When I was in my early twenties attending graduate school in Belgium at the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven – commonly known here as Louvain, I used to run daily through Leuven’s City-Centre and beyond Leuven’s medieval walls into the surrounding bucolic hills that look down upon the picturesque city. My journey would take me past St. Anthony’s parish, Leuven’s oldest Catholic parish that dates to the 14th century and now houses St. Damien of Malachi’s crypt. Then farther down the Namsestraat, one of Leuven’s central streets, I would make my way past all the bakeries and eateries with the smell of freshly baked bread and waffles and chips (French fries) permeating the air – a foodie’s dream!
On most early morning runs, I would make my way over to the library square where the university’s Central Library takes up an impressive amount of realty; the central library is an historic monument to academic freedom, and the ringing of its bells speaks both to the resilience of the Belgian people and to the generosity of the American people. The Central Library was intentionally shelled in the sacking of Leuven in 1914, at the beginning of World War I by the invading German army. Nearly half a million books, manuscripts, and maps were burnt and forever lost. The central library’s destruction became a battle cry for universities, colleges, and high schools throughout the United States: almost every school in our nation donated books and allocated monies to have the Central Library rebuilt. It eventually was resurrected only to be destroyed yet again by the Nazis in World War II. Americans would rebuild the library a second time, where it stands today.
On one morning in early December, I was on my usual run in the dark just before dawn and I began to contemplate my plans for Christmas. I realized I would be away from my family and dear friends for yet another holiday season. This flickering thought started to make me depressed and nostalgic for times past. But something cosmic, even sacramental, happened to me that morning. The distant horizon started to glow like a stained-glass window flooding the sky with chromatic and saturated purples, blues, golds, and pinks. It was as if God heard me in my melancholy and put this display on just for me. Of course, my eyes welled up and I stopped to watch God paint the sky with these vivid colors. Being a young theologian, engrossed in rigorous study and spiritual formation, I could not help but think my Advent began that morning.
During the liturgical season of Advent, the Catholic Church adopts the colors blue, purple, violet, and rose because these are the colors that saturate the sky just before the sun inches its way over the horizon. These are the colors of hope, love, peace, loyalty, joy, justice, and anticipation. It is the light that penetrates the darkness. It symbolizes Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, is coming.
Early Christians thought Jesus would be coming back during their lifetime. The Church calls this future event the Parousia, which denotes Jesus’ “Second Coming.” The Church professes in the Nicene Creed (325 CE) that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This is the time of fulfillment, when God’s kingdom is restored and “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Moreover, it will be a time of reckoning when Christ, as judge, will examine the way that we have conducted our lives.
The Gospel passage we heard from Luke’s account on the first Sunday of Advent has Jesus prophesying His second coming. Jesus states: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” We can interpret Jesus’ statement here in a few ways. First, it bespeaks uncertainty. We do not know when Christ will come again. Furthermore, it speaks to complacency. We should not take things for granted because tomorrow is never promised. Dr. Kilbridge echoed this sentiment in his initial introduction to our high school students at the beginning of the academic year. Dr. Kilbridge asked a room full of smiling young women if they had known what the Latin expression Carpe Diem meant. If I remember correctly, one of our young Latin scholars exclaimed, “seize the day!” Yes, we should reflect on our past and, yes, we should think about our futures, but, more importantly, we should live in the present moment. We should ask the following questions: How can I live in “the here” and “the now?” What are the ways that I can use my gifts to help others? Are my words and actions helping my future and the common good of my community?
Nonetheless, a wise student might ask the following questions about this Advent reading: Why would the Church want us to hear about the end of the world in the season of Advent? Aren’t Advent and Christmas supposed to be times of joy? How does this all connect to me in 2022? A plausible answer is that the word advent is synonymous with the word parousia: they both mean “to come” or “coming.” Our sophomore students learned last week in their Paschal Mysteries course that the Incarnation (the doctrinal notion that God enters human history and takes on human flesh) is directly related to Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Logically, we cannot have the Resurrection without the Incarnation. Moreover, both the Incarnation and the Resurrection reveal God’s salvific grace; namely, God has come to renew our humanity by sharing in it, even in the toughest of times.
The Incarnation and the Passion are bookends to the Gospel story, and we commemorate them in Lent and Advent. Lent is the time the Church designates as period of repentance when we should turn our hearts and minds back toward God. Lent is meant to be slow and arduous! Lent lacks the urgency of Advent. Advent, on the other hand, is a season of excitement and hope: Advent is a time of preparation! The collect from the first Sunday of Advent states: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet Your Christ with righteous deeds at His coming, so that, gathered at His right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.” “To run forth to meet Your Christ with righteous deeds” engenders this overflowing excitement to see the Lord with actions that are both pleasing to Him and exemplify our vigilance in His coming. This notion resonates, furthermore, with our 2022/2023 school theme: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” (Mt 25:35) Jesus provides us with examples of what He expects at his Second Coming.
Fortunately, our students, faculty, and staff have been vigilant and have been running to Christ with righteous deeds. As a new faculty member, it is inspiring to see how much this community cares about the poor, genuinely cares about hospitality, and cares about “seizing the day” every day at Holy Names.
When I think back to that morning when my Advent began, I never would have imagined that God would put me here at Holy Names. While I am here, I am not going to take it for granted, but rather “seize the day” every day.
Let us pray together in one voice: Come, Lord Jesus! Please come!