failing them for fear" seem so relevant to our times, that we are continually hearing of prophecies of the actual day of the second coming. Our Lord's warning is clearly as important now as in the first century.
Prepare for judgment
Christ spoke to his hearers in the kind of language to which they were accustomed, and used the pictures of the popular writings of the day. Many of his pictures and predictions can be paralleled in Jewish books more or less contemporary with him. This is as we should expect to find it. In the twentieth century we may think in more abstract terms, but we must be careful lest we weaken the importance of the Last Judgment in our religion. It is based upon the sure promise of our Lord himself, and is a constant reminder of the ultimate [5/6] distinction between good and evil, and of the awfulness of the choice which men make in this world. The Jews were accustomed to talking of the Day of the Lord when God would come as judge. Our Lord's great claim was that he would be the judge. He will come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (St Mark 8.38; 14.62); he will separate the sheep from the goats (St Matthew 25, 31-46); God has given all judgment to him, because he is the Son of Man (St John 5.27). This means because he knows human nature from the inside, because he has won the world for himself by his cross, and because in the human life of Jesus the standard by which all men must be judged has become openly shown to the whole world.
Much of our Lord's teaching about the second coming, and nearly all the parables about it, were not intended to impart information about "that day", but to emphasise the importance of living so as to be prepared for it. We must be like servants who wait for their lord, or like wise virgins who wait for the bridegroom. We are warned that he will come suddenly, like a thief in the night. Over and over again, he says such things to emphasise the duty of watching. For Christian life and devotion, the thought of the second coming is one of great importance here and now. It makes the present moment of tremendous significance. So at the very beginning of Advent the importance of the present is emphasised. "Now, in the time of this mortal life" we pray in the collect for the first Sunday in Advent, and in the Epistle (Romans 13) St Paul tells us that "now it is high time to awake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed."
We may think of the Last Judgment as the final summing up, the final separation between good and evil, the final vindication of the ways of God. It is [6/7] not the moment when the irrevocable decision for each individual soul is taken. That comes much earlier at the particular judgment, immediately after death. We consider this among the Four Last Things : Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven. These are certain facts. "It is appointed unto man once to die," says the Epistle to the Hebrews, "and after this the judgment".
Preparation for Death
Sometimes the older books of meditation upon the last things seem to us unreal, even ludicrous, in the lurid pictures they paint of the physical terrors of death. The broken pillars and urns of the monumental stonemason, the empty chairs and broken harps of the florist seem to reflect a pagan hopelessness in the face of death. By way of reaction from these, the modern world is tempted to gloss over death and to live as if it were not the inevitable end of life. Certainly the physical terrors have to a large extent been removed by modern drugs, but the fact and the spiritual importance of death remain. Christians believe that the present life is a time of preparation, of testing, a time of choice. The moment of death therefore, is of supreme importance. A good death can atone for a great deal as our Lord's words to the penitent thief demonstrate; a bad death is to be feared. We should often pray during life that we may make a good death. We should set our worldly affairs in order that they may not trouble us at that supreme moment, for there may not be much time; and we should make it clear to our relatives and friends that, when the supreme moment of death seems likely to come to us, we should be told, and the priest should be sent for. Then we shall be able to receive the consolations which are offered to the Christian by our Lord, and go out of this world cleansed from sin by absolution, full of his grace by [7/8] Holy Unction, and fortified for our journey by Holy Communion. These are things to ponder in Advent.
At death, so we learn from Christian tradition, each soul appears before God, and has a glimpse of his glory. This is the moment of "particular judgement". To have had this glimpse of his glory makes all that may lie between the particular judgment and our final passage into heaven acceptable to us. This intermediate state we call Purgatory. Whatever this cleansing process in Purgatory may be, we shall desire it and would not have it otherwise, for we shall have seen how utterly unfit we are for the presence of God. For the blessedness of heaven is God himself: to know him, and to be united to him in love. If, on the other hand, after all the opportunities which this life has offered, any soul should have made itself quite incapable of dwelling with God; if it has persistently and finally rejected God and his love, the cleansing of Purgatory cannot avail. Like the rich man in our Lord's parable, the soul will have cut itself off from God; and this is hell--to have glimpsed God's glory and to have lost it for ever. Some have found this prospect so frightening, that they have been tempted to say that hell does not exist. But our Lord was so emphatic about it, that we dare not explain away his words, or delude ourselves into thinking that the ultimate distinction between good and evil can be in any way weakened or toned down. Meditation on the Last Things gives a realisation of the tremendous consequences of our lives here, and a sense of urgency in all we do. This is a note we find in many Advent prayers, hymns and devotions.
