Advent is a penitential season. As Lent cultivates the heart for Easter, Advent cultivates it for Christmas.
Advent means “to come” or “to arrive,” and the season of Advent prepares us for the arrival of Jesus Christ. Drawing from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Holy Mother Church offers her children a threefold aspect of Advent. These “three advents of Christ” serve as guideposts on our penitential pilgrimage toward Christ and help preserve in us the authentic mystery that is Christmas.
The first of the three advents of Jesus Christ is his Incarnation. The Word, the Logos, was made flesh and dwelt among us. The first advent is the advent most familiar to us. It is the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas, or “Christ’s Mass.” It recalls the humility of God: that the Creator would come and dwell among his creation. God, being itself, is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
The Incarnation is a central mystery to our Catholic faith alongside the Trinity. We recall these two mysteries every time we cross ourselves, for our words invoke the Trinity and our action of making the sign of the cross invokes the Incarnation—God died for us. The first advent of Christ is the anniversary of his Incarnation, and it is one that invites us into a deeper understanding of humility.
The second advent of Jesus Christ is his advent into our daily lives. In the Most Holy Eucharist, Christ comes to us—body, blood, soul, and divinity. In the Holy Eucharist, we are made one flesh with Christ. He is the groom, and the we are the bride. He is the head, and we are the body. Like his Incarnation, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist reminds us of his humility. The Word, in whom all things were created and remain in being, comes to us under the appearances of bread and wine—as food.
It is fitting that Jesus Christ in his first advent was laid in a manger, a place for food. He is the bread from heaven, the bread of eternal life. Like the first advent, the second advent of Jesus Christ invites us to reflect upon the humility of God in the Holy Eucharist, and how we respond to that humility in our disposition and actions toward the Blessed Sacrament.
The third advent of Jesus Christ is his final advent—the end of the age, the apocalypse. Over the course of the season of Advent, the Church will offer us readings regarding the end of time and our final judgment before our Lord.
To understand the end of all things, the final advent, the Church offers us the devotion of contemplating the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. In contemplating these last things, these final things, we can come to understand what is truly important in life and what is not. As we discern our priorities in life, we ask ourselves: Would I be ready to die today? Does this aid in my pilgrimage toward heaven? Does this endanger my soul to hell?
In his final advent, our Lord comes in glory. Jesus, the Word, comes with robes dipped in blood and a sword to judge all nations. The final advent is an invitation for us to be humbled before Christ, our judge, and for it to be laid bare whether we configured our souls to the humility he demonstrated for us.
The three advents of Christ stand in great contrast to the present culture. To prepare for Christmas, we are asked to contemplate humility and death while the world around us is mired in consumerism and materialism. Enduring what the world has done to Christmas is now arguably part of the penitential aspect of Advent. We find ourselves having to resist falling into false notions of our own religious feast, Christmas.
The Church offers us Advent as a way to inoculate us from skewed celebrations of Christmas. The world wants to take our feasts but never our fasts. We must realize that our fasting prepares us for our feasts. Advent and Christmas cannot be divorced.
How, then, can we configure ourselves to Christ this Advent season? How may we mirror the humility of Jesus? In this penitential season, we are called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are precious gifts of the Church that aid us in our pursuit of virtue and holiness.
This Advent, may we be in inspired by Christ’s three advents to seek ways to incorporate prayer, fasting, and almsgiving into our lives to shield ourselves from the advent-less Christmas of the world and to conform us to the humility of Christ. May Jesus Christ, in his final advent, find us ready to welcome him.