It is ALWAYS Advent!

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.

5 comments

  1. “Is the time and context of this text that of a “younger, gentler, kinder” Joseph Ratzinger? It may be hard to say…”

    Talk about taking what could have been a completly edifying and enjoyable post and turning it partisan… Merry Christmas.

    1. Hi John — “Partisan” may be in the eye of the beholder in this instance. I do not see it this way at all! And I think we should not attribute partisanship to one another too readily. Especially when there’s a different, better way to look at this statement — which there is.
      It’s widely known that there are several periods in Joseph Ratzinger’s thought. This is just a fact. To call the earlier works “kinder and gentler” is admittedly a soft description — but it points to an undeniable reality, namely that Ratzinger became much more of a harsh critic of modernity, change, and creative approaches to church issues, as he went along. I can give you numerous examples. There are people who prefer the later Ratzinger, and there are those who find his earlier writings more attractive. But we are not well advised to divide them into camps. The same person who resonates with early works could find much to admire in later works, while still acknowledging that the overall tenor had changed. Merry Christmas to you, too! 🙂

      1. Hi Rita,
        Great to hear from you! I don’t disagree that there are different periods in Pope Benedict’s thought and writings. I could break down my own into such, as I am sure that you could too.
        If “What it Means to Be a Christian” was called “younger, kinder, and gentler” I’d agree with you, 100%!. But the author describes Joseph Ratzinger as those things, not his work. Did author’s thoughts that follow in the piece hinge on that description? Would the piece be just as effective if that one question was left out?

    2. Greetings John! Thank you for commenting. It is interesting that the line in the piece that most struck you is exactly a question concerning the transformation that seems undertaken Pope Benedict XVI during his lifetime. One of the areas of dialogue that is so crucial to an appreciation of all who speak within our community of faith is an appreciation of the fullness of their life, which can traverse many hills and valleys. The important thing is that we do not write off an individuals contributions just because we do not agree with a part or a portion of them.

      1. Thanks for responding Jim–Writing the piece off was not my intent. There was much good to read in it but I see so much negativity in the medias today, people on both sides name calling and judging people on the other. I while I am not a fan of Pope Benedict, I cringed when reading the end of your first paragraph. I didn’t see it as crucial to the subject of your piece. Once you got into what I took to be the actual topic: Advent, the context and the development of his thought through his writing didn’t seem to matter. Or did it?
        It would have been more than enough for me to read, “Pope Benedict wrote some sermons on/about Advent back in his younger days. Here’s what he said, what I took away from them, and what they can mean for us today.” Best wishes as you prepare for Advent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *