Among the many writings of retired bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, there is a small text that may be of increasing, and unexpected(!), benefit as we approach the season of Advent. It is his text, “What it Means to Be a Christian.” Unlike most of Benedict’s other better-known works, this is not a theological treatise or systematic exposition, but rather a compilation text of three homilies given during the December Embertide of 1964. (I’ll assign anyone unfamiliar with the term “Embertide” to look it up!) Is the time and context of this text that of a “younger, gentler, kinder” Joseph Ratzinger? It may be hard to say, but it is nonetheless a probing and thoughtful Ratzinger struggling with a time of transition, especially in the opening years of the Second Vatican Council, and the role, place, and impact of faith within it.
The homilies are Advent in character, but not Advent in a one-dimensional “let’s get ready for Jesus to be born again” way. They are Advent in drawing and challenging believers to consider what difference the Christ-event makes in human history. A “so what?!” directed precisely at the Incarnation. This is a question meant for both the incredulous and skeptic who really find nothing in Christianity (especially in Roman Catholic Christianity) except hypocrisy and divisiveness, as well as the believer so comfortable in her or his own righteousness in social advocacy and/or in devotion to tradition. Ratzinger’s initial question to the reader is essentially that it is not a matter of whether or not God exists, but more importantly whether belief in God or in the presence of God active in our history is efficacious? What effect does belief in the Incarnation have on our day to day existence?
Such a question confronts us, once again, as we prepare for another season that appears in so many ways to sharply contrast and conflict with contemporary culture. And yet, the goals of both experiences of the Advent Season, whether acknowledged or not, are the same — a desire to feel wanted, loved, cared for, and valued for who and what we are. This is not something that we yearn for at the end of a civil year, but it is the earnest longing of humanity every day of our lives. Advent, then, is the on-going, ever-present realization of the satisfaction of this desire because of the Incarnation — the only means by which these desires can be satisfied.
Ratzinger states emphatically in the second homily that “it is always Advent.” It is always our longing for and our realization of God’s dream for creation, which comes to its fulfillment with and in Christ. This understanding offers Advent the cosmic and eschatological foundation not only upon which the season turns, but in a greater way upon which Christian life exists in this good world. It is a two-fold foundation — based on love and based on care, which pivot upon each other.
We cannot love what we do not care about, and we cannot ever seek to care unless we experience the true challenges and joys of what it means to love. Advent proclaims that all cosmos has always been bound up in the love God has for what God has created. As Ratzinger states, Advent strongly asserts that “history is not divided into a dark half, and a light half,” it is all embraced by the light and love of God. The Christ-event awakens us to this always and forever reality, and as the preface of the First Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation proclaims, with Christ this bond “can never be undone.”
The actualization of the truth of love and what it means to love it the cause of and impetus for caring. This is not caring in a superficial or limited way, but a deep caring, a “willingness” to care — that states emphatically, “I will care!” Care in its strongest terms reflects the call of the prophets and of the affirmation of Mary and Joseph to participate in the realization of God’s intent for creation. If we do not care, then the outpouring of love in our God becoming one like us (long before we add the qualifier “except sin”) remains a distant theological assertion without any impact on our daily lives.
Perhaps this is why the embrace of the Advent as a season in December and as way of life the rest of year ought to be principle of Care for Creation. It is only with the understanding of the amorization (according to de Chardin) of the cosmos with the outpouring of love at the Incarnation that care for it becomes a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. In Advent we long for — not just wait for, which attitude can take on a passive and sadly disinterested perspective — the fulfillment of what love engendered by entering, and continually entering, into all of creation. Until this certainty becomes known, experienced, and embraced in and through all the cosmos, it is always Advent.