The first part of Advent, ending on 16th December, looks forward to the Last Things, to Christ’s return in glory in fulfilment of the promise of the Kingdom. It is not a time of preparation for Christmas. Nor is it, on the other hand, a time of glum-faced refusal to participate in premature secular festivities, a mini-Lent of dismal world-denial amidst Mammon’s fairy-lights and mince pies. It is something much more interesting than either of these things, an opportunity to re-orientate our understanding of time towards the future.
The perennial call to put Christ back into Christmas, as though the incarnate Word were every absent from human fellowship or celebration, is a modestly irritating part of a much more general trend in Christian culture. There is a sense that things are on the back-foot, that in the West at least we’re on the decline. Wasn’t the past better? Isn’t there a temptation to want to Make Christianity Great Again? For Christians who go along with this line of thought (and if we’re honest, we have all done this at some point) the focus of our faith is the past – the past of a more flourishing Church and, of course, the past to which scripture bears witness, the life of Jesus and the history of Israel.
But the past ought not to be our focus. The Church, in whichever age, does not exist for its own sake, but for that of the Kingdom. And revelation, the past and completed nature of which I happily affirm as a Catholic, is not simply some kind of divine transmission of facts to make us better informed. It took place for our salvation. It too looks to an end subsequent to itself.
So if not the past, perhaps the Church ought to live in the present. After all, any number of spiritual tomes of varying quality can be found exhorting us to live in the present moment. Once we move beyond lightly baptised mindfulness however, the desire for contemporaneity can dominate church life very quickly. Are we up to date, relevant, modern? Is there anything about us that doesn’t sit comfortably with the prevailing climate? If so perhaps we ought to jettison it for the sake of our continuing place in a society which would otherwise find us irrelevant (notice how this liberal approach to time is every bit as based in fear as the conservative alternative; and again, we’ve all taken this position from time to time).
The problem with this gratuitously modern Christianity is that it quickly loses any capacity to be prophetic. It is too immersed in modern society to be able to subject it to any criticism (that this is a problem is less obvious than it should be because people have tended to assume that Christian criticisms of modernity will be about sex, rather than about, say, starvation or the threat of nuclear holocausts). It therefore fails to undertake one of the central tasks for which we were baptised.
It is only, I think, if our basic orientation is to the future, rather than either the past or the present, that Christians can have a relationship to society which serves the cause of the Kingdom. Not for nothing was the idea of an eschatological provisio, always holding existing structures to account, a key theme in Latin American liberation theology. Living in the world, yet alert to the coming Kingdom, we celebrate what is good without making ourselves too comfortable with the present. Our job is to be urging humankind forward towards the Kingdom we make present in our sacraments, and in the light of which we judge the present.
And, in spite of it not being a preparation for Christmas, if we see the first part of Advent like this Christmas will take on a new meaning. It will be no longer a nostalgic reminiscence of a long-ago baby, but the celebration of the intrusion into an unjust world of a still-active upsetter of all that stands between us and full humanity.