What is it about Christmas that fills us with such a sense of anticipation? We see it in the eyes of our children and grandchildren. We see it in our own eager planning for holiday meals and gatherings. And we see it in the decorations in our homes and in shopping malls.
We all treasure our family and holiday traditions, but there is more going on here. Deep down, we sense that something important is about to happen, and we need to get ready for it.
That is the story of Advent, a holy season of grace and favor from the Lord. Every year, God gives us four weeks to help us prepare to welcome Jesus at Christmas. In this year’s special Advent edition of The Word Among Us, we are going to look at how God uses the Sunday Mass readings to help us do just that. We are going to look especially at the Old Testament readings to see how God helped ancient Israel prepare for the day when Jesus would come among them. If we follow a similar path of spiritual preparation, our hearts will soften and our lives will change. So let’s begin.
Why Do We Still Wander? Imagine that you are a Jew living some time between the fifth or sixth centuries before Christ (between 540 BC and 450 BC). You, or your parents, have lived through traumatic times. Either you were in Jerusalem when the Temple was burned to the ground by the Babylonian army, or you were among the thousands of people taken as prisoners to live in far-off Babylon.
So much has been lost and destroyed. But now you are facing the challenge of rebuilding your once magnificent city. As you look upon the ruins, you think about how far your people have fallen, both physically and spiritually, and a prayer wells up in your heart:
Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? . . . Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people. (Isaiah 63:17; 64:4)
Along with your fellow Israelites, you realize that your own sin contributed to the destruction of Jerusalem. You, and everyone else, had wandered from God’s ways by abandoning the Lord and his commandments (Isaiah 63:17). Your people sacrificed to the false gods of the nations around you, the rich stole from the poor, immorality abounded, and friends and families got caught up in jealousy, rivalry, and division.
Great prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah had warned your people to return to the Lord, but the response was too little, too late. They didn’t “fear” the Lord enough to take their words seriously (Isaiah 63:17). Eventually Babylon attacked, and the results were catastrophic.
Open the Heavens for Us, Lord! In a sense, Jerusalem’s story is our story. We too can look out at our world and see sin, division, and godlessness. We can also look into our hearts and find ways that the sin in the world has crept in and influenced us. Of course, we believe that God loves us, but we also know how hard it can be to follow him or to treat each other with the love that God has for us. Attitudes of self-centeredness, pride, and unbelief may remain hidden, but they still can have a hold on us.
Maybe we have tried to change some areas of our lives, only to find ourselves slipping back into sin. We want to do better, but we just can’t seem to find the strength. And so we join the people of Jerusalem in crying out:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you . . . while you worked awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as had not been heard of from of old. (Isaiah 63:19; 64:2-3)
Lord, if only you would open the heavens, come down, and make everything right! Doesn’t this sound like the perfect prayer for Advent? Throughout the season, we pray, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” We hear Scripture readings promising a new dawn when heaven comes down to earth. Using Advent wreaths, we even light candles in our homes as a symbolic way of lighting the path for Jesus. Like the ancient Jews, we long for God to come and help things return to the way they should be—in our lives, in our families, and in the world.
And yes, God is answering our prayer, just as he answered the Israelites’ prayer. But he often does it in the most unexpected way. Instead of a thunderous, mountain-quaking appearance or in the majestic arrival of a mighty king, he comes as a little child. Instead of revealing “awesome deeds” to the entire world (Isaiah 64:3), he comes in a way that is hidden from everyone but a few. And even though the heavens truly are torn open and angels are seen praising God, it happens over the small village of Bethlehem, and it is witnessed by just a handful of shepherds.
This is the mystery of Christmas—a mystery that continues to touch us today. God has fulfilled his promises to Israel by sending his Son, Jesus, to do deeds that we couldn’t imagine. But what we truly couldn’t imagine is that Jesus would do these deeds through lowliness and humility.
He Will Surely Come. This week, spend some time reflecting on this beautiful reading from Isaiah. Place yourself with the ancient Israelites facing a ruined Temple and pray, “Come, O Lord. Don’t let us wander; don’t let me wander any longer.” Or place yourself on the hillside with the shepherds or with Mary and Joseph at the manger and pray, “O Lord, open my heart! Help me to perceive the quiet, unexpected ways that you will come to me this Advent.” If there are sins you have been struggling with, cry out, “Lord, forgive me. Rend the heavens and come down to save me and all of your people whom you love and cherish!” Then believe that God will answer your prayer. He may come quietly and humbly, in ways that aren’t always obvious. But believe that he will surely come—with his abundant love and mercy—to you and your loved ones this Advent.