The First Coming
Advent, as we have said, developed largely in imitation of Lent. There is, however, one very great difference between the two seasons. In Lent, we go [8/9] deeper and deeper into the solemnity of the Passion, and our observances become more and more sombre. In Advent, as Christmas approaches, the scene becomes lighter and lighter. The turning point will be the third Sunday with the opening words of the Mass "Rejoice in the Lord always . . . the Lord is at hand" setting the tone for the remainder of the season. Nevertheless, it is a great pity that Christmas should be observed before its time. Christmas carols and decorations, and Christmas cribs, in church at least, should be kept until that season begins. Otherwise Advent fails to fulfil its primary purpose of helping us to prepare for the coming festival, if we spend the first two weeks in thinking of the Second Coming and the Last Things, we should now turn our minds to the preparation for the first coming.
God had prepared for it through long centuries. Historians have often pointed out how the world was ready at that precise time as it had never been ready before (and probably never since), for the coming of the Redeemer. The Roman Empire had enforced the rule of law over most of the known world, and given it a unified government. Communications were better than at any time until the nineteenth century. Men could move about much more freely than they can today. Greek was a universal language, and Greek philosophy had given forms of thought in which men could express the mysteries of the faith. But in spite of all this there was a great spiritual longing, a spiritual vacuum, which men sought to satisfy with many strange religions and superstitious rites. There were dark aspects of life in the ancient world; it desperately needed purifying, as the best men of those days perceived very clearly. If we think we can see the hand of God at work in the history of the world at large when B.C. was about to change to A.D., we shall see it much more clearly in the [9/10] history of the Chosen People, for it was chiefly through them that God worked. The record of this work of preparation is to be found in the Old Testament. No one can rightly understand the work of our Lord, or much that he said, unless he knows something of the Old Testament. For instance, when our Lord calls himself "the Son of Man" he is using a title which has a long history in the Old Testament. When he says, at the last supper "this is my blood of the New Covenant" he is deliberately using words which had a very profound meaning, for God had made the first covenant with his chosen people in the wilderness, and it had been sealed with blood. Our Lord quite deliberately fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, and said that he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it. Among the Jews, leadership in religion was associated with the prophet, the priest and the king. All these, we believe, find their fulfilment in our Lord. He is the true prophet, proclaiming the truth of God. He is the one and only priest, offering sacrifice not in symbols and shadows, but in reality on the cross. He is the rightful king of the whole world. All these "types" helped to prepare the way for Christ, and to enable us to understand what he was doing. We must see the coming of our Lord as the completion of a long history from the days of Abraham right down to St John Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
St John Baptist, the Forerunner, was the greatest of all the prophets. Though in actual time, he did not start preaching until shortly before our Lord's ministry opened--he was only six months older than Jesus--we think of him a great deal during Advent. The theme of his preaching "Repent ye, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand" sums up the message of the Church at this time. The importance of the Bible is remembered on the second Sunday in Advent, of St John Baptist on [10/111] the third, but as Christmas draws nearer, our thoughts turn to the Mother of Christ. One of the great feasts observed in her honour comes early in the season. The Conception of the Blessed Virgin, observed on December 8th, is a reminder that God's choice of Mary was no mere chance. It would be wrong to think of her as a mere instrument and nothing more. She co-operated with God, and gave him the human will through which he could work, and the human body through which he could take flesh. The greatest Christian writers have delighted to see in Mary a second Eve, who, by her obedience to God, has reversed the disobedience of the first Eve. Mary was predestined for her high place in the scheme of God's redemption, and many Christians believe that she was specially hallowed for this vocation, and kept free from all stain of sin. Hence the remarkable fact that we keep the feast of her "Conception". Yet God did not take away Mary's free-will, and at the Annunciation she is able to say, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word".
As Advent draws to a close, there is a great temptation for the Christian to become engrossed in the secular preparations for Christmas. This must be resisted at all costs, for we must remember that its primary purpose was to prepare us for the feast of the Nativity. In the last seven days, we should consider the dignity of the child who was born of the Virgin Mary. The seven great antiphons, of which the first O Sapientia appears, somewhat strangely, in the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer, give us food for much thought. They are intended to be sung before and after the Magnificat at Evensong, but we would do well to make them part of our prayers at any time. They are printed in the English Hymnal, number 734. "O Emmanuel," [11/12] says one of the loveliest of them, "our King and our Lawgiver the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation; come and save us, O Lord our God."
On Christmas Eve, there is an air of expectancy everywhere. It is a very busy day for most people, but this need not hinder us from thinking of the coming of the King. The first Christmas Eve was a busy day too! As Advent gives way to Christmas with the splendour of the Midnight Mass, we will think of all the centuries when men waited for Christ and did not see him. "Many prophets and kings have desired to see the things that ye see, and have not seen them." We will look forward to the last day, and pray that to have welcomed him as a child, and to have prepared for his coming, may make us ready to welcome him when he comes with glory.