The great themes of Advent have been traditionally “Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment”. While they don’t seem to fit with the modern mind as we prepare for Christmas, they are subjects we need to consider very seriously. With Christmas preparation beginning commercially sometime after Halloween or sooner, the whole meaning of Advent has been obscured. The ancient tradition of the church was that Advent was a time of preparation for the second coming of Christ. Christmas was not to be celebrated until December 25th that would conclude with the great Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.
I remember that when I was a young priest I use to rant and rail against making Advent a season just for the commercial side of Christmas. Well, we all know what a losing battle feels like to try and keep that tradition in our secular world. However, those four themes must be faced in the church which has often diluted this message to the extent that these themes have been neglected.
There is a heresy or wrong teach among many Christians today called “Universalism,” which denies the reality of Hell. What Universalism states in effect is that God is simply too loving and good to allow judgment that would result in Hell. But, from the lips of the one who in His Incarnation revealed total love and goodness, has also come some of the strongest words of warning about the consequences of sin and the rejection of God. Jesus minced no words, while at the same time telling us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believed in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Scripture tells us that “God desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he repent and live.” Jesus tells us that there are those who would rather go to Hell than to repent and live. Without the possibility of judgment and Hell, the Cross is robbed of its meaning and power. This is because in effect the Incarnation and the Cross were not really necessary if the message is we are all going to Heaven.
God emptied Himself in Jesus’ Incarnation, but in the end He will respect our choices and allow our hearts to be hardened, if that is the way we choose to go. He persistently offers us the opportunity to choose Him rather than hardening of our hearts.
Persistent sin on our part can harden our hearts; just look at the parable of the rich man who refused to help the poor man at his gate. He went to Hell, while the poor man was to be found in the bosom of Abraham. It was the persistent refusal to see Christ in that poor man that in the end condemned the rich man. Judgment is the natural consequence of our choices, whether in this life or the life to come. God has provided a means of redemption through Christ to all who reach out to Him in faith.
Time and time again the Church briefly touches on these major issues which the tradition of the church hold up as the themes of Advent against the current sentimentalized holiday mood. We state in the Creed, and affirm from the Scripture, that Jesus will return in power and great glory to judge the living and the dead. Our preparation for that is not a fascination with the details of prophecy, but rather we live a holy life given up to God in service to Him and our fellow brothers and sisters.
May God bless each one of us as we prepare for Christmas by dwelling on the great themes of Advent, and realizing that our life here on this earth counts in crucial ways.
And I cannot resist the temptation: Have a Merry Christmas—see you at the Altar—and a Blessed New Year.