Words are a bit like habits. We use them frequently, assuming their meaning and how they came about. But when we take the time to pause, to re-examine them, to break down their original intent, we can shed new light on things. We can see things in ways we didn’t before. With habits, we can come to a deeper knowledge of ourselves, and with words we can discover new horizons of meaning that deepen our experience of the world.
Take, for instance, our colloquial understanding of the word anticipation. Advent, we say, is the season of anticipation, and what does this mean? It means, we would presume, that it is the season of waiting. It is the season of expectation, of awaiting something good to come our way. In liturgical terms, it is both a remembrance of Israel’s anticipation of the Messiah, and an active anticipation on our part of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It is a strange folding together of the past and the future into the present, where we are now.
There seems to be something passive about this sense of anticipation, though, as if there’s nothing really significant we can do to hasten its arrival. If we break open the word etymologically, what we’ll find is that there’s nothing passive about it. It is something active.
The word is made up of two Latin root words, anti and capere. The word anti, an older version of ante, means ‘before’, while capere means ‘to take’ or ‘to grasp’. The act of anticipation is, translated literally, the act of ‘taking into possession beforehand’, or ‘grasping ahead of time’.
When someone leaves the house with an umbrella, they are anticipating the rain; they are acting in advance to prepare themselves for when it finally arrives. When a chess player anticipates his opponent’s moves, he acts in advance, making a move of his own that will frustrate or challenge his opponent. Often conductors will ‘anticipate the beat’ by conducting a couple of seconds ahead, giving the musicians the chance to know what he or she wants ahead of time. When a family anticipates the coming of their child, they do everything they can to act in advance, preparing the baby’s room, installing the car seat, purchasing clothes and going in for regular check-ups to make sure the baby is developing as it should.
In all of these situations, the notion of anticipation is active and purposeful. There is always a passive dimension, naturally, a sense of waiting for that reality to disclose itself because there are some things we cannot control. We cannot hasten the coming of the rain, nor can we hasten the coming of our child.
In some sense, however, we can hasten the coming of God, and this is what Advent’s anticipation is all about. If we approach Advent in the right way, we can hasten the coming of God in us.
We talk about the Second Coming of Jesus as being the end of the world, but if we read the Bible properly what we’ll discover is that the end of the world has already happened. As Lumen Gentium says, ‘the final age of the world has come upon us,’ and it does so in Christ, and ‘the renovation of the world is irrevocably decreed and is already anticipated in some kind of a real way.’ What the Church looks forward to in hope, and actively prepares itself for now in anticipation, is ‘the restoration of all things,’ the time when the whole of creation ‘will be perfectly re-established in Christ’ (§48).
One of the chief ways in which we do this is by participating in the sacraments, which are a participation in the divine life itself. The more we make room for the sacraments, the more we make room for God. God longs for union with us, and we need to cultivate a longing for union with him, too.
We are the only creatures in the universe ‘capable of God’, as St Augustine said. To see Advent as the season of anticipation is to see it as the opportunity to become more capable, here and now, as we await the consummation of all things.