Christmas is not an event within history but is rather the invasion of time by eternity. –Hans Urs von Balthasar
Despite the (often justified) grumbling of so many Advent Curmudgeons about celebrating our liturgical feasts in their proper sequence, the Season of Advent itself has little respect for chronology. Advent is temporal anarchy, a rebellion against a strictly linear experience of existence. We are waiting for the birth of a child that happened two thousand years ago. We try to mitigate this paradox by also anticipating His second coming at the end of all ages–but the readings for the Sundays of Advent focus on the Second Coming first. In this year’s Lectionary Cycle C, we hear Luke 21 (the apocalyptic end-times) on the first Sunday of Advent, Luke 3 (John the Baptist and “prepare the way”) on the second and third Sundays, and we end with Luke 1 (Mary and Elizabeth awaiting the birth of Jesus) on the fourth Sunday. Yes, we read the Gospel backwards.
The lectionary goes on to defy all logic by returning to Luke 3 on the last Sunday of the Christmas season, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. If Advent is a time of screaming, “Hey, Christmas, wait your turn,” one would think it might at least have the courtesy not to rain on Christmas’s duly-scheduled parade. But instead, on the final day of poinsettias around the altar, the last chance to squeeze “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” into the repertoire, we go right on back to Isaiah and that classic Advent refrain, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!” I hope the Advent Curmudgeons all smile smugly on that day, when Christmas receives its comeuppance. But I also suspect there is something more going on than a rivalry between two seasons.
If eternity is, as many saints have claimed, not endless time but all times at once, then Advent is a season that mimics eternity. Advent takes the many various layers of Christian longing and piles them on top of each other, so that we experience them simultaneously. Here in a beautiful, illogical, finite and well-defined stretch of time, we encounter a beginning that starts with an end, an Alpha that is an Omega, a Gospel that runs backward only to begin running forward again. We are waiting, we say, but then we celebrate the Eucharist, the Word Made Flesh coming among us in the here-and-now. We prove ourselves liars, but still we go on waiting. Celebrating Advent can make you dizzy.
But Advent is only a season of preparation. If it mimics eternity, it is to point us toward the fact that we await the coming of the Eternal One. Christmas celebrates the moment when God let Himself be bound by the constraints of flesh, but also the constraints of time. When the Word became Flesh, the temporal became bound to the eternal. Eternity became a slave to time so that we might experience eternity. We are waiting for a single moment of history that has already happened; but we are still waiting for it because it is the moment that unites all other moments. We are waiting for the moment of Jesus’ birth because we will experience it firsthand someday–though “someday” is hardly the right word to express that time will no longer hold us in its shackles.
If none of this makes sense to you, don’t worry. I don’t understand it, either. But I do understand that Advent plays fast and loose with time in order to teach us that God can do the same. He can fill us before we know we are empty. He can write the beginning long after the end. He can speak to us in mysteries so far beyond our understanding, they appear to us as nonsense. Advent is a time to revel in the mystery, to humble ourselves before our ignorance of ways that are beyond our ways and thoughts that are beyond our thoughts. It is a time to wait for what we already have. When we can do that well, we will be ready to receive the eternal gift of Christmas.