Dominica prima Adventus
Evening, 26 November
Church of St John the Evangelist
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God . . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of men (Jn 1:1-2, 4).
Archbishop Fulton Sheen—the Venerable—wrote somewhere: “The end of all things must in some way get back to their beginning. As the Son goes back to the Father; as Nicodemus must be born again; as the body returns to the dust—so the soul of man which came from God must one day go back to God.” If that be true, then we can see why at the end of every holy Mass we hear the Last Gospel—which in fact is not a last at all, but a first: it is the first fourteen verses of the Prologue of St John’s Gospel. By it, in some of the most sublime prose of the New Testament, we are reminded about the overarching sweep of salvation history in Christ: he was with the Father before all ages; he was made flesh to be the light of the world; human history is nothing less than the gradual expansion of that light.
Advent tugs at our sense of time, like the Last Gospel. At the Mass, after we have participated in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, we hear: In principio erat Verbum. An end is marked by a beginning. At the renewal of our liturgical year in Advent we hear, “And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves.” And then those words, precious and strong and pure like silver: respícite et leváte cápita vestra: quóniam appropínquat redémptio vestra. A beginning is marked by an end. Remember what Bishop Sheen said: “The end of all things must in some way get back to their beginning.”
Advent tugs at our sense of time because it reminds us, simultaneously, of the three comings of Christ: in time, in grace, in glory. Christ’s first coming is the one we most often associate with Advent: his birth of the Virgin in Bethlehem; the shepherds and angels; the slaughter of the Innocents; the Flight into Egypt, &c. This is Christ’s first Advent, in time, the one upon which all his other advents are predicated.—And yet we know that Christ’s advent was not merely an historical event to be remembered; he came in the first place to seek and save what was lost: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This light of men is grace, the very presence and action of God in the soul of man. Thus, Christ’ second advent is in grace. Finally, his third advent will be the day on which he comes again in glory, the day already alluded to in the Gospel we heard.
Who knew this sanctified time contained so much? We see further why a purely historical understanding of Advent is insufficient: we are not simply waiting around for Christ to come again to catch us unawares.—Instead, we mark the mystery now so as to be prepared when it does come. Yes, we are caught in the midst of history, the end of which we cannot see in its detail, but we know with great surety and plainness that it will end.
Nevertheless, in the same way that Advent communicates three mysteries at once, so our return to God is not relegated to one moment in the future or the past, but is meant to take place even here and now. This is why life for the Catholic cannot fail to be mystical and supernatural at its very heart and essence. This does not mean that we are intended to see visions at every moment. This is distinctly not the case, in fact: because we have a number of very earthly things that need doing: to care for our children, to write term papers, and go to work. Nevertheless, this does mean that these very earthly things are caught up in the recapitulating grace of Christ; or, in the words of Archbishop Sheen, “the soul of man which came from God must someday go back to God.”— Advent tells us that this someday is now, and now echoes unto eternity.
To be secular, on the other hand, is to reject entirely both the existence of God and therefore the soul. The secular person denies Archbishop Sheen’s claim that creation has come forth from God and is therefore returning to God; his or her claim is that this is all there is—that there is nothing hidden behind the veil of the present moment, but only silence and void and darkness.
And yet, “the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” We claim that there is a Word and light behind all things. The Last Gospel, in a sense, contains all the mysteries of Advent. And that brings us to the here and now. Yes, In principio erat Verbum:
But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”