Waiting for an Advent

by Jessica R. Hickey, c. 2009

December 2, 2009

Advent is a time of mystery. In past years, I have just regarded it sort of as the “anteroom of Christmas,” with some overtones of the Second Coming. Lately, however, I’ve begun thinking about what an advent is, what it means to have one, and what implications then follow from it.

In the old medieval text of The Quest for the Holy Grail, King Arthur and his knights did not merely ride forth, seeking adventure. Adventure, which is derived from the same Latin word as Advent, was something that had to come to them. A mysterious visitor would enter their chamber, tell his or her story, and lay upon them a quest or undertaking. The advent or adventure thus arrived of its own accord. They could not control the day, the hour, or the nature of the event, but without it, they were powerless to use their skill for good.

The histories of the various nations, beginning with Abraham, have such advents as well, events which are foundational, events which are heavy with meaning, which give the people their common identity, & which remain a rallying cry generations later. The memory of such an advent unites people and is passed on with pride & gratitude. It reminds me of the spirit expressed in Shakespeare's famous lines from Henry V, alluding to the English muster before the Battle of Agincourt:

"This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Now, the Battle of Agincourt, of course, does not represent a Divine intervention of the sort I'm thinking of (especially if you happen to be French!). The type of advent I have been considering is that which involves a supernatural gift or manifestation, a miracle, if you will. For Christian peoples, such advents were of immense importance: they enabled them to see their particular blessedness, their vocation in God’s plan. I always think of Spain, in its golden age called “The Sword of Christendom,” which from a history of oppression rose as defenders of Christianity and missionaries to the New World.

In the ninth century, a mysterious light was seen shining over a field in the Spanish province of Galicia . Investigation by Bishop Teodomiro yielded a burial site believed to be that of St. James, son of Zebedee, apostle of Christ. James had been executed in Palestine by Herod Agrippa, and was denied burial. His followers were thought to have taken the body to a safe location along the Roman sea route to the north-westernmost corner of Spain . The site became known as Santiago de Compostella, St. James of the Field of Stars, and James was declared the patron saint of Spain .

Later, in the midst of a critical battle with Muslim invaders from North Africa, the heavily-outnumbered Spanish forces were led by the Asturian King, Ramiro II, and also by a mysterious man clad all in white, who fought side-by-side with the King and led them to victory at Clavijo. He disappeared after the battle. The Spaniards believed that God’s help had been manifested to them, and that the mysterious warrior was their very own patron Santiago, whom Jesus had called “The Son of Thunder.”

This advent confirmed their faith and cemented their determination for generations. Six centuries later, Cervantes wrote of Saint James in his Don Quixote as: “One of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had ... given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.” The intervention of God through St. James gave them the strength to be true to the calling which God laid upon their nation. Twentieth-century Spanish poet & historian Menéndez-Pelayo wrote of his country:

"Spain, cradle of St. Ignatius, hammer of the heretics; light of Trent; evangelizer of half the world--this has been our glory; we have no other."

The appearance of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe must be considered another such advent for the people of the Americas, a foundational event allowing us to experience the maternal love of the Mother of God and the knowledge of God's particular favor. During a time when the Faith must have seemed new and strange, God permitted the indigenous people of this continent to know that it was meant for them, that they were not strangers or outsiders, but family. In the words of the Virgin upon Tepeyac, which echo to this day: "Listen, my dear son, and be sure that I will protect you . . . . Am I not your Mother? Am I not of your kind?" This advent, in which the Virgin's mantle of protection was laid over the people of the Americas, remains the pivotal event of their culture.

The question which I ponder is: Here in our parish community, what is our advent? Are we still waiting for an event to give us our identity and our vocation, some manifestation of God's favor and His will?

Pope Benedict said this past week:

"There are very different ways of waiting. If time is not filled by a present gifted with meaning, the waiting runs the risk of becoming unbearable; if something is expected, but at this moment there is nothing, namely, if the present is empty, every instant that passes seems exaggeratedly long, and the waiting is transformed into a weight that is too heavy because the future is totally uncertain. When, instead, time is gifted with meaning and we perceive in every instant something specific and valuable, then the joy of waiting makes the present more precious."

There may be some event of great moment yet to come for us specifically. After all, advent always carries a sense of expectation, a "forward-looking," an understanding that the fullness is not yet here. Yet Pope Benedict also tells us:

"With the word 'adventus' an attempt was made essentially to say: God is here, he has not withdrawn from the world, he has not left us alone. Although we cannot see or touch him, as is the case with tangible realities, he is here and comes to visit us in multiple ways. . . . The meaning of the expression 'advent' includes that of visitatio . . . a visit of God: He enters my life and wants to address me . . . . Advent invites and stimulates us to contemplate the Lord who is present. Should not the certainty of his presence help us to see the world with different eyes? Should it not help us to see our whole existence as a 'visit,' as a way in which he can come to us and be close to us in each situation?"

I began to see that all of us at St. Boniface have been given an advent, perhaps not the final one God has in store, but nonetheless, something of great ontological richness, imparting meaning into each thing we do, manifesting God's particular favor and care for us, setting us on the path of our calling. It is God with us in the Eucharist.

Some might say, "All Catholics have been given this; we are not singled out for blessing in this way." But it seems to me that along with the Gift of Himself in the Eucharist, God has also permitted all of us in this place, through various ways and means, to recognize Him there. In a world where skepticism reigns, where the light of faith sometimes goes un-nurtured, and where devotion grows cold even among the faithful, we here have not been permitted to forget. He has preserved our vision. And all of us here, whatever our stage of sanctity, knowledge, or fidelity, have been given that one same thing. This is what has come to all of us. It is our Crispin's Day, our Compostella, our advent.

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