At the heart of Advent is the idea of God’s presence: the presence that came in the form of a little child in Bethlehem, the presence that surrounds us every day and the presence that will come and bring creation to its intended glory.
In their writings and speeches on Advent, many popes have reflected on this presence, and how Christian hope is born from an understanding that God is closer than we could possibly imagine. To help deepen our experience of Advent, it might be good to reflect on the words of a few recent popes—words that display a profound spiritual simplicity and attentiveness to this presence.
‘Our God is the God who comes,’ Pope Francis said on the first Sunday of Advent in 2020. Speaking towards the end of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, he knew the pain of that year was very real, threatening to lead us into ‘pessimism, closure and apathy’ instead of the true joy of discipleship. That joy is found in knowing that God never abandons his people or his promises, which is why ‘Advent is a continuous call to hope.’
He went on:
The Lord never abandons us; He accompanies us through the events of our lives to help us discover the meaning of the journey, the meaning of everyday life, to give us courage when we are under duress or when we suffer. In the midst of life’s storms, God always extends His hand to us and frees us from threats.
There is a little collection of Advent and Christmas meditations written by Pope Benedict XVI when he was a cardinal and called The Blessings of Christmas (2010). At one point, he reflects on the way time always seems to run away from us and how this affects our ability to find stillness. ‘My job possesses me,’ he writes, ‘the society in which I live possesses me; entertainment of various kinds possesses me; but I do not possess myself.’
Instead of being a ‘cog’ in the machinery of everyday life, he suggests something else:
Perhaps we should try an experiment. Let us understand the individual events of the day as little signs God sends us. Let us not take note only of the annoying and unpleasant things; we should endeavour to see how often God lets us feel something of his love. To keep a kind of inner diary of good things would be a beautiful and healing task.
The Lord is here. This Christian certainty is meant to help us look at the world with new eyes ... as one way in which he can come to us and be close to us.
In 2002, Pope John Paul II gave a general audience reflecting on these words from the prophet Isaiah: ‘Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to the faint-hearted, “Be strong! Do not be afraid. Here is your God … He is coming to save you”’ (35:3–4).
Advent is the time to have confidence and hope in the promises of God, trusting that he will truly save his people: ‘The one awaited by the people will certainly come and his salvation will be for all.’
Instead of seeing Advent as just one season, he encouraged people think of the Christian life as being its own kind of ‘advent’:
The liturgy of Advent, filled with constant allusions to the joyful expectation of the Messiah, helps us to understand the fullness of the value and meaning of the mystery of Christmas. It is not just about commemorating the historical event, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea. Instead, we must understand that our whole life should be an ‘advent’, in vigilant expectation of Christ's final coming.
To prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, will come one day to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize his presence in the events of daily life. Advent is then a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come and who continuously comes
Main image: Ferdinand Holder, ‘Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc at dawn’, 1918, oil on canvas, private collection.