‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah.'
- Jeremiah 33:14
Advent, from the Latin verb advenire—‘to come’ or adventus—‘an arrival’. It is a season of waiting and preparation, but its real significance seems to fade into the background for many of us when faced with the imminent Christmas holiday. The sombre celebrations we have at mass, the simple decorations and quiet anticipatory spirit don’t mesh with the manic energy of holiday shopping, fourth quarter work binges, and family trips. We are entering a season that calls upon us for extra vigilance, yet we find ourselves perhaps less aware of the happenings around us than ever.
What is it we’re celebrating, anyway? Why do we call out the time before Christmas like this, or why do we call out the Lenten time before Easter? Wouldn’t it be easier on us to simply get together on Christmas morning with our families and friends and give gifts? What’s with all the anticipation?
Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
- Ezekiel 36:26
The promises of God to his people Israel go back to the earliest books of the Bible. Through all the scriptures of the old testament we hear the prophets speak again and again of the fulfillment of these promises. As the poor, enslaved people fled into the desert and wandered for years and years, they lived and thrived upon the promises of God. For generations, through strife with enemies from abroad and disturbingly misguided actions from within their own numbers, they continued to preserver, waiting for the promised days to come. They chose their first king and watched as his love for glory almost destroyed them, but God’s promises still held true. With the new king raises a great house, one that would survive for 41 more generations (or 27 according to Matthew) before the fulfillment of God’s promise.
These weren’t empty years for Israel. They weren’t just opening acts to the main event. These hundreds of years were filled by real lives, real suffering and real joy. Their hope for the future was real, and their vigilance was strong. From Ezekiel to Jeremiah to Luke, the sense of anticipation is so powerful you can feel it in their words.
Advent is a symbol, but it is not just a red (or purple, if you will) carpet leading to Christmas. It is a symbol of Israel and their long history of faith, hope, and watchfulness.
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.
- Isaiah 7:14
Read carefully the lines of my favorite Christmas hymn and see if you can find Advent’s powerful sense union and anticipation.
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high, Who ordered all things mightily; To us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might, Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height In ancient times gave holy law, In cloud and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem, From ev’ry foe deliver them That trust your mighty pow’r to save; Bring them in vict’ry through the grave. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
Oh, come, O Key of David, come, And open wide our heav’nly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high, And cheer us by your drawing nigh, Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Oh, bid our sad divisions cease, And be yourself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!
- Veni, Veni Emmanuel or O Come, O Come Emmanuel (12th-13th century) translation by John Neal