Lessons of Advent
By Michael J. Graham, S.J.
I had an interesting experience on a recent December night—on the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, our patron, as it happened. I got all dressed up in my Roman collar and one of my snazzy tartan Christmas vests and went over to Bellarmine Chapel for our annual Advent Ceremony of Lessons and Carols, which matches nine sublime scripture selections with dazzling music by various Xavier choirs. We began as we always do, year after year—with the glorious hymn, “Lo, He Comes On Clouds Descending.” Whereupon, I did what I always do, year after year: got so choked up, I couldn’t sing the darn thing. Every year I see it coming, but every year it’s the same. As a result, I’ve reflected upon this catch in my throat a good deal over the years.
What is it, do you suppose, that affects me so? The sheer sound of the hymn? Those massed, soaring harmonies? The organ, all stops out? The congregation doing its level best just to keep up? Or maybe it’s the words of this wonderful hymn, about the final fulfillment of what Christians look to in the transformation of this world into a world made new, the kingdom God has in store for it someday to become?
All of these things and more, I’m sure—and one thing more especially (on which, more later)—and all of them pointing in the same direction to something important. For in the end, I have become convinced, I get all choked up each year by hope, a very Advent sort of thing. If Lent is about repentance, conversion and renewal; and if Christmas and Easter are about unbridled joy (though in somewhat different keys); and if Ordinary Time reminds us of the usual rounds and routines of our lives, then Advent is the season set aside each Church year for us to reflect on hope.
But what is hope exactly? We all hope for all kinds of things, right? We could survey every person reading this magazine right now, person by person, and ask them to send in an email of what they hope for most. And from all those hopes, we would have ourselves quite a lengthy list. But that’s hope as something we do, hope as a verb, you might say. The question instead is: What is hope as a noun, as something we don’t do, but instead have, or, indeed, are? We would be closer to it, I think, if we were to take the individual things that each of us hopes for on our own and then distill down that long, long list to what all of them together have in common. And what we would end up with, I think, is something very much like this: human hearts, chins up and eyes forward (so to speak), aimed into the future with attentive and optimistic expectancy, as if focused on something barely heard or scarcely remembered, but deeply and rivetingly there nonetheless. Something we can’t take our ears or our eyes off of, it claims us so.
N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, puts this in a striking way. We human beings, Wright says, hunger and ache and long and yearn in four predictable ways. We hunger first for justice, for a world made fair and put to rights, where bullies don’t always win and the weak don’t always lose, and where bad things don’t happen, not just to good people, but to anyone at all.
And, at the same time, we long for a life that means something more and deeper than all those glittering guarantees and shining promises the world around us makes so loudly in all the advertisements, pop songs, magazines, movies, billboards and TV shows that coil so tightly around us.
And meanwhile, we all ache for deep and caring, for profoundly rewarding relationships in our families and in our communities—and these relationships seem to be the hardest thing in the world, they’re so difficult and rare, and even the best of them will finally come to an end because (as my dad likes to say) none of us is going to get out of this life alive.
And finally, and at the same moment as these three, we find inside ourselves a yearning that beauty kindles there, as when we see or hear or experience something sublime, wondrous, awesome, exquisite—and we would hang onto it, hold onto it forever, dwell there even if we could. But we can’t. For beauty always fades in the way a glorious sunrise always ends too soon.
The hunger for justice, the longing for spirit, the ache of and for relationships, the yearning beauty brings: these are signposts, Wright says, that point beyond this world to something more. As well, they reveal deep within us something hazy but real: a sense, a whiff of a memory, of the lingering “echoes of a voice” we perceive but dimly, but long deeply to hear. And Advent is exactly the time for us to strain to hear that voice better. And in so doing, give ourselves over to hope.
I said earlier, that besides the sound and the sentiments of the opening hymn, something else helped make up that hope that caught so
memorably in my throat. That something was the place in which we sang: Bellarmine Chapel, the heart of our campus, a place whose walls are coated thick with holy memories for me. And it was as well because of those who sang the words: yet another generation of fresh-faced Xavier students, whose service calls me here—and many others as well. Hearing them wrap their voices around this old hymn is to hear it made brand new, just as seeing them begin to grapple with the world around them is to see in some sense that world itself made new. And to hear and see both these things, is to experience God, the One who makes all things new—even me, even at a busy time of the year.
Here is my Advent hope for you: that, in these days, you, too, would find yourselves brushed by beauty, touched by love, hungry and thirsty for the more and greater that the Dayspring From on High alone can give. And that, when you find yourself in such a place, you know not only that the ground beneath your feet is holy, but that so are your feet upon it.
Advent blessings to you all—and hard behind them, those of both Christmas and the New Year